Early in this documentary, you get to see a restored black-and-white footage of a 1906 film titled “A Native Street In India”. The silent clip, of a few seconds, is remarkable for the way it reveals a slice of India bygone, and also for its very economical use of cinematic technique to bring alive the frenzy of an Indian marketplace.
A static camera placed in the middle of a street allows life to pass by on both sides. As historian Richard Osborne observes about the clip, people “almost run out of the crowd to check out what this machine is, and they have no fear of that– they are just naturally curious”.
In many ways, you feel the observation applies the other way round, too. It applies to the filmmaker as well. In fact, most of “India On Film”, a docu-film about the earliest cinematic efforts that capture India on celluloid, makes you feel that way.
As Rahul Bose’s voiceover informs, “this is India seen through colonial eyes”, through the lens of many European filmmakers who were drawn to the fantastic exotica that India has always been to the West. Like the curious locals who would “run to check out what the machine is”, the sophisticated Occidental filmmaker’s camera, too, becomes a curious onlooker through most of the film clips featured in this effort.
And there are quite a few of them, documenting India of the 1900s on film — its earliest days of cinematic history. One of the most interesting of such clips is the very first one, an 1899 footage of the ghats of Varanasi that this documentary claims is probably the first ever footage of India to be captured on film. It is a long, languid take, shot from a boat on the Ganga, of the holy ghats that signify every aspect of Hindu and Hinduism, from birth and life to death.
“India On Film” is a diligent effort to revisit a significant chapter of our past, using archived footage and clips that have been restored and digitised by British Film Institute. The overall attempt indeed comes across as an intriguing one.
The Institute’s archives, from which these footages are drawn, hold the largest collection of early films on India, we are told, and also some of the rarest. The Institute houses 300 highly flammable reels kept in climate-controlled vaults. These are the only window of a lost slice of India on screen.
It makes for an engaging watch as these rare footages roll, ranging from the Varanasi ghat to how Delhi’s Coronation Park looked like during the crowning of King Edward VII.
But there is only that much you can do with a whole lot of exquisitely priceless film footage. To give the collection a cohesive wholeness, the makers try to piece it all together, in the form of a story of India of that era,
So, a clip of the magnificent Victoria Memorial in Kolkata (then Calcutta) comes into focus as Bose’s narration informs of the importance of the city in that era — of how Calcutta was a premium seat of education, culture, and also a hotbed of simmering revolution that would eventually take shape of a nationwide movement for Independence.
Footage of a film titled “Secrets Of India” takes us through the tea estates of the West Bengal hill station of Darjeeling but, as the film pertinently notes, it ignores the “painful realities” of Imperial trade in India.
Clips of a Scottish Army unit in India and an Indian regiment in its home turf lay bare the gross discrimination that ‘native’ soldiers faced, even as a different clip reveals how the creme de la creme of princely Indian estates were rubbing shoulders with the British around the same time.
The film continues to make such quiet socio-politico-cultural statements, till the scenes get more intense, with the advent of footage pertaining to Partition. Searing and all too real, these clips, however, unfold familiar vignettes that we might have seen a countless times on screens fictional and factual.
You realise therein the big problem about this effort as a whole. It’s almost as if the makers had a brilliant and rare collection of film footage that has so far never been seen, but they struggled to put it together as a cohesive whole.
The history of India — even if it be just a slice of its dynamic civilisation — is too immense to be captured in a documentary attempt of just under 90 minutes. No matter how rare your stock footage is.