An Archive of Early Films Offer a Glimpse of Colonial India

Still from “Panorama of Calcutta” (1899), the earliest extant film of India (screenshot via YouTube)

The British Film Institute (BFI) has digitized and uploaded a major trove of rarely seen films from India, making available for free over 250 films that depict life in its former colonies. The online archive includes the earliest extant footage of the country, dating to 1899, and spans all the way to 1947, the year India attained independence.

Launched early August, the collection is rich and varied, recording everything from scenes of domestic life to busy market streets to extravagant religious processions. Drawn from BFI’s own library, they range from travelogues to home movies to documentaries. Over 100 are on YouTube, with the rest available to viewers in the United Kingdom via BFI’s streaming service.

It’s important to note, though, that those behind the camera were largely amateur British filmmakers, including many political officers such as Basil Gould, and that many of these videos were intended for Western audiences.

“This is India seen through the eyes of the colonist and often with strongly propagandist intention,” as head curator Robin Baker writes in an extensive blog post about the collection. “There are films aimed at inculcating the one-big-happy-family notion of Empire into schoolchildren in the UK. There are newsreels that demonstrate and celebrate the pomp and bombast of British rule with the clout of a giant sledgehammer. Watching films of racing at Calcutta or Shillong you’d be excused for thinking that there were very few actual Indians in India. And there is spectacle — especially in the films of the 1911 Delhi Durbar — that leaves me both awestruck and horrified.”

Of course, there are also the images that highlight the country and its citizens as exotic, including many scenes of animals and snake charmers. The earliest known surviving film, “Panorama of Calcutta,” is a seemingly innocent recording of daily activity…

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