On Republic Day, several hours after images of military parades and cultural tableaux will have faded, a different and older variety of pageantry will be broadcast on Indian television.

The 100-minute documentary India on Film, which will be shown on Discovery Channel on January 26 at 9pm, works as an annotated companion to Sandhya Suri’s Around India with a Movie Camera. Both documentaries have as their base the British Film Institute’s rich archive of films made about India under British rule. While Suri’s documentary was commissioned by BFI, India on Film has been independently produced. Before its television broadcast, India on Film was screened at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai on January 24.

The narrative of Around India with a Movie Camera was woven around clips from newsreels, documentaries and home movies shot in India between 1899 and 1947. The 72-minute film deftly examined the imperious, Orientalist manner in which the colonisers regarded their subjects. The range of themes covered by the mostly British filmmakers was both selective and staggering – the pomp of the Indian monarchy, the pageantry of George Curzon’s Delhi Darbar, tea parties where the British mingled with local royals, streetside amusements, the encounter between Salvation Army missionaries and the natives.

India on Film. Courtesy British Film Institute/Discovery Channel.

Suri’s film also revealed the shifting nature of what was being recorded. As the freedom movement gathered momentum, and it became clear that the British were on the verge of losing their most prized colony, there were films about Mahatma Gandhi marching across the country. The horrors of the Partition that followed Independence in 1947 was also captured on film, and the contrast with earlier images of grinning villagers and British women being transported in palanquins could not have been more stark.

India on Film takes a different tack. The Empire strikes back as a panel of historians and history buffs, including Sunil Khilnani, William Dalrymple, Veena Hariharan, Faisal Devji and Manu Pillai, contextualise and critique the colonial gaze.

India on Film has been voiced by the actor Rahul Bose, who has the onerous responsibility of kicking off the proceedings with the trite declaration, “India, a land of a billion people”. The clips and accompanying commentary are interspersed with present-day footage of ordinary Indians watching some of the films being projected on a wall. Their views on what they are being made to see go unrecorded, which is a pity.

A separate film could be made on their reactions, which surely extend beyond wide-eyed curiosity and open-jawed astonishment. The only non-expert voices in India on Film come from a trio of youngsters watching the clips on a laptop.

India on Film. Courtesy British Film Institute/Discovery Channel.

Among the experts, Khilnani and Dalrymple supply the most enduring insights. A film made in 1909, about the production of hemp rope for use in British ships, is an example of how Indian labour provided the British their comforts in India and back home, Khilnani points out. Bimal Roy’s lyrical Tins for India, which was produced by Burmah-Shell and looked at the manufacturing of aluminium tins used to store fuel, is cited as an instance of an Indian director moving beyond stereotypes and anticipating the efforts at industrial expansion that followed Independence.

Much of the footage, which is coloured by prejudice towards Indians and often accompanied by patronising voiceovers, is ripe for dissection. However, the occasional, unguarded moments of tenderness – a Viceroy’s son having a bit of fun at a tea party, British officials enjoying a picnic on the beach in Puri – suggest a more complex experience of life in the colony.

Bimal Roy’s Tins for India.

The emphasis on how we see the ones who were seeing us – and what we have to say about this act of looking – means that many of the often riveting visuals simply rush by. The footage, which is as fascinating as it is troubling, has been mostly unseen by the general public. A less hurried and meditative approach was perhaps needed for a chronicle of what an empire saw fit to commit to film and what it chose to leave out – more show and less talk.

Also read:

Archival documentary reveals how the British saw India and how Indians returned the gaze