The BFI Collection

Very few films from India’s silent era survive to this day. It is estimated that the industry as a whole produced 1,350 films, with just 30 in a condition to view today. Only two sections of feature films (Bilwamangal and Madhabi Kankan) from the Madan studios have survived and are held by the National Film Archive of India. Both have been partially digitised.

A few copies of Elphinstone Bioscope/Madan Theatres topical films came back to the UK, and some of those were retained and a few were digitised by the British Film Institute. The films listed below are digitised films that were made available to the public as part of the BFI’s contribution to the UK-India Year of Culture 2017, in partnership with the British Council.

DIGITISED FILMS LISTED CHRONOLOGICALLY

These films and their descriptions are all hosted by the BFI on YouTube.

Calcutta Topical No. 1 for 1925 – The King Emperor’s Cup Race

BFI description: Fashionably attired folk attend the races in Kolkata. The Calcutta Topical claimed to be “showing all the leading events of the season”, and the emphasis here is very much on society rather than sport. The event was the King-Emperor’s Cup Race, held at the Calcutta Race Course (built in 1820), but horses take second place to fashion. There are a significant number of affluent Indian racegoers to be spotted among the crowds.

Calcutta Topical No. 2 for 1925 – The Race for the Viceroy’s Cup

BFI description: The sport of Viceroys – Film of the 1929 Viceroy’s Cup horse race held in Calcutta (Kolkata). This revealing film showcases all the pomp and pageantry of the annual horserace at the Hastings Race Course in Calcutta (Kolkata). It offers a useful insight into a colonial high society event: dress is formal, and Indian attendees are very much a minority (while the men mostly wear western suits). The Viceroy’s Cup was usually held in late December or early January and exclusively attended – invitation only – by the local elite. The race on 26 December 1929 was won by Star of Italy.

Arrival of the Earl of Lytton at Calcutta (1922)

BFI description: Lord Lytton takes up the post of Governor of Bengal. Victor Bulwer-Lytton was the ultimate product of British India: born in Simla, the son of the first Earl of Lytton (Viceroy and Governor-General of India). Unsurprisingly, the second Lord Lytton’s rise through the ranks was rapid – progressing from Under-Secretary of State for India to (briefly) Viceroy in just 5 years. Here he’s seen arriving in Calcutta (Kolkata) to take up the post of Governor of Bengal amid much ceremony and accompanied by vast crowds.

Scenes at His Excellency the Viceroy’s Garden Party at Belvedere (1926)

BFI description: A summer garden party in 1920s Calcutta – Indian high society enjoy themselves at a Calcutta garden party held to welcome the new Viceroy, Lord Irwin. This film gave Indian cinema audiences the chance to rub shoulders with India’s elite and catch a glimpse of the men who ruled their country – and their families. We see not one but two Viceroys: Lord Irwin (shown in the first table shots) became Viceroy in April 1926 after Lord Lytton (who was Governor of Bengal and is seen in the second table shot) filled the post on a temporary basis. The party was held at Belvedere House, the Viceregal residence before India’s capital was moved from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911. While we can name the key British figures in the film, the identity of the Indian guests is unknown, nor does the film identify them. The film was likely to have been made by Madan Theatres Ltd., an Indian cinema chain. Later shots show Lady Dorothy Wood (Irwin’s wife) and Lytton’s wife Pamela as well as their children, Ann Wood and Anthony and Davina Bulwar-Lytton, who are seated at a ‘children’s table’ along with an Indian royal prince. In spite of these festivities, Irwin’s period as viceroy was not easy as he oversaw intense Indian protests for further political devolution and was forced to negotiate with Gandhi to bring the nationwide Civil Disobedience movement to an end.

Annual Inspection of the Bodyguard by His Excellency Lord Lytton (1925)

BFI description: The Governor of Bengal and family – on and off duty. Lord Lytton, then Governor of Bengal, inspects the Governor’s Bodyguard in Calcutta (Kolkata). He is accompanied by his wife, Pamela, and eldest daughter, Hermione (both in furs), assorted other children and a dog. Shortly after this was filmed Lytton briefly became Viceroy (Governor-General of India) while Lord Reading was on leave. Lytton’s wife had also returned to Britain, so Hermione became acting Vicereine, experiencing six months of imperial life in Delhi and Simla (Shimla).

Government House Garden Party (1923)

BFI description: Scenes at a garden party given by Earl Lytton, Governor of Bengal, at Government House, Calcutta (now Kolkata). A brief behind the scenes glimpse at an opulent garden party given by Earl Lytton, Governor of Bengal, at Government House, Calcutta (now Kolkata). The formality of the parade is later contrasted with shots of informal discussions between the guests.

5th Calcutta Battalion: Presentation of Colours by H.E. The Viceroy (1917)

BFI description: The inauguration of a unit of the Indian Defence Force in Calcutta (now Kolkata). The 5th Calcutta Battalion was one of a host of military units raised in India to garrison important commercial and military stations in the absence of regular troops during World War I. The battalions of the Indian Defence Force were unlike military units that preceded it. Each company contained a mixture of ‘Europeans’ (conscripted British and Irish civilians) and Indian volunteers (recruited from an educated Indian elite). The 5th Calcutta Battalion and units like it were to be a symbol of Imperial unity at a time of Imperial crisis. The film portrays the limits and opportunities of Empire loyalism for Indians during World War I. Educated Indians, particularly Bengalis from Eastern India (including what is now Bangladesh), were prevented from colonial military service due to racial theory and a colonial policy that constructed the Indian cityscape as the site of innate and irrational sedition. The Indians who were to be enlisted were to be assimiliated and policed by the white conscripts around them, and commanded by white officers. And yet this form of military service was actively encouraged by the nascent nationalist movement in India. The right to bear arms and to enter parts of an Indian cityscape previously closed to non-whites provided glimpses of life beyond Empire.

LOST OR UNATTRIBUTED FILMS

Below are some of the films from the Elphinstone Bioscope era which either don’t appear in the catalogues or haven’t been attributed to the studio. There are likely many others, both from the Bioscope period and under the Madan Theatres label that are unrecorded.

Prahlad Charitra (1916)
The Delhi Durbar and Coronation cotton fire in Bombay (1912)
Queen Mary and Visit to Bombay (1911)
His Majesty King George V (1911)
The Fugitive Lamas flight to Darjeeling and Procession (1910)
The Terrible Hyderabad Flood (1908)
Amir of Kabul’s Procession from Howrah to Alipore (1907)
Bathing Ghat: Howrah (1906)
Dancing of Indian Nautch Girls (1906)
Goat Sacrifice at Atkalighat (1906)
Grand Pareshnath Procession (1906)
Royal Visit to Calcutta (1906)
The Malabares Grand Masonic Procession (1906)
Opening and Closing of Howrah Bridge (1905)
The Bengali Fisherman (1904)
The Fisherman’s Boy (1904)
Great Bengal division motion
Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s Visit to Calcutta (1905)
Procession (1905)