This film is held by the BFI (ID: 20052).


INTEREST. Credits (49), hut on stilts from which tribesmen keep guard over their crops (82), dead neelgai shot by the tribesman (87), close-up of a Gond tribesman with axe and spear (92), items such as opium, amulet, pipes which the tribesman carries in his loin cloth (112), tribesmen climb trees for fruit and dig up edible roots from the ground (143), fire is obtained by rubbing two bamboo sticks together (169), fishing with spears (174), members of the Bhil tribe firing arrows (191), a missing village calf is found dead, partly eaten by a panther, the villagers stalk the panther and kill it with arrows, its body is then carried to the village (253), elephant riding, elephants used to clear bushland (293), tribesmen refresh themselves with river water (302), bullock carts (322), tribesmen help get the car belonging to the expedition over sand and river (345), village women with their children, villagers listen to a radio (382), a Bhil wedding ceremony - the bride sits in the lap of the groom's father, the dowry is exchanged, the best man is rubbed with soot, the bridegroom is rubbed with tumeric whilst the bride is rubbed with a dye, on the wedding day, the bridegroom arrives on horseback, coins are dropped for luck, the bride's friends pelt the groom with fruit in mock protest at him taking the bride away, during the ceremony, the bride and groom are held by their wrists, the bride and groom the play games, musicians play, dancing by all the villagers (668), map showing the area around Bombay where the tribes live (678), women carrying water pots on their heads (702), fishing in the river (711), milling corn (721), divorce ceremony - the woman publicly tears off a piece of her sari, the man tears off the end of his turban (749), tribesmen hunting (763 ft).



Children of the Jungle was produced in 1939 by the film division of the British-owned Times of India newspaper. The cinematography is by Marcus Bartley, who is credited as ‘newsreel cameraman’ for the paper, and he  would later go on to achieve recognition for his camerawork on such Indian feature films Swarga Seema (1945) (‘Marcus Bartley’). The film was written and produced by Stanley Jepson, editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, one of the newspaper’s sister publications. Jepson was one of the prime movers of Bombay’s first film club, the Amateur Cine Society, founded in 1937 (Mazumder). The film was edited by Sarvattam Badami, director of over 30 films for Sagar Movietone, the distributors of the first talking pictures in India (‘The Firsts of Indian Cinema’). Badami would later play a leading role in setting up the newsreel section of the film division for the first government of independent India (Vittal, 2007, 75).

The film is concerned with the practices of the various forest tribes of central India. Its first half focuses primarily on the hunting activities of the Gond people, who constitute the largest of central India’s tribes. The second half features some elements of the wedding rituals undertaken by the Bhil tribe (for comprehensive accounts of these rituals see Sirshalkar, 2004, 296-304; Koppers and Jungblut, 1946, 5-33). The film also recounts some of the history of the Bhils, noting that during the early nineteenth century they were ‘the desperados and marauding bandits of Khandesh’. It claims that they were ‘pacified’ by General James Outram, who founded the Khandesh Bhil Corps in 1825 (for further details see Russell, 2009, 375).

In an illuminating article Ajay Skaria discusses the ways in which colonial officials distinguished between what they viewed as the ‘castes’ and the ‘tribes’ of India (Skaria, 1997, 726-45). He states that it was only in the 1840s that people such as the Bhils were termed as being ‘aboriginal, forest, or hill tribes’ (Skaria, 1997, 728). They were described as fairly low on the evolutionary scale and as animal-like and primitive, a distinction that was accounted for by their dependence on hunting (ignoring the fact that large sections of these tribes lived by settled agriculture). The British also frequently viewed tribal people as being noble, independent, masculine and loyal. Skaria links these opinions to the western tradition of the noble savage, and further notes that they set up an opposition with Hindu castes, who in comparison were regarded as wily and feminised. The tribes were portrayed as immature, and thus requiring the protection of gentlemen British officials, such as Outram. Skaria states that ‘British rule in India was always, of course, represented as paternalistic. But with a people so strongly perceived as backward, childlike, and noble, colonial paternalism somersaulted into its own with a flourish’ (Skaria, 1997, 736).



One of the ambitions of Children of the Jungle is to provide a pioneering anthropological study. An early title card states that ‘This film is the first attempt at intimate glimpses of the aboriginal jungle tribes of Central India’, while a later one claims that ‘These customs filmed for the first time are quite orthodox and correct in detail’. The ‘valuable assistance’ of local forest officers is also underlined. The film is structured like a travelogue, giving the impression that it casually recounts the film crew’s expedition among the jungle people. To that end the film’s authenticity is aided by its occasional amateurism. There is no attempt to sequence the most interesting scenes first; some scenes are poorly lit; others are crudely edited; and the commentary occasionally stumbles. Moreover, the crew allow themselves to enter the frame. The progress of their car is shown on film and we see them introducing the locals to the wonders of radio (this occurs during a curious segment that features the forest officers awarding prizes – including empty beer bottles – to the most beautiful villagers).

The viewer also gets a sense of the filmmakers’ activities behind the camera. This film has many sequences that have been staged for the camera. These include posed ethnographical portraits (framed with head-and-shoulders shots which are filmed both face-on and in profile); activities performed by the locals for the camera (a display of fire-making; a scene in which a Gond hunter discloses the possessions that he carries with him); and orchestrated narrative sequences (a panther hunt; the Bhil wedding). These latter sequences are indicative of the more professional approaches of the filmmakers. Several of the filmed events could not have occurred in real time. Scenes are shot from a variety of positions (close-ups, distance shots, reaction shots) thus disclosing the re-framing and repositioning of Children of the Jungle’s lone camera. In addition, some scenes are filmed from ‘unnatural’ positions (filming face-on to a team of archers who are supposedly aiming at a panther), and others from privileged ones (during some of the wedding scenes the cameraman/viewer is granted an omniscient viewpoint). Each of these elements reveals a degree of intervention by the filmmakers.

In his commentary Jepson frequently adopts a jocular tone, which is sometimes sexual (‘Oh mother Eve - what could poor Adam do about that?’) and sometimes sexist (‘The women are adept at doing two or three things at once; most ladies are!). He freely offers his own opinions (‘these ceremonies may seem ludicrous’) and on occasion guesses at the meaning of the activities he witnesses (the ritual of rubbing the prospective groom’s face with turmeric is described as being ‘just to keep him from feeling cold and backing out of it probably’). He makes use of western comparisons to help convey the activities that are on display, but does so in a manner that reinforces a divide: fire-making is described as a ‘little game – better than yo-yo’ and we learn that ‘Mr Ford will never displace the bullock cart from India’. Moreover, the locals are never personalised; it is only General Outram who is referred to by name.

The presumptions of the filmmakers become readily apparent. An opening title card excuses their use of the word ‘children’ by stating that Sanskrit literature refers to the jungle tribes as the ‘children of the forest’. Much of the film strives to show how at one with nature these people are: the Gonds are described as being ‘like their friends the animals’ and they are shown climbing trees ‘like monkeys’. The people are also shown as being hunters, just like the animals around them. For the filmmakers, these people are also children due to their lack of development. The opening title card refers to the fact that they have ‘advanced but little’ and the film focuses on what it perceives to be the people’s more humorous and playful practices (in particular when covering the wedding formalities). The film concludes by describing the people as ‘sturdy, simple, loyal, likeable’. It is also at pains to point out that the tribes are different to India’s castes: a title card states that ‘it must not be supposed that these jungle tribes […] are in any way typical of the millions who constitute the rural population of India’.

The film’s distortions do not negate the fact that it contains much valuable footage. It could even be said to add another layer of interest. It is the gaps in this film – between its professionalism and amateurism, and between its intentions and unwitting disclosures – that makes it as ripe for an anthropological study of its makers as it is of the forest tribes of India.

Richard Osborne (October 2009)


Works Cited

‘The Firsts of Indian Cinema’,

Koppers, William, and Leonhard Jungblut, ‘Betrothal Rites among the Bhil of North-Western Central India’, Artibus Asiae, 9/1-3 (1946), 5-33.

‘Marcus Bartley’,

Mazumder, Premendra, ‘Film Society Movement in India’,

Russell, R. V., The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, vol. 2 (BiblioBazaar, 2009).

Sirshalkar, P. R., ‘Bhil’, People of India: Volume 1 of Maharashtra, ed by Kumar Suresh Singh (Popular Prakashan, 2004).

Skaria, Ajay, ‘Shades of Wildness Tribe, Caste, and Gender in Western India’, The Journal of Asian Studies, 56/3 (August 1997), 726-45.

Vittal, Gita, Reflections: Experiences of a Bureaucrat’s Wife (Academic Foundation, 2007).




Technical Data

Running Time:
21 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film
762 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
JEPSON, Stanley
Production Company
Times of India