India On Film:
1899 - 1947

Treasures from the BFI National Archive

As part of the 2017 UK/India Year of Culture, the British Council and British Film Institute share a unique collection of films documenting the sights and culture of a bygone India.

Filmed between 1899-1947, and preserved in the BFI National Archive since then, these rare films capture many glimpses of life in India, from dances and markets, to hunts and pageantry.

Watch the India On Film: 1899-1947 trailer.

This record of early twentieth century India offers a unique picture of the country and gives eye-opening insight into the people, places, traditions and many famous landmarks.

To watch over 100 more films from the archive, see the full the India on Film collection.

You can also join the discussion using #IndiaOnFilm

Follow us as we take you on a tour of India on film…

North India

We begin in the north and northwest of India and Pakistan pre-1947, as we explore from Karachi up to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Then visit the high city of Leh in amongst the majestic mountains of Ladakh, before descending again to the busy streets of Delhi and the vibrant colours of Bundi.

Eastern markets where you can buy an assortment of fruits and vegetables.

Eastern markets where you can buy an assortment of fruits and vegetables.

Eastern Market (1928)

This film, made to be shown to British school children to teach them about life in the Empire, provides a fascinating portrait of life in the Punjab and, in particular, of Rawalpindi’s market.

Lahore - Badshahi Mosque (1933)

This amateur film made by T. Burtt might be shot on grainy 8mm film, but it is epic cinema!

The film shows thousands of people at prayer at Lahore’s extraordinary Badshahi Mosque, the largest of the grand mosques of the Mughal-era.

Delhi & the North (1947)

The impressive structures of North India had always fascinated John Laing, shown by his many films capturing the landscape created through Indian architecture.

Check out the ever changing landscapes throughout Delhi and North India.

In contrast, this particular film captures Indian's interest in him and his technology, particularly the camera and the car.

Leh, extract (1943)

These stunning colour images give us a rare view of Leh in the early 1940s. The capital of the former Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh, Leh is high in the western Himalaya, near the border with Tibet. The film reveals these ancient streets and buildings including the majestic Leh Palace, looking not unlike the Potala in Lhasa.

The film was shot in colour by prolific amateur filmmaker John C. Jewell on the 8mm camera that he took on his travels.

Delhi, Great Capital of India (1909)

This film shows Delhi at the time of a great religious festival. Which festival, we’re not told, but the streets swell with people and floats whilst street performers entertain and perhaps profit from the faithful.

One of a great number of films made in exotic locations by the Pathe Freres company, this piece showcases beautiful stencil-colour processing, even though time hasn’t been altogether kind to the colours of the film.

Watch street performers entertain the crowds during a religious festival.

Rajputana Jhawalar Bundi and Katakali Dancers (1940)

This amateur film by Clarmont Skrine, an ‘envoy of the Raj’, features a trip to Bundi, Rajasthan and showcases regional celebrations, traditions and life in India. The footage captures sites such as Taragarh Fort and Bundi Palace.

The archive holds 25 films shot by Skrine, showcasing regional celebrations, traditions and life in India.

East and North East India

Now we sweep east down the Himalayas to head down the old trade route to Darjeeling, Bihar, and finally Kolkata, where we experience everyday life in the city alongside the pomp of Empire.

Follow us further east, touring the area with Mahatma Gandhi.

Procession at Gangtok (1940)

Sir Basil Gould shows a sensitive eye for detail in this film, concentrating on the untouched beauty of the Himalayas.

This amateur film captures a local festival in the mountains which includes games and traditional instruments, highlighting the Buddhist communities of the region.

Discover a different way of life in the Himalayan mountains.

Calcutta, Darjeeling and Bihar (1947)

During a missionary trip in parts of East Asia, Sir John Laing explores Darjeeling and Bihar and offers an incredibly vivid portrait of Calcutta on the eve of Independence with remarkable colour footage.

Mahatma Gandhi Noa Khali March (1947)

Gandhi at the Noa Khali March.

Gandhi at the Noa Khali March.

This film shows Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to Noakhali, captured by his great nephew, Kanu Gandhi. Kanu documented the great man’s final years on the conditions that he would not use flash photography and that Gandhi would never pose.

With this level of exclusive access to Gandhi, he was able to capture shots that would elude any other photographer.

Scenes at His Excellency the Viceroy’s Garden at Belvedere (1926)

This film, commissioned by Lord Irwin, shows the Indian and British elite rubbing shoulders with each other, humourously (but accidentally) underlining the awkwardness between them.

By showcasing scenes from the party, Irwin attempted to reinforce a sense of awe and wonderment toward high society in India.

Pretend to rub shoulders with India's elite while viewing this film.

However, in spite of these festivities, Irwin’s time as viceroy was not always so light-hearted as he oversaw intense protests for political devolution and negotiated with Gandhi to bring the nationwide Civil Disobedience movement to an end.

West and Central India

We now visit the down-to-earth routines of daily rural life in Maharashtra, before moving on to a wedding in Gujarat.

Indian Elephants in the Service of Man (1938)

The use of elephants in India as working animals and in hunting, filmed by Jim Corbett, a well-known Anglo-Indian hunter and later conservationist.

Jim Corbett authored many books about his hunts in the jungle, but later in life he began to educate young people on the importance of conserving the wildlife native to the region. As a result, he played a key role in establishing the first national park in India, renamed after him in 1957.

In Rural Maharashtra (1945)

Maharashtra is the setting for a quaint look at rural life in India. This film tells the story of a smiling farmer and his wife, depicting their courtship and eventual marriage played out by actors.

Find out how the couple met and fell in love in rural Maharashtra.

Wedding of Maharaj Kumar Shri Meghrajji Shaeb of Kutch and Maharaj Kumari Shri of Kishangarh (1933)

'Sumptuous’ doesn’t begin to describe this royal wedding. The joining of two families and states through the marriage of the prince of Kutch and a princess of Kishangarth is featured in this film.

Weddings have always been grand affairs in India, and this was no different with a guest list of top Indian society, feasts, firework displays and celebrations lasting for days.

South India

A brief stop in the old coastal town of Madras, now Chennai, introduces us to a busy crowd and parade of floats.

Madras – Mylapore Tank and Religious Processions (1932)

The Mylapore Temple Car Festival on the streets of what is now Chennai, drew vast crowds of people to watch vividly impressive religious floats.

India has always been fond a large street procession, evidenced in this film.

The spectacle and scale of the event are caught on camera by this vibrant 16mm amateur film.

We leave you here, but encourage you to continue your journey through India and explore the land's broad culture on film.

You can also join the discussion on #IndiaOnFilm

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