“You guys have a lot of excruciating RP in your archive.” Director Sandhya Suri is at BFI Southbank describing the joys and pains of making her fascinating new compilation film Around India with a Movie Camera. In a Q&A session after the premiere of the film, Suri explains that while the BFI offered her a selection from its stash of films of and about India up to 1947, she insisted on watching it all herself. That meant viewing more than 130 films, all of which had been digitised as part of the Unlocking Film Heritage project. At least, until the clipped, plummy accents became too much to bear.
Suri’s film is really remarkable, making use of some occasionally beautiful films to tell a complex story. Some of the most breathtaking silent footage features includes a lushly stencil-tinted film of Villenour or the famous 1899 Panorama of Calcutta, which, a caption tells us, was actually shot in Varanesi.
It’s no surprise to learn that it was not the accents themselves, but what they represent that posed a challenge during Suri’s research. Her intention, says, was to make a film that represented “the pleasure of watching all the archive”, mixed though it might be. While Suri was initially concerned by the fact that the films held in the BFI archive were almost all from the British perspective, she said that she made peace with the nature of the archive, and used the footage available to tell a story of the developing relationship between Great Britain and India in the first half of the 20th century. For example, Jack Cardiff’s sumptuous Technicolor cinematography of awe-inspiring landscapes in Hans M Nieter’s A Road in India (1938) is paired with a voiceover in one of these “excruciating” accents, detailing traditions and customs the filmmakers surely only understood in passing. Suri retains both the imagery and the narration in her film, but it is placed in context with other footage.
There are films montaged here that are made by Indian filmmakers, including a documentary called Tins for India, shot by Bimal Roy in 1941. And while there is much fawning over visiting British Royals, the sight of one state governor turning his back on the king is replayed in slow motion, so the audience can savour the rebellion. The majority, is shot from a British and European perspective though, overwhelmingly so. Instead of simply accepting that colonial gaze, Suri has subverted it. Around India with a Movie Camera contains some scenes that she agrees are offensive. “The general tone is condescension,” she says, offering as an example a scene in which a stern Salvation Army missionary insists on an Indian peasant woman removing all her jewellery, admonishing her when she hesitates. The bizarre brutality of it could almost be funny, albeit in a very grim way – but of course it’s a symptom of a much more serious problem. When viewed as part Suri’s feature-length film, it is impossible not to feel angry, also.
For Suri, the difficulties with the camera’s gaze go beyond just what we are shown on screen. Viewing the footage, and seeing, in her words, “the ghosts of the past”, she tried to imagine what the Indian men, women and children were told about the filming. Did they know that their lives would be held up for scrutiny, exoticised or used as an example of a rustic society that could only benefit from being part of a benevolent British Empire? “That really haunts me,” she says. Composer Soumik Datta, who wrote the score for the film, agrees, saying that much of the footage was difficult for him to watch, but he tried to provide a counterpoint to that with his music, which inserts an tone that was otherwise missing: “this sense of inbalance, and something uneven, something uncomfortable”. Datta describes it as a three-way conversation, between the film, the music and the viewer’s own perspective. “You have to decide where you want to go.” Reflecting the nature of the footage, Datta combined both western and Indian instruments, ones that would have been available during the era of the footage, so he has a sarod and a piano playing together. His brilliant score comes into its own especially at the end of the film, where an initially joyous-sounding piece of music was replaced with something more expressive of the reality of British rule in India.
Suri found opportunities, also, to reverse that gaze. There’s a very funny segment filmed at Broadcasting House in London, with Indian journalists detailing the foibles of British life for an audience back in India. And at the climax of the film there is a stunning image of a deep blue sea, followed by the image of a woman covering herself up in front of the camera. Placed where it is in Suri’s film, that shot takes on a greater significance. “It’s about India recovering her dignity,” Suri explains, “and about the woman regaining her modesty, after the way she had been looked at in the film.”
- Around India with a Movie Camera is playing in selected cinemas now, and will be available on the BFI player soon.
- You can view some of the BFI’s archive of Indian films on the BFI Player, or on YouTube.