Cultural Resources

Part of UK/India 2017, a major year of cultural exchange between the United Kingdom and India, the British Film Institute has mounted India On Film, a hugely comprehensive celebration of Indian cinema, taking in the breadth and diversity of filmmaking on the sub-continent. The series of films began in April and continues through to December. Proving that Indian cinema is far more than Bollywood fantasies, this month sees an extended run for Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Hotel Salvation, a father-son story set in the holy city of Varanasi.

For those who can’t make it to the BFI Southbank in London to take in what’s on offer, the BFI – in partnership with the British Council – has this month released India on Film: 1899-1947, Treasures from the BFI National Archive. An enormous resource, it provides viewers with access to a wealth of rare films on India, stretching back to the earliest days of cinema. Everything from documentaries to newsreels, travelogues and even home movies can be glimpsed, spanning all facets of Indian society, from rural homes to the ruling classes.

Audiences in the UK can use the BFI Player to access films for free. Viewers in India and internationally can use the BFI YouTube Channel to engage with this extensive and stunning collection. It’s almost impossible to know where to begin, such is the diversity of material on offer, but highlights include 1899’s Panorama of Calcutta, the earliest known surviving film from India. Just a minute long, it’s gorgeous to look at, as the camera pans across the banks of the River Ganges in Varanasi, teaming with life.

Another fascinating gem is Indian Durbar, depicting a spectacular state reception held in Rajasthan for the Maharaja of Alwar. It begins with a parade, complete with elephants and dancers, “in a land where old-world custom and tradition survive”, as the narrator puts it. Vivid, colourful and eye-opening, this 12-minute piece was shot in ravishing Technicolor by the legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes), one of many he filmed in India during the 1930s and 1940s. Available in the UK for the first time, it’s just one of many treasures on display.

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