This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: COI 591).


Film showing what happens when a boy joins the Royal Indian Navy.

Footage of India's coastline is used as an introduction. Indian boys arriving to join the Navy are shown next, and the film chooses one of them to follow. It shows the medical, enrolment, swearing in and the receiving of new clothes and kitbags. Badges of rank are indicated, and there is an explanation of what the various stripes mean. Film is shown of the boys marching, just after they have joined and after three months, with verbal commentary noting the difference. The troops are shown at training school, with film of them in the canteen, at the gunnery school, undergoing medical training, learning the use of semaphore, and relaxation activities. After training school they are shown on board ship having their first boat drill. Out at sea the sailor whom the film has chosen to follow is shown taking a turn at the wheel. Training continues at sea, and the film concludes by showing a simulated enemy raid.


Production: made with the cooperation of Vice-Admiral Herbert Fitzherbert CB CMS, Flag Officer Commanding, and the men of the Royal Indian Navy



He’s in the Navy was one of the first two World War II documentaries to be made in India, the other being A Day in the Life of a Sepoy (1940). These projects were initiated by Desmond Young, who worked as chief press officer and as a member of the war propaganda team in the Government of India (Garga, 2007, 60). Young was operating in response to a Ministry of Information request to produce films for ‘war propaganda’ within India and also to ‘project a modern and progressive India under British rule to audiences abroad, particularly the United States’ (Garga, 2007, 62).

He’s in the Navy was produced by the Indian filmmaker J. B. H. Wadia, one the pioneers of the documentary film movement in the sub-continent. His companies had been jointly responsible for the first Indian newsreel, The Indian Gazette and they had produced Haripura Congress (1938), India’s first feature-length documentary (Wadia Movietone Archive, 2003). Wadia was a founding member of M. N. Roy’s Radical Democratic Party, which espoused the causes of independence, women’s emancipation, Hindu-Muslim communal harmony, dignity of labour and eradication of the caste system (Wadia Movietone Archive, 2003).

At the outbreak of World War II the major Indian political party, the Indian National Congress (INC), had resigned from local government, refusing to support the Allied cause. Wadia, in contradistinction, produced films that promoted Britain’s war aims. These included He’s in the Navy and Planes of Hindustan. According to S. Mulugundam he justified this work on the grounds that supporting democracy in the face of Nazi aggression ‘would definitely lead to independence for India too’ (Mulugundam, 2002, 70).

In May 1940 Desmond Young flew to London to show some of these early films to the Ministry of Information. They found them interesting but not good enough for exhibition abroad. Back in India, Young had the films dubbed into various Indian languages, but found that his main problem here lay in gaining distribution (Young, 29 October 1940, 1). To that end in July 1940 India’s first official film body, the Film Advisory Board (FAB), was constituted. Its first chairman was J. B. H. Wadia, and He’s in the Navy formed part of the FAB’s first catalogue of films. The aim of the FAB was to give the Indian public ‘films of interesting war subjects and others of informatory value’, and it resolved ‘to make every effort to see that all cinemas exhibit these films’ (quoted in Garga, 2007, 65). In order to help that effort most of the films were distributed for free (Young, 29 October 1940, 2).

Because their films were aimed at a largely illiterate audience, Wadia and Young were of the opinion they should be easy to understand. Wadia argued that they should be told in a ‘straight-from-the-shoulder manner’, adding that ‘If a democratic form of government, despite its imperfections, is more desirable than a totalitarian one, they [the Indian audience] must be reminded of this all-important fact over and over again’ (Garga, 2007, 72). In his autobiography Young stated that ‘if recruiting were to be extended beyond the so-called “martial classes”’ life in the services would need to be portrayed in simple terms’ (Garga, 2007, 63).

The recruitment drive was successful. Between 1939 and 1945 the Royal Indian Navy grew in size from 1700 officers and ratings to 30,000 (Jackson, 2006, 369). The RIN’s main role was to ‘recruit, train and administer’ as well as being given patrol, escort and minesweeping duties in the coastal waters around India (Jackson, 2006, 369). Although Japanese forces constituted the main threat, they did not wage a significant maritime campaign against India during World War II (Jackson, 2006, 368-69).



The motto of Wadia Movietone was ‘enlightenment through entertainment’. He’s in the Navy is illustrative of the fact that in a war propaganda documentary this can be a difficult ambition to realise.

In the first instance the viewers of He’s in the Navy would not have received full enlightenment. The main objective of the documentary is obvious: the activities of young naval recruits are depicted in order to encourage more Indians to sign up for the war campaign. Nevertheless, the war itself barely impinges on the film. It is not mentioned directly, and instead there is talk of ‘high adventures out at sea’. And the nearest sighting that we get of the ‘enemy’ is the dummy soldiers that are used for bayonet practice. Although this reflects the relative lack of engagement that the Indian navy encountered during World War II, the method could be argued to be somewhat duplicitous.

Rather than addressing the seriousness of war, the film instead adopts a light-hearted tone. This comedic emphasis of He’s in the Navy serves distinct purposes. On the one hand the film aims to enlist new recruits by depicting the navy as fun. On the other hand, and perhaps undercutting this recruitment drive, the film delivers its entertainment quota by using the naval recruits as the butt of its jokes. This is done partly through the choice of material. Although the film depicts the recruits developing from a disorganised rabble into an efficient fighting unit, it never allows them their full dignity. Instead, their training is played for laughs. We get to witness their first clumsy attempts at drill; we are meant to laugh at them as they eat voraciously in the canteen; and we watch them belly-flop into a swimming pool.

Underpinning the humour of these situations is the commentary. The narrative in the English-language version of He’s in the Navy is written and supplied by the film’s director, G. Radcliffe Genge. He regularly adopts a mocking tone. When witnessing the recruits let loose with bayonets he exclaims ‘Great guns!’ with pretended alarm. He dismisses their sporting recreation as a willingness to ‘sock each other on the jaw’ or to ‘bang shuttlecocks’. He is at his most mirthful during the training on board HMS Dalhousie, ‘where first we learn swinging the lead, and I don’t mean it your way either’. Here he yells ‘Man overboard!’ and ‘Man the boats!’. These dramatic cries set up a comic denouement in which the recruits save a life buoy rather than a human being. Srirupa Roy has argued that ‘the particular filmic form favoured by FAB officials was one that underscored a vertical or hierarchical relation of authority between film-maker and film-viewer, and by implication, between state and society’ (Roy, 2002, 240). What is perhaps most troubling about the English-language version of He’s in the Navy is that it features a mature British narrator (representing the film-maker) laughing at Indian boys (with whom the original film-viewer was supposed to identify).

Elsewhere the film demonstrates the dominance and self-assurance of British rule. The instruction received at the naval base is depicted as superior to that found in the daily life of the sub-continent. More subtly, in a scene that shows the swearing-in of the naval recruits it can be seen that the largest book to hand is a bible. The film endorses, and is endorsed by, authority. An early title card proudly informs us that the documentary was ‘made with the co-operation of Vice-Admiral Herbert Fitzherbert’. The Vice-Admiral also makes an appearance in the film, concluding a sequence that offers the most blatant display of hierarchical power. In ascending order the naval recruits are shown the various badges of rank, as well as those who wear them . Each of the senior officers that we see is British.

J.B.H. Wadia’s documentaries received greater acknowledgement from British authorities than they did from Indian Nationalists. In 1942 the British government awarded him the MBE. However, despite his long commitment to the film industry, Wadia received no formal honours from the Indian government.

Richard Osborne (September 2009)


Works Cited

Garga, B. D., From Raj to Swaraj: The Non-fiction Film in India (New Delhi: Penguin, 2007).

Jackson, Ashley, The British Empire and the Second World War (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2006).

Mulugundam, S., ‘A History of the Documentary’, (2002) http://dspace.vidyanidhi.org.in:8080/dspace/bitstream/2009/853/4/UOH-2002-203-3.pdf).

Roy, Srirupa, ‘Moving pictures: The postcolonial state and visual representations of India’, Contributions to Indian sociology, 36/1-2 (New Delhi and London: Sage Publications, 2002), 233-263.

Wadia Movietone Archive (2003) http://www.wadiamovietone.com/.

Young, Desmond, ‘Publicity through Films’, letter 29 October 1940, India Office Records, file L/I/1/684 – Films for Publicity Purposes General File 1939 and 1940.




Technical Data

Running Time:
12 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
1147 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
assistant cameraman
Shankar, C M (BSc)
Radcliffe Genge, G
Pathy, P V (Dr)
Subrahmaniam, P
Production company
Wadia Movietone
sound recordist
Tata, Burjore M