India on Film: Calcutta, West Bengal and other treasures from the BFI’s National Archives

Calcutta Kolkata trams BFI India on Film

I’m often amazed by the cultural riches that casually appear online for our use and enjoyment – Open Culture being an excellent contributor and curator to this trend.

Another is the British Film Institute (BFI), whose National Archives recently released a collection of newly-digitised films from India from the turn of the 20th century to partition.

Its India on Film: 1899-1947 covers so much ground it’s difficult to know where to begin, though rarely-seen footage of Gandhi filmed by his great nephew, Kanu, isn’t a bad place to start.

From the point of view of this blog there’s rare amateur footage of Calcutta, Darjeeling and Bihar, the Governor of Bengal and family (on and off duty!), a peak at the Sundarbans in 1935 and a lavish royal pageant in Calcutta.

One of the more esoteric items in the collection comes from Bimal Roy. The Dhaka-born director is best know, of course, for films from the golden age of Bollywood like Madhumati with Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala or the 1955 version of Devdas in which the pair also starred.

His documentary work is less famous, but the BFI has digitised his Tins for India (1941), a film that had been lost for decades and which “finds poetry in the kerosene can”.

Bimal Roy’s daughter Aparajita Roy Sinha said: “When I saw it, I liked it very much. The beautifully shot close-ups of a man with straining muscles working for a British corporation seemed somehow to bear my father’s stamp and presage his humanistic concerns that are evident in his later films.”

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