Around India with a Movie Camera

On Tuesday, February 5th, we went to the Cleveland Museum of Art to watch Around India with a Movie Camera. It is a 2018 documentary film created by Ms. Sandhya Suri, a British/Indian writer and director, from hours of footage stored in the national archives of the British Film Institute covering the time period when India was under British colonial rule. The end result is an entrancing look at India, its people and customs, and the historical events that took place there from 1899 to 1947 (approximately) as seen from the arms-length point-of-view of the British occupiers who shot most of the footage incorporated into this documentary.

Overall, the British come across as a benevolent people who sincerely believed that assimilating India into the British empire was very much the right thing to do for the betterment of all concerned. To be sure, they are appreciative of India’s masterful architecture, its scenic beauty, and its pageantry. Naturally, this is a marked difference from attitudes today and it is amazing to think that this all occured only some 100 years ago. Certainly, British visitors to India, especially those who liked to hunt big game, had a great time there. All in all, they were intrigued by the Indian culture but are unable to to really connect with it.  

For example, in one scene (adapted from a travelogue) a British Narrator/Commentator observes an Indian street performer and suggests that he doesn’t understand what he is seeing at all but it is “fascinating” nonetheless and concludes by comparing the Indian street performer to a British cabaret star.  Along the way, there are scenes of Britons and Indians sitting down for a meal and enjoying each other’s company and an excellent sequence shot by Mr. Bimoy Roy, a renowned Indian director, admirably depicting India’s tin-making Industry. Very interesting is a couple of moments shot by Mr. Kanu Gandhi, the grand-nephew of the Mahatma, showing his uncle at a public gather in Noakhali in 1946. Yet there are also disturbing clips like one that depicts Hinduism as a darkly, ominous force and, a particularly troubling scene in which a female member of the Salvation Army, dressed in appropriate uniform, demands that a beautifully clothed Indian woman cast aside her jewelry and adopt British traditions.

Around India with a Movie Camera contains a beautifully effective score by sarod player and musician Mr. Soumik Datta. Very wisely, Ms. Suri did not add an all-encompassing narration but allows each passage (some containing British narration and others silent) tell its own story.

There will be an additional screening at the Cleveland Museum of Art on Friday, February 8th, to be followed by a Q and A with Ms. Sonya Rhie Mace, Curator of Indian and Southeast Asia Art, and Ms. Barbara Tannenbaum, Curator of Photography. Once again, it was truly fascinating and we urge our readers to go to the repeat showing on Friday.