In the not too distant past, the average school child in the United Kingdom was taught that the sun never sets on the British Empire. For centuries, such official ideology planted the assumptions of superiority and conquest, traceable in South Asia in particular back to the British East India Company’s transition in the late 18th century from trading to governance and culminating in the British Raj which ruled India from 1858 to 1947. This is the context for Sandhya Suri’s Around India with a Movie Camera, a project which documents the later half of the British Raj’s writ in India.
Taken exclusively from the archive of the British Film Institute’s National Archive, Suri deftly edits together a film from a spectrum of historical footage to manufactured fictional narratives, all originally meant to shape the opinions and perceptions of a British audience back home as well as entertain them through, at worst, the dehumanizing of the Indian people. Most noticeably in the earliest footage are the British in India playing to the camera and hence staging Indians to expose their own lives. This awkward acting reflects the novelty of the newness of the moving picture itself, acting for audiences far removed and unseen. Farther into the early 20th century, the movie camera becomes a full and sophisticated player in the merging of the entertainment industry with colonial attitudes. Taken together, Suri has documented the intersection of technology and politics as contained in the BFI’s archives.
In her filmmaking career, Suri has deftly navigated the porous frontier between documentary and narrative structures of storytelling. Her first documentary, I For India (2005), based upon family home video footage, shows the forward momentum of a later epoch in British-Indian history, a film essay on the post-colonial milieu of a developing nation yet still encumbered by the weight of its colonial past as well as the present challenge of rising the living standards of one-fifth of humanity. The racial dynamic between Indians and their former British colonial occupiers is hence transmitted from South Asia to Great Britain as Indian immigrants settle in English towns and cities, a journey her own family navigated.
In this film, her second documentary, Suri reframes the BFI’s archival footage allowing for a critical examination of colonialism in all of its political, economic, cultural, and humanistic exploitations. In this process, the camera is decolonized as the gaze is transformed from its original intention to exposing history for what it was, breaking down the assumptions of superiority. The silent images of the film are enlivened by an original score by Soumik Datta which combines the textures of traditional Asian and western instruments playing in accessible time signatures, allowing the soundtrack to flow over the images and working in tandem with Suri’s efforts of truth-telling through exposition.The deft strings focus one’s attention on the point of view of the Indians and not the western gaze. It is the job of the audience to see the duality of two points of view, the original colonial view and the retrospect.
Along the way, audiences will see the obvious racism and orientalizing but also inspiring moments of resistance that are rare or originally censored, including rare footage of Gandhi shot by his grand-nephew Kanu. The royal visits provide the most stark visual of the vertical relationship between British ritual and the expectations of Indian acquiescence. When the Gaekwar of Baroda walked away from King George V and Queen Mary, he was forced to apologize for breaking protocol, but the original incident as captured on filmed remained an act of foreshadowing the future resistance movement. Despite the original audience for all of these clips, some footage shows the lives of ordinary Indians, especially the children, in a more sweet and life-affirming manner.
Arguable, the most contentious images are the fictionalized accounts, manufactured in the British imagination as either propaganda or as highly-stylized entertainment that serves as a moral equivalent to blackface in the vaudeville tradition. Alongside the humanistic exploitation, the natural world of India is not unspared by its colonial overlords. While difficult to watch, a contrived fight between a lion and a tiger is juxtaposed next to a local sub-culture called “the Crows” by the British narrator, described as men who believe that “honest labor is a disgrace.”
While I would defer to South Asia experts to thoroughly explain the anthropological facts of the various sub-culture of the Indian subcontinent, any student of history can see how such propaganda contained herein was meant to function in the white imagination. Another corollary is made between the evangelistic efforts of the Salvation Army which received funding from the British Raj. The religious angle was framed as an argument for the morality and righteousness of conversion. Conversely, under the colonial reasoning, the rejection of British values fed the followers of Gandhi and fueling their acts of civil disobedience. Such an argument tied sexual and political deviance with the Hindu faith, a type of gaslighting that continues to the present day, although long rejected by most British still a pernicious feature of American Protestant fundamentalism.
Academics and librarians in particular will find Around India with a Movie Camera a valuable addition to their collections. Students and scholars of the humanities and film studies can analyze the function of film and political propaganda in the context of colonial history. History and political science students can unpack this legacy, dismantle the white savior narrative, and understand the lasting impacts of the British Raj on India’s post-colonial development. The footage also informs the current debates on cultural appropriate and exposes a line in the sand between the natural process of cultural absorption and the overt mockery of tradition by those outside of it.
In all, Sandhya Suri’s researching and editing all of these sources into an enlightening film makes for a compelling lesson of visual rhetoric and world history. While standard academic textbooks may point students towards the view that British rule in India was mostly a hand-off affair where local traditions were left alone and princes allowed customary rule, this anthology of the British gaze shows the everyday violence and the very immorality of colonialism itself.
Around India with a Movie Camera is available on DVD from Icarus Films.