A glimpse of India

Kevin Greenbank, archivist at the Centre of South Asian Studies, explores the ways in which the home movie offers fascinating insights into the lives of those in front of, and behind, the camera - as rare footage of a 1935 Raj picnic shows.

The Collection is perhaps most interesting when the films reveal something unintended by the film-maker
Kevin Greenbank

For most people, owning a mobile phone also means owning a video camera. There is no cost at all in sharing with others the scenes you film, thanks to YouTube and other such sites, so you can film nearly everything you do. In 1935, this was not the case. A cine film camera was expensive, film was not cheap and developing it was particularly pricey. You could not waste hours of expensive film waiting for your cat to do something funny, your baby to belch hilariously or some stranger’s dog to chase deer across a national park. People filming home movies had, therefore, to be more selective about what they filmed. There is as much difference between one of these films and most YouTube clips as there is between a letter written in 1935 and the majority of the emails you have sent recently.

As the archivist of the Centre of South Asian Studies’ Collection, I am effectively responsible for a set of home movies which, when analysed, bears great resemblance to the sort of documents historians, anthropologists and others working in the arts, humanities and social sciences have relied on for many years. Some, like newspapers, document significant events. In our own collections, for example, we have film of the funeral of Lord Brabourne (Gradwell 1), footage of the aftermath of the Quetta earthquake of 1935 (Berridge 4), a train derailed by pro-independence activists in c.1938 (Berridge 5) and two very harrowing films of the catastrophic results of the mass migrations that followed Partition in 1947 (Williams 1 and 2) as well as footage of refugees arriving in Lahore in the same period (Burtt 3 and 7). Others, a bit like official documents, show the working of the Empire, the ways in which the infrastructure of the Raj was built, such as the building of the railways (Berridge 1), or the vast canal systems of the North-West (Stokes 12 and 13).

Some of the films are similar in tone to the letters in our paper archive - made to be sent home so that people could show those back in the UK what their new life was like, such as the first few films of the Hunter Collection, which are actually filmed to look like a letter inviting viewers on a holiday to India and showing them what they will see when they arrive. And some show, often accidentally, the lives of Indian people (Banks 5), as well as the lives of the British who ran the Imperial system - the garden parties (Meiklejohn 8), hunting/horse-riding (Banks 2) social gatherings and sports, and also more personal, domestic scenes in which we are shown the homes and gardens of British India (Stokes 3).

The Collection is perhaps most interesting, though, when the films reveal something unintended by the film-maker, enabling an insight into the situation in which the film was made or into the mindset of the person holding the camera. The writer of a letter, diary or government document is able to exercise absolute control of the narrative that is presented, but this is not always the case in a film, as those being filmed can act in ways that tell us more about the context in which the document was created.

Two examples jump out at me - one is a flippant example of what films can reveal, the other asks some interesting and important questions about social attitudes and about what a British woman is willing to have her audience see when viewing the films she made, or about what is acceptable in certain social settings.  I shall leave these deeper questions without an answer, though - my role as an archivist is to prepare, preserve and present our collections, not to interpret them. There is, however, a growing branch of academic study which is using film collections such as ours as tools for visual anthropological study: the work of my colleague Dr Annamaria Motrescu-Mayes would be an excellent starting point for those who wish to read further on this subject, and a good deal of it is based on the films mentioned in this article.

The two films come from the Kendall Collection and both are, somewhat unusually, made by a woman, Lady Kendall, who was the wife of a judge in Allahabad. Kendall 1 shows mainly domestic scenes: the garden being tended, a children’s party, people walking in the family garden. Towards the end there is footage of a wedding. These scenes are interspersed with footage of Indian agricultural workers operating an irrigation system. This juxtaposition is, in itself, interesting.

While it shows the lifestyle of an affluent member of British Indian society, however, it also reveals something quite simple. It is clear that this was the first film taken on a new camera. You can tell this not because of the quality of the footage, but because of the way the camera was used - the film-maker treats it like a still camera. She points it at an object or scene, captures the image and then turns it off. What this leaves is a dizzying collection of short clips, mostly lasting between one and two seconds. Even when longer scenes are filmed - the wedding at the end or the agricultural scenes, for example - these are taken in short episodes. In the whole 10 minutes of the film, there are very few times when the camera is turned on for longer than four or five seconds. It is very difficult to watch, and even harder to watch to the end without getting a headache.

It is entirely understandable, however. We are used to watching what we have filmed straight away, and if we are doing something wrong, we can correct it with our next recording. Lady Kendall had to wait until the film she was using was completely recorded and then take it to be developed. Given that she shot 10 minutes of film in sections of a few seconds at a time, it is likely that it took quite a while to fill the whole reel. After viewing it she corrects her use of the camera - if you watch the whole Collection, you will see that the shots in subsequent films gradually lengthen.

Kendall III is more complex, although it also has at its heart the problems associated with making the switch from taking photographs to shooting films. In this film, Lady Kendall shows a picnic in the hills. After showing a group of friends (and a larger group of bearers and other servants) making their way up to the picnic site, she tries to take what is essentially a photograph of the scene, composing it to suit what she wants the image to show. She does this, though, with the cine camera running.

This provides us with a very revealing moment - it starts 42 seconds into the film (just after footage of a tennis match and some shots of mountains), and only lasts a second. Standing behind the people, seated on their blankets and smiling and laughing through their sandwiches, is a servant in livery.

For some reason, Lady Kendall, who has been quite happy to show the servants involved in carrying the picnic things up the mountain, does not wish to have this servant in this shot, so she asks one of the party to stand and obscure him from the camera’s view. The servant initially sways slightly to his right to try and stay in the shot, but then steps across to his left, remaining firmly visible. The friend moves back across to block him again, clearly taking direction of where she should stand, at which point Lady Kendall stops filming.

This attempt to create a mise-en-scène clearly fails, but in doing so it opens up many questions and lines of enquiry. Why the servant wants to remain in the shot, where he is clearly not wanted, for example. It also suggests that there are some situations in which it is acceptable for servants to be shown in the film, and others where it is not. Why this might be is not immediately clear, but this does show that a film can helpfully shed light on social attitudes, conventions and mores in a way that a written account would not. A diary entry or letter about this picnic would have simply not mentioned the presence of the servant, obscuring him far more effectively than Lady Kendall’s friend is able to do in this short piece of footage.

Inset images: stills from the Kendall III film (Centre of South Asian Studies Archive).

This article was first published in CAM Issue 75 (2015).

The Centre of South Asian Studies’ film archive was largely collected by its remarkable first archivist, Mary Thatcher, who was commissioned in 1967 to begin a search for archival material that was otherwise in danger of being lost.

Her brief was to focus on ordinary British men and women who worked in India, either in the Civil Service or its associated governmental concerns, those who lived in the Princely States, or were in the private sector, or served as missionaries or teachers. The resulting trawl of families who had returned to Britain after Independence has resulted in an archive of international importance and renown.

The Collection deals mostly with the British in India (Indian collections would generally be restored to Indian archives, rather than being kept out of the country) and includes papers, photographs and films, and an oral history collection.

The unique collection of amateur cine films comprises films mostly made in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Where the archive has a film, it also normally has accompanying papers and photographs, providing a rare level of documentation and analysis.

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

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