Around India with a Movie Camera
(UK, 72 min.)
Dir. Sandhya Suri
Was there a random box of archival footage at the British Film Institute labelled Odds and Ends – India? One can only wonder how such a haphazard assortment of bits and pieces from film history landed in such an unwieldy heap. These clips and reels feature some of the earliest footage of India and chronicle the life of the country over 50 years from the advent of film to the country’s independence in 1947. The footage itself is obviously valuable and culturally, historically, and (in some cases) artistically significant. Around India with a Movie Camera, the film comprised of these archival snippets, isn’t the sum of its parts though. The doc plays as if a few people at the BFI cleaned out their closet, digitized their footage, and recognized that there was enough material to cobble together and make some money.
The footage is a mix of professional and amateur productions. There are newsreels and home movies of varying quality in terms of their production values and their wear and tear. Grainy, almost illegible, material is cut side by side with the gorgeous Technicolor footage shot by master cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who lensed short docs like Indian Durbar before going on to make The Red Shoes. The inconsistency of the aesthetic quality of the footage, however, is the least of the film’s problems.
Much of the material looks at India through a colonial gaze and makes for awkward viewing even if the politically incorrect footage is a product of its time. Inherent in the collage is the relationship between colonizers and colonized, and the power dynamics of race and class are evident as the awkwardness serves a purpose. There’s also a cringe-worthy Vivaphone film The Rollicking Rajah from 1914 featuring British actor Harry Buss made up as a maharajah while a chorus of English ladies dance awkwardly around him and struggle to keep the beat. Outside the awkward bits, the film features documentary material shot by Bimal Roy (Do Bigma Zamin) that captures everyday life with objectivity and empathy. It’s a fine early example of the importance of self-representation. Equally valuable is the candid footage of Mahatma Gandhi shot by his nephew Kanu. These excerpts, as well as other moments that simply chronicle everyday life, are often striking artifacts with their views of culture mostly filtered through a colonial gaze.
The process of unearthing film history often yields amazing riches, so the overall flatness and directionlessness of the doc is disappointing. By comparison, look at 2016’s Dawson City: Frozen Time in which Bill Morrison created an act of invaluable film preservation by digitizing snippets of old movies long lost in the Yukon until only recently. What sets Dawson City apart from Around India is a narrative that drives it. Dawson City: Frozen Time intertwines film history with a story about a nation coming into being and of the role that movies played in capturing a changing landscape. Director Sandhya Suri, however, pieces his nuggets together with little coherence, flow, or logic. Unfortunately, the overall aimlessness of the film doesn’t do justice to gems it finds._ Around India with a Movie Camera_ might best be served by archivists and visual researchers who can put the footage to better use.
Around India with a Movie Camera opens in Toronto at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Jan. 18.