In 2017, the British Film Institute commissioned filmmaker Sandhya Suri to trawl through its national archive and direct a documentary drawn from films shot during colonial rule in India. The result is a fascinating and thought-provoking 72-minute chronicle of how the British viewed its empire, and how its subjects returned the gaze.

Around India with a Movie Camera, scored by sarod player and musician Soumik Datta, opens with footage from 1899, of what is thought to be the earliest film shot in India. The scenes are clearly from Varanasi, but the film is revealingly mislabelled as a document of life in Kolkata.

Footage from numerous sources is linked by its diversity: Indian potentates receive their rulers, garden parties are thrown by the British, Indian commoners are seen at work or entertaining (one coloured film features “Hindu nautch girls”). An early indication of the rebellion against the empire that resulted in freedom in 1947 is provided in the scenes from the 1911 Delhi Durbar, when King George V and Queen Mary visited the capital. All the Indian rulers were expected to walk away from the emperor and empress of India and not show them their backs. But the Gaekwad maharaja of Baroda simply strolls by the British royals without bowing or kowtowing.

The scenes of pageantry and ordinary life reveal wide-eyed curiosity, exoticisation and, in many cases, sheer prejudice. A film made to mark a visit by a Salvation Army commissioner to a school in Ahmedabad in 1904 brags about how the social workers are improving the lives of the uncivilised natives (“They are religious thieves and wickedness is their creed…Honest labour is a disgrace to these gentleman,” the voiceover declares). As a Salvation Army worker gets an Indian woman to take off her jewellery to signal the erasure of her identity and the adoption of a new creed, Datta’s music tunes down to mournful quietness. Suri, who has also edited the film, lets the sequence play out in its painful entirety.

The shifts in the relationship between the rulers and the ruled emerge in the most political editing transition in the documentary. While Suri eschews a voiceover and keeps her textual interjections to the minimum, she explicitly cuts between a performance of a ballet on the dance of Nataraja and Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March.

Among the surprises are a film featuring Sabu, who was one of the first crossover Indian actors to travel to Hollywood, footage shot by the great British cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and scenes from Bimal Roy’s Tins of India. Roy’s lyrical film, sponsored by Burmah-Shell Production, is about the manufacture of aluminum tins used to store fuel.

There are also homemade films by amateurs, including delightful domestic scenes of a British family, and the Rafai fakirs of Hyderabad. The documentary includes rare footage shot by Kanu Gandhi, the grand-nephew of the Mahatma who chronicled momentous events in the 1930s and ’40s. The footage features Mahatma Gandhi at a public meeting in communal strife-torn Noakhali in 1946.

Suri is a smart choice for the BFI production. Her 2005 documentary I for India uses taped messages and 16mm home videos to recreate the return of her parents to India in the 1980s after a brief stay in the United Kingdom. Suri pores over the amateur footage recorded by her father over the years to parse its meaning for I For India. Around India With a Movie Camera is a somewhat similar endeavour, though on a much bigger scale, to understand how films made decades ago can yield new meaning and insights. Excerpts from an interview with Suri.

It’s interesting that a filmmaker who has examined archival footage, as you did in ‘I For India’, should helm another archival documentary. How did you get associated with the project?
I think the British Film Institute had seen I for India. They approached me and said that they have this archive. Their purpose was to get this archive to be seen in India, and to get Indians to engage with the archive. They didn’t have any brief – they just said, make something longform.

Delhi Durbar (1912).

What approach did you eventually choose?
In lots of archive films, there is one body of the archive that has character. But this was so many disparate pieces of archive of such immense variety, from official films to amateur films to educational films. They were so crazily broad that I was thinking that I needed to impose some of sort of structure. I was hoping for a clever-sounding concept, and I was going crazy trying to think of one. I eventually decided that my approach would be to organically watch the material and see what came out of it, what I discovered.

So I watched everything. I started seeing the relationship between different pieces of footage, where themes were emerging. Some of it was educational. There were agricultural films set in rural Maharashtra, for instance, that had utterly romanticised and bucolic views of the village.

I think I must have watched at least 150 films. It did take me a long time. I also had to get the best quality of everything. I watched whatever I was able to get hold of with the greatest ease.

What were the common themes and subjects that emerged?
I suppose you see this fascination with the maharajas, it is endless. It starts in the beginning and goes on until the last pieces of the archive. The enthusiasm and fascination doesn’t dampen.

You also see movements in the relationship between the British and the Indians. You see this pomp and grandeur trying to establish its presence in India. There is a lot of footage around authority and ceremony.

There is also this ethnographic gaze, this look on the other, this documenting of travel. There is a sense of India as this giant playground for the British. There is all this hunting and exploring and conquering. It was like some big holiday.

Over time, when World War II happens, the relationship starts to get nuanced. We get to a point with the Indians and the BBC commenting on the British. The gaze is then reversed.

Around India with a Movie Camera. Image credit: British Film Institute.

The clips are not chronological in order, although they begin that way. What guided the editing process?
I did a pre-selection of the most important footage. I also wanted to show the depth and breadth of this archive. I am not expecting viewers to understand every cut. I am working towards the viewers making meaning out of the footage.

Sometimes there was one striking image, or certain themes. I found these moments of people looking into the camera, so I thought of that as a montage. I also thought of the playground theme, of conquest. So I looked for shots of the Britishers struggling and climbing and ascending.

There were certain films that needed to play out in length. A lot of decisions had to do with transitions – what gets placed next to what. The Salvation Army footage is shocking, but I had to follow it up with an exotic view of the temples of India. These people wanted to convert the locals but at the same time, they were utterly fascinated.

I also had the Belvedere garden party, which was about this relaxed mood, about a very lazy Sunday during the British Raj. Afterwards, I put in an anti-Congress party propaganda film. There was this idea of a life that needed to be continued.

Around India with a Movie Camera. Image credit: British Film Institute.

The clips mostly run one after another without comment, but there is a strong editorial intervention in the juxtaposition of Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi march and a Nataraja ballet.
It is a turning point, and there is a shift in energy. Because the archive is so much from the British point of view, I think there is also some irony in this perspective. There is the exotic and the unknown, but also the possibility of there being something a bit dangerous.

The film doesn’t go into the Partition. We didn’t have any footage. So I chose the last shot of a man and a small child smiling. I preferred to end the film with a question – how are things going to be, and what is the legacy?

Films based on archives carry both the boon and the curse of retrospective viewing. We are bound to interpret images recorded many years ago in a contemporary light. How does your compilation reflect this perspective?
It is uninteresting to make a film in which they are all evil. It’s not just an anti-colonial film, but a bit more complex.

I don’t associate myself in any way with British colonial rule even though I was born in the United Kingdom. Everything worked emotionally with India when I was looking at the footage. India is my legacy. I found myself able to re-appropriate these images and put them in a way that might make people think.

When I have a montage of the Britishers conquering and climbing and being pushed up slopes while faltering, while being unable to sit on their elephants, there is a light sense of irony to the narratives within those images.

At the same time, I was angry about a lot of things. I was shocked by the Salvation Army footage. But even as we see people playing along to realise this fake dream of India, there is humour in my eyes.

Someone came up to me and asked, what do British people think about the film? I don’t know.

Sandhya Suri. Image credit: British Film Institute.

The documentary also features amateur filmmakers, and their works have a different quality of curiosity and discovery.
These films were a small proportion of the archive. I found it difficult not to relate to these amateur filmmakers very intimately. At a certain moment, you see a father and a daughter playing in the garden, or the little girl dressed in a sari. I cannot help but be touched by that.

I have some affection for all the people we see in the film. I don’t even have to work on the outrage. I don’t have to do anything to add to it.

There is a montage of British people and Indians eating a meal together at some point. I thought of ending it there too – this montage wasn’t about looking at the Indians, but about sharing a meal. Relationships did develop, and the two became closely intertwined.

Soumik Datta’s score plays an important part in guiding our reactions to the footage.
Soumik was attached to the project at the same time as me. We didn’t work together that much because of our schedules. The music doesn’t quite fit in a very easy way, and that was also Soumik’s way of looking at the archive.

There are several discoveries along the way – Bimal Roy’s film on the tin-making factory, the feature with the actor Sabu, Kanu Gandhi’s footage of Mahatma Gandhi.
There were definitely many discoveries. I was blown away by the poetry in the Bimal Roy film. There are all these exoticised images and then – there are tins.

I also wanted the film to be funny and poignant and not didactic in any way, and the Sabu footage fit right in. I had never seen the Gandhi footage before. I thought the music worked very well with this sequence. Soumik delivered a lovely score.

Mahatma Gandhi in Noakhali.