DAWN OF THE DOCUMENTARY
The development of the Indian Film Industry was not a smooth process. Several national leaders, including Gandhi, were opposed to the institution of a cinema business. Film was considered an inferior medium of expression because it appealed more to the senses than the intellect. It was a platform that could be easily used to relay messages to the uneducated and the poor. Given this negative perception about film, the press was reluctant to publicize achievements by early national filmmakers or promote the films that were being made. In recent years, film is one of the means through which historians study and analyze India’s colonial past.
Most Indian films made in the 1940s were non-fiction. The British had strong influence over the film industry and wanted to primarily use it to promote war. The Ministry of Information was created by the British to decide on the content of the films. The Film Advisory Board was instituted on July 4th 1940 to ensure circulation of these information or documentary films. Bassein (1946), District officer (1945), India Marches (1941), Behind the Wings (1942), Hillman Go To War (1944) and Planes of Hindustan (1940) are some prominent documentary films from the World War II era.
India Marches, Behind the Wings and Planes of Hindustan are propaganda films made by the Imperial government, capturing the workings of the Indian army and the aviation industry. The production of such films was meant to inspire Indians to enlist in military service for the Allied forces during World War II. Moreover, these films attempted to show the benevolence of British rule.
The IFI or Information Films of India was an organization in charge of spreading awareness about life in colonial India through films. The head of this organization was an Indian filmmaker called Ezra Mir. Although Mir produced propaganda films, he also advocated the production of films that were insights in to Indian culture and everyday life. Bassein, made a year before independence, is one such film that captures life in a small fishing village. The coastal town of Bassein was once a Portuguese colony. The film highlights how certain things created by the Portuguese colonizers like buildings and rules are becoming outdated. But other facets like hobbies and religion have remained with the villagers of Bassein. Although British control was unavoidable, early Indian documentary film attempted to comment on the nature and effects of British rule. The British interest in information films paved the way for the development of Indian documentary cinema.
Through news and documentary footage, the Indian freedom struggle became a global phenomenon. The movement was so inspiring it gave rise to some notable Hollywood productions about India like Gunga Din (1939) by George Stevens, The Lives of A Bengal Lancer (1935) by Henry Hathaway and The Black Narcissus by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (1947). Gunga Din starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks is considered Hollywood’s first attempt at portraying India. This film is considered a classic and is noted for its unconventional story line about Indo-British friendships. Black Narcissus was released a few months before India attained independence. The plot revolves around a group of Anglican nuns who set up a school and clinic in a remote Himalayan town. However their attempts to reform the locals fails due to the collapse of their own community. Critics often speculate that this film is an allegory for Britain’s retreat from India.
The Indian independence struggle was a movement that received international support. Through cinema, filmmakers from around the world aspired to capture the dynamics of the movement and the plight of the Indian people under the repressive British Empire. In the years to come Bollywood would continue this trend of documenting the freedom struggle and commemorating national heroes.
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