Sandhya Suri’s previous feature, I for India (2005), explored post-war Indian migration to the UK through an unusual archive: not just the Super 8 films and reel-to-reel tapes with which her father, a medical student, documented his new country, but the recordings made by the family he’d left behind in 1965. It was a richly meditative work – at times droll, for long stretches a drift through postcolonial melancholia – that eschewed finger-wagging polemic or lapel-tugging ‘human interest’ storytelling of the kind refined in the popular Who Do You Think You Are? television series.
The same is true of Around India with a Movie Camera. Supported by the British Council, and part of a UK/India Year of Culture initiative, this could easily have been a heartwarming work of cinematic diplomacy that saluted the road to independence. It’s altogether stranger and more elusive, beginning in 1899 with what it claims is the oldest depiction of the country on film: Panorama of Calcutta, India, from the River Ganges. This is an eerily tranquil work, a distant ancestor of Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss (1986), its flotational pacing and imagery evoking a nation that is as much dreamscape as real. It shows rickety shelters, constructed to protect bank-dwellers from the sun, that resemble satellite dishes.
There’s a dissonance here: this is clearly the past, yet it’s a past that looks almost modern, a past that refuses to know its place. Even the term ‘panorama’ feels wrong; Suri, intentionally or otherwise, turns us into what Allen Sekula, in his landmark book Fish Story (later the basis for the 2010 essay film The Forgotten Space), called “a mobile spectator, more inquisitive than acquisitive, a crypto-cartographer”. Other films excerpted have the word ‘glimpse’ in their title; one is called Through the Back Door of India; a number appeal to the ethnographic gaze. Suri makes us rightly self-conscious about the act of watching.
Cameras were, at least as much as pens, tools of empire. Their job was not just to chronicle life under the benevolent Raj, but also to reaffirm the rightness of imperialism itself. This means that there is little footage of rebellion or resistance – a notable exception being a 1911 clip of the Gaekwar of Baroda turning his back on George V at the grand Delhi Durbar.
But Suri has an ironic sensibility that allows her to create subtle sequences – such as one showing Westerners awkwardly straddling elephants – that evoke instability rather than mastery. Another clip shows the pomp of a stately procession which, when it ends, is replaced by the swarming energy of daily life; empire, it’s implied, may have introduced modernity to India – but equally it may have been a force for petrification.
Philip Scheffner’s The Halfmoon Files (2007), a remarkable ‘ghost story’ about Indian POWs interned at a German camp during WWI, made telling use of silence and black leader to draw attention to the gaps and imponderables in his narrative; Suri, echoing the work of Bill Morrison, includes a good deal of pocked and decaying film.
She also features extraordinarily vivid footage of a lion fighting a tiger in a pit; The Rollicking Rajah (1914), in which an Englishman in brownface, surrounded by female dancers, sings, “All the girls salaam the great Ram Jam/The rollicking Rajah of Ranjipoo”; shorts whose makers applied coloured tints with stencils; and luridly Technicolor images of Indian performers that could have been shot by Derek Jarman.
The latter stages of Suri’s film contain fascinating material: work by cinematographer Jack Cardiff; a short about the manufacture of kerosene tins directed by the great Bimal Roy; rare documentation of a peace mission undertaken by Gandhi in 1946; William MacQuitty’s 19 Metre Band (1941), an inside look at the General Overseas Service for Indian listeners, which argues that the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London was “the most cosmopolitan building in Europe” and follows presenter Z.A. Bukhari as he wanders through the capital’s street markets and listens to the orators at Speakers’ Corner. He’s a little dazed, but also thrilled by his journey. Around India with a Movie Camera may well produce the same effect on modern viewers.