Empire cinema and society

Print edition : February 28, 2003

Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema: Image, Ideology and Identity by Prem Chowdhry, Vistaar Publications, New Delhi, 2001; pages 294, Rs.450.

EMPIRE cinema, specifically associated with colonial India, has surprisingly not attracted the attention of historians in any significant way. It was a medium of entertainment that had links with colonialism and was conceptualised primarily as a force to legitimise colonial presence. At the same time, the way these films were perceived by the colonised can provide valuable insights into social history. This is what Prem Chowdhry's work sets out to explore. The author, who has consulted the film archives at Pune and London and seen a whole range of official documents, papers and secondary sources, situates aspects of social history, especially of the colonised, through empire cinema. This serves to historicise her investigation and enables the reader to grasp her canvas, which is flavoured with the context of the turbulent 1930s.

In the introduction the author weaves in her concerns and charts out many valuable formulations relevant to the study of empire cinema. At home the British audiences were expected to identify with these jingoistic films and get inspired with `their' exploits abroad. In the context of the `Great Depression' (1929-31), this was a classic diversionary tactic meant to disengage the British public from questioning the internal contradictions.

What started as a serious enterprise `at home' soon saw the incorporation of the `crown jewel' of the empire - India - as the theme for a series of films. This led to the creation of a virtual entire genre over the 1930s.

With the exception of The Drum (1938), which was made in England, the other films were Hollywood productions. However, the unifying factor was conditioned by a shared perception of ideas of racial superiority and imperialist domination. More specifically, Chowdhry notes some common features in these productions: the defence of India, the choice of the North-West Frontier Province as the locale, the late 19th century as the chosen `historical' time, the focus on the ambition of some tribal chiefs aided by outsiders , and the over-arching effort to valorise the British Indian army that protected the `natives'.

Chowdhry's method focusses on the needs of capitalism and imperialism, while emphasising that these did not always work in harmony. Moreover, the possibilities of opposition remained with the audience in a medium that was visual. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that the intentions of the film-makers were not necessarily accepted by the audience. In this sense the study remains sensitive to the pluralities related to the different cultural spaces in the Western world and in India. The audience in India preferred to `see' the films in relation to their environment and their lives. Thus, they saw the `white man' as fallible, or saw aspects selectively with regard to events such as the 1857 `Mutiny'. At the same time, the ascendancy of Hollywood implied the association of anti-British and anti-imperialist forces that left their imprints and provided possibilities for alternative perceptions. Consequently, Chowdhry sees the possibilities of both acceptance and opposition/resistance by the viewers of empire cinema in India.

The author mentions several related aspects of the history of empire cinema. She refers to how the advent of the talkies metamorphosed the response of the audience. This assumes significance given the increase in the number of viewers over the 1930s, which led to the setting up of 1,265 permanent cinemas, 500 touring cinemas and some `seasonal' cinema houses in the hill stations by 1939. Moreover, contemporary reports show that the audience grasped and appreciated films. The demand for films far out-stripped the supply and since Indian films were not always available and proved to be more expensive, the exhibitors often settled for foreign films. Of the feature films screened in India in 1935 more than half were foreign films.

In the context of the diversities associated with the screening of these films and their increasing reach, the author refers to the tea plantations of Assam and how people went to urban centres from adjoining areas to see these films. While these factors perhaps made colonial officials cautious about movies, the issue of profit marked the response at `home'. Nevertheless, as one proceeded towards the turbulent 1940s, meeting points emerged between the two.

IT is against this background that the author discusses three empire films - The Drum (1938), Gunga Din (1939) and The Rains Came (1940).

The Drum had the tribal belt of the North-West Frontier Province as its locale and dealt with the establishment of British rule in the imaginary independent state of Torkot. Besides reinforcing colonial domination, it recreated the "myth of the Muslim menace" in "authentic" terms. The British were the "liberators" in the context of a possible "Muslim take-over". It suggested that if the British were the outsiders/invaders, so were the Muslims.

There was an agitation in Bombay on September 1, 1938, when The Drum was released, which forced its withdrawal. The author uses this context to probe deeper. The film projected the `Muslim' as backward, fundamentalist, anti-Hindu and anti-national, and the contradictions within nationalism as the primary problem. Moreover, besides being male-centred, racist and anti-woman, it highlighted the coloniser's assumptions about the colonised.

Referring to the agitation, the author states that it drew in "Muslims, from the urban under-class and lumpen proletariat of Bombay city, who were supported by wider sections of society cutting across community and class" (page 58). Besides sounding like an official report that tends to stereotype the crowds, the observation presents a contradictory picture of the actual reach of the agitation, while remaining silent on the sources used. Nevertheless, an important point that Chowdhry makes is that the agitation questioned the way both the colonial government and the Congress Ministry projected the `Muslim' selectively.

In an atmosphere that was charged with the fervour of the anti-imperialist struggle, Gunga Din sought to reassure and comfort the white audience at `home', and in India, that everything was `under control'. Nothing could be more striking than the fact that the film was inspired by a poem written by Rudyard Kipling in 1892.

Gunga Din amplified the ideology that had been nurtured and developed by colonialism since the taking over of India by the crown in 1858. It included a focus upon the divisive, non-egalitarian, oppressive and violent features in Indian society. Simultaneously, it focussed on the spectre of `Hindu domination' associated with the politics of the Congress. The film sought to denigrate the very idea of Indian nationalism, since India was not a unified nation, ripe for independence.

The author highlights how factors such as `authenticity' and `acceptability' were important in the choice of actors, and in deciding to introduce Kipling as a character in the film. Simultaneously, the film sought to negotiate with some of the indigenous Indian productions that highlighted nationalism.

A major aspect stressed by the author is the different ways in which the audiences - imperial/white and colonised/coloured - perceived it. Significantly, the Congress and non-Congress Ministries banned the film. The banning of two films in quick succession virtually brought to an end this genre of films as producers were reluctant to finance such misadventures.

The Rains Came, which was publicised in its time as the "true face of modern India", tried to delineate the evolution of imperial relationships and progress within Indian society. As the freedom struggle undermined the legitimacy of colonialism, the British looked for allies in the conservative hinterland of the princely states. This conditioned the plot of the film, which harped on inter-racial romance - a theme that was generally considered taboo - between an enlightened, Western-educated Indian prince and an English woman. It opened up the white/male enterprise of `running' the empire to the white woman and was more complex in its treatment of the inter-related themes of gender, race and class. The film was sidelined in the context of the Second World War and it is not clear how the Indian audience received it. In some ways this feature makes the chapter incomplete.

The book is a valuable contribution to the social history of colonial India and the politics of empire. It brings to life aspects that left an imprint on both the films and the audience. It illustrates the pluralities in the perceptions of the audience, who `saw' these films in relation to their immediate environment.

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