This film is held by the BFI (ID: 200942).


Political and social life in India.

Credits. Crowd of Indians. Commentary states that among the contradictions of India a new nation is being born. Boys begging. Images of Gandhi, Jinah and Nehru. Banner reading 'Pakistan is our goal'. Male protesters from the B.P.T. Employees Union. A crowd, possibly following a religious idol. Panned shot across a village. Old woman cleaning a bowl. Women carrying pots on their heads. Women at village well. Plough pulled by oxen. Villager using leads to move a scarecrow. Bare-chested Indian shaking grain from a container. Women beating grain with sticks. Footage from Hillmen Go to War (1944): young woman clipping tea; boy clipping tea; close-up of tea plant; old woman sifting tea. Old man at work on a loom. Young girl operating spinning wheel. Young women and men winding balls of cloth. Man using bicycle wheel to spin cloth. Two boys using a saw. Men sawing through a large tree trunk. Footage from Hillmen Go to War: Boy crushing chestnuts. Women threshing straw. Twine being thread. Woman making fabric using spinning wheel. Women making rope. Children transporting rope in their canoes. Men carrying wood strapped to their backs. Stacked wood, which is then winched across hills. Men make chute of planks, which they then use to transfer further planks down. Footage from In Rural Maharashtra (1945): a line of oxen carts heading down a road. Footage from Hillmen Go to War:

Men with crates tied to their backs. Oxen pulling logs along a rail. Donkeys with goods strapped to their backs. Two Indians open the doors to the yard of 'Union Plywood Product'. Bullock cart carrying tree trunks enters the yard. Interior of a factory, processing timber. Men in 'spooling section' of a factory. Boy crouched on a rope. Factory workers manufacturing rope. Workers using stencil to make patterns on cloth. Two men unfurl a large roll of cloth. Worker mending sandals in his workshop. Large factory with one worker visible among the machines. Men at work on industrial presses. Men in factory working at looms. Indians at work in a large metal foundry. Machine creating sheets of metal. Men at work on a conveyor belt. Footage from War Pictorial News No. 51 (1942): worker using large pincers. Footage from Hillmen Go to War: Dancers at village festival; idols being tilted towards each other. Footage from In Rural Mahahrashtra: Elaborately dressed bride and groom in wedding ceremony; married couple being anointed; celebratory dancing. A dancing bear. Indian jazz trumpeter. Europeans and Indians dancing to jazz music. Shots of the jazz band. Shots looking down on teeming city streets. High-rise buildings. Art Deco office block. Hospital buildings. Shot looking down on an operating table. The exterior of the 'Forest Research Laboratory'. Lush crops labelled 'study of tillage and manure'. Workers inspecting crops. Indians working in a laboratory in lab coats. Woman in sari looking at samples through a magnifying glass. Indian among laboratory equipment. European conducting laboratory experiments. Indian woman using a handloom. Bearded old man. Indian workers in western clothing. Shots of factory workers. Machinery and workers illuminated by factory furnace. Footage from War Pictorial News No. 51: worker using large pincers. Ends.



Indian Background, produced in 1946, is comprised of footage re-edited from several wartime Indian documentaries. The practice of re-editing material was fairly common (see Ministry of Information letter, 29 June 1943, referring to this practice), but seldom involved the use of quite so many different films. The Crown Film Unit assembled this film for the British Government’s Central Office of Information, the peacetime successor to the Ministry of Information. It was edited by Sylvia Cummins, who had previously been responsible for a number of war documentaries, including Report from Burma (1945) and Fiji Return (1945). It has not been possible to establish the credentials of the film’s writer, John Sommerfield, but it is possible that he is the British communist author who was responsible for the novels May Day (1935) and Trouble in Porter Street (1939). The ‘musical advisor’ for this film was Narayana Menon, noted scholar of Indian dance and music. Indian Background was released in Britain in late 1946, receiving short descriptive notices in the Monthly Film Bulletin (MFB, 1946, 12) and The Cinema (TC, 18 September 1946, 35).

By 1946 it was generally assumed that India would gain independence from Britain. Throughout the twentieth century various steps had been made towards India achieving this status, however Judith Brown argues that it was only after the War that the British conceded that ‘withdrawal was essential – and not for India but for British national and Imperial interests’ (Brown, 2001, 439). She argues that India was becoming an economic liability rather than an asset to Britain; that the country was of less strategic importance geographically; and that it was becoming ungovernable. As such the British ‘calculated that alliance with a free India within the Commonwealth was preferable to continued dominion’ (Brown, 2001, 444). The pace and scale of change had yet to be determined. Although the Lahore Resolution of 1940 had posited the idea of a separate state of Pakistan, partition was not a certainty (Brown, 1994, 332). Moreover, the current Viceroy, Lord Wavell, was proposing a staged withdrawal from power (Louis, 2001, 332).

World War II had prompted an expansion of industry in India, with a particular growth in the production of steel, chemicals, paper, paint and cement (Brown, 1994, 351). There was also a steady expansion of the urban population: from 13% in 1941 to 16% in 1951 (Brown, 1994, 351). Village life remained relatively unchanged, however, and the country’s agricultural base remained in need of major reform (Brown, 1994, 350-31).



Indian Background is notable for two main reasons. The first is the way in which it represents the Government’s filmmaking response to the changing political climate in India. The second is the way in which it reinterprets previously issued film footage. The film itself is comprised of three sections: its opening outlines the current political situation in India; its main central section is its ‘Indian background’, a survey of the principal characteristics of life in the sub-continent; and its conclusion ponders how India will progress.

The film begins with sequences showing large Indian crowds. These are shot from a number of angles, but often with the cameraman looking down from a vantage point. Not only does this help to emphasise the scale of the crowds, it also produces a level of separation between the cameraman/viewer and the mass of people below. These crowd scenes are intercut with footage of the leading political figures of the day: Gandhi, Jinnah and Nehru. The commentary meanwhile tells an old story about India being a land of contrasts: rich and poor; old and new; Hindu and Muslim. Although this set of oppositions is related to some of the images on display, it is notable that none of the leaders is mentioned by name. Instead the commentary emphasises the fact that it is among contradictions that ‘a nation is being born’.

The film then provides its ‘Indian background’. It first posits a belief that is familiar from many other British documentaries – that ‘the life of India is in the villages’ – and moreover uses materials from previous rural films to underline this point. The tone and the re-use of materials are startling. The film pours almost vindictive scorn on the backwardness of farming communities, where tools have ‘not altered in a 1000 years’ and where ‘to live is an achievement of which there is little to be remembered’. It condemns both child and adult labour. A sequence from Hillmen Go To War (1944), originally used to illustrate the increased productivity and wealth of the villagers, is now accompanied by the information that ‘much work, little food and the long summer’s brutal heat age the peasants before their time’. Footage from In Rural Maharashtra (1940), showing the villagers crops on their way to market, is now accompanied by talk of global exploitation: ‘the peasant is the producer, but most of his product goes from him, a journey that takes it into another world’. Both of the earlier films feature traditional village celebrations, where life is praised for its ‘harmony’ and the festivities are termed ‘exciting’. Re-used here the commentator states that ‘tradition is an invisible tyranny that binds the villager to his heritage of poverty, dirt, ignorance and disease’. The commentary doesn’t always subvert the original use of the film materials, however. The camerawork of the earlier films is commonly their most sympathetic aspect in terms of highlighting the dignity of the people. Now accompanied by a wholly partisan commentary, the images and the rhetoric are often at odds.

It is with mechanised India that this film throws in its lot, in keeping with the enthusiasms of many contemporaneous official productions about industry on Britain’s own shores. The film cuts abruptly from footage of rural industry to scenes of a large factory. ‘Now that’s more like it’, the commentator says. He turns away from the trope of depicting the sub-continent by means of its village life, stating that ‘this is happening in India too’. Footage from War Pictorial News No. 51 (1942), originally used to illustrate the contribution of India’s factories and factory workers to the war cause, is now used to highlight general Indian mechanisation. The commentator instructs us that ‘it’s no use sentimentalising about machines destroying old crafts and old ways of living’; these are ‘changes for the better’.

In conclusion the film returns to the contradictions of India. The footage of traditional celebrations is cut sharply into an image of urban nightlife. Next the film shows several shots of scientific buildings, among them a college of agriculture, and contemplates ‘how are these able to flourish in the same land and century as the villages rooted in the past?’ (here an image of a woman working a handloom is perhaps used to link this Gandhi-inspired practice with a dangerously backwards-looking India). The film calls for ‘changes in men’s minds’. It argues for an India of technical progress, and it makes it clear from where this progress will be derived. The images of scientific endeavour are accompanied by western music, and the commentary states that the future ‘will inevitably be shaped by western methods’. Nevertheless, the parade of contradictory images has rendered the filmmakers uncertain. This surprisingly complex, ambivalent, even confused film reflects the current tumult of India. ‘It’s hard to understand what all this adds up to’, the commentator admits.

Richard Osborne (October 2009)


Works Cited

Brown, Judith M., ‘India’, in The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume IV: The Twentieth Century, ed. by Judith M. Brown and Wm. Roger Louis (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 421-46.

Brown, Judith M., Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy, 2nd edn (Oxford: OUP, 1994).

Letter: F. Burton Leach (India Section) to P.N. Thapar (Department of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi), 39 June 1943, Held in India Office Records: L/I/1/692 FILMS – INDIA.

Louis, Wm. Roger, ‘The Dissolution of the British Empire’, in The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume IV: The Twentieth Century, ed. by Judith M. Brown and Wm. Roger Louis (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 329-56.

Monthly Film Bulletin, 13:145/156 (1946) p. 142.

The Cinema: News and Property Gazette. Vol. LXVII. No. 5397 (18 September 1946).




Technical Data

Running Time:
10 minutes

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Central Office of Information
cast member
cast member
Production Company
Crown Film Unit
Written by