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India's past comes to life

The British Council is proud to partner with the BFI for the release of India on Film: 1899-1947, Treasures from the BFI National Archive.

The collection of more than 250 newly digitized films are released today online in the UK and India and for audiences worldwide, to view for free.

This unparalleled collection of extremely rare films of India have survived from the earliest days of cinema, thanks to care from the BFI National Archive.

Highlights includes the earliest known surviving film of India from 1899, Panorama of Calcutta. Although the film’s title states that this is Calcutta, the footage in fact shows the ghats at the holy city of Varanasi. The collection is bookended in 1947 by Lahore – Refugees from India, a record of refugees arriving by train in the newly created Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of Partition. Experience Delhi with rare early stencil colour film of the city in Delhi, Great Capital of India (1909). India’s military contribution to the war effort in WW1 is recorded on newsreel in Gaumont Graphic No. 383 (1914). The unique intimacy of amateur home movies forms a major part of this new collection and includes previously unseen footage of Mahatma Gandhi filmed by his great nephew, during the Noakhali march of 1947, Mahatma Gandhi Noakhali March. Indian Durbar (1940) is a travelogue shot in Alwar, Rajasthan by Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff in glorious Technicolor.

From everyday scenes of domestic life to celebratory festivals, religious processions, and traditional ritual, these films span Indian society from the ordinary person on the street, rural labourers in the field and the families of the British ruling elite who made India their home, to the very top of Indian society.

BFI has commissioned filmmaker Sandhya Suri (I for India) to direct Around India with a Movie Camera, a feature-length compilation drawn from this extensive collection of early film material from India held by the BFI National Archive. Woven together to create an emotionally resonant narrative about life across India from over 70 years ago, the resulting film will premiere in India as part of UK/India 2017 and will subsequently tour around the UK and internationally.

Robin Baker, BFI Head Curator, said, “Cumulatively, these films offer an extraordinary social and political story of Indian history, seen through the eyes of the film-makers, and putting flesh on the bones of book facts with real people and very tangible places. The potency of the films is remarkable and undeniable. They are as close as any of us are going to get to time travel.”

On the partnership to make these films accessible, Briony Hanson, British Council Director Film, added, “The whole ethos of the UK/India Year of Culture is to encourage new encounters, inspire creativity and ignite curiosity. Making this extraordinary collection of films available to a global audience means that more people than ever before will have the opportunity to learn about the history and culture of this fascinating country, and I’m delighted that we’re able to work with partners at BFI to do so.”

Find out more and watch the films here at BFI Player, YouTube or British Council.