Around India with a Movie Camera: “There’s some pretty offensive stuff in the film – the general tone was of condescension”

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Director Sandhya Suri sifted through hundreds of recently digitised films in the British Film Institute’s national archives, to paint a complex picture of the last days of colonial rule in India

Captivating and discomfiting in equal measure, Around India with a Movie Camera stitches together footage from the national archives of the British Film Institute to create an impressionistic portrait of the last years of the British Raj. 

Commissioned by the BFI as part of 2017’s UK-India Year of Culture, it’s more a found poem than a documentary. Filmmaker Sandhya Suri (I for India, 2007), sifted through more than 130 films that had been recently digitised – home movies, travelogues, propaganda films and newsreels – searching for a narrative that would pull them all together but ultimately deciding not to impose a rigid structure. Instead, she worked with musician Soumik Dutta (and his piano and sarod) to create sense of gentle continuity between very different fragments of footage.

She also abandoned her initial worry that almost all the films depicted the British point of view. “I [eventually] made peace with the archive for what it is, which meant working primarily from a British colonial perspective, with its own exotic lensing and values, and finding nuances within that,” Suri said after a screening of the film in London earlier this month, adding that she resisted any urge to censor. “There’s a lot of excruciating RP in [the BFI] archive [and] some pretty offensive stuff in the film. I was very aware that the general tone was of condescension.”

Presenting these clips without comment or explicit judgement allowed them to speak for themselves – revealing the British colonial view of India and its role there, at a time when such films were as much a tool to reinforce the value of Empire as a form of entertainment and information. The splendour of Indian palaces and royal ceremonies are juxtaposed with footage of rural communities, performers and people going about daily life – the narrators gush over the riches of the maharajas, while describing entire groups of ordinary Indians as intrinsically criminal or observing their living habits in a tone more fitting to a nature documentary. “For me what was present throughout was the gaze and the camera. I kept thinking about what the participants were told, what kind of explanation they’d been given about film they were in,” Suri says.

The glimpses of the British in India are equally diverse and complex: we see people socialising over al fresco lunches, gleefully climbing onto elephants and living everyday family life, as well as fulfilling what they saw as their mission: in one disturbing sequence, a Salvation Army officer compels an Indian women to take off all her jewellery, in a gesture that appears to be an instruction to renounce her traditions and culture. 

Another short piece follows an Indian government officer as he visits rural parts of his district, with commentary that hints at a belief that India will continue to retain British systems and values even after the colonial administration leaves. 

Later on, the view shifts to Britain itself: an Indian journalist reports from the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London, commenting on the culture and eccentricities of the country with a mix of admiration and bemusement. “It felt important to have the gaze reversed at some point, and to have a little bit of humour,” Suri says.

Watching these interactions creates an awareness that the viewer is as much a part of the story as the filmmakers and their subjects – and, unlike audiences at the time, our perspective is coloured by our current understanding of this period of history. “At the end, when the British are leaving you see a bright blue sea – the brightest colour in the film – and then a woman covers herself up. For me, that was about India restoring her dignity, as well as that woman retaining her modesty from this camera that had been staring in this not very pleasant way throughout.”

Around India with a Movie Camera is available to watch on the BFI Player

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