This film is held by the BFI (ID: 21446).


Story of two workers, Ramdas and Mangri, in an Indian tea garden and description of Indian village life in Assam.

Bullock carts arrive at the market of Lakhmijian ('Garden of the River Goddess') near the Assam River where Naga tribesmen come down from the hills to trade with tea-garden workers. Tribesman in traditional dress, carrying loads wrapped with dried palm fronds. Workers cross bamboo bridge over river. Ramdas bathes in the river, then brings a duck wrapped in a sling on a pole to the market in order to sell it and buy a present for his fiancée Mangri. Mangri returns home from work. Scenes of home life. She leaves home along a jungle path with a load of laundry to wash in the river. Ramdas hunts birds with a bow and arrow. Peasants in the background preparing paddy dykes. He stalks and shoots a bird, later presenting it with beads to Mangri. Ramdas uses home-made pigments to paint his whitewashed walls with with pictures of birds and flowers to commemorate the marriage. Scenes of marriage-proposal journey by Ramdas and his family to Mangri's home, being received on low stools and offered betel-nut 'pans' whilst discussing dowry (two goats, clothes and silver jewellery) and the wedding date. The wedding. Guests gathering under a canopy in bride's home, depositing gifts (a lantern and a brass plate) as drums beat a pipers play. The bride adorns herself for the ceremony and is then borne in seated in a basket. The bridegroom, in elaborate head-dress daubs a spot on the bride's forehead whilst their gowns are tied together. They return to work accompanied by Indian folk songs. At night Mangri prepares an evening meal and is examined by the mid-wife. A 'garden hospital' where Mangri gives birth whilst the rest of the family bring in the harvest. Ramdas visits a silversmith, whom we see smelting and beating out metal, and buys a gift for the baby. Ramdas visits mother and child and adorns the latter with a silver necklace. Mother and child return to the tea-garden, where the baby lies on a mat whilst his mother picks tea. The narration says that these are the inheritors of the bounty of the land of the River Goddess.



A String of Beads: A Tea Garden Idyll was produced on the cusp of independence in India: work on the film began in 1946/47 and it was released in 1948. The film was made by Greenpark Productions. which developed as a major producer of  government and corporate films during the Second World War. This film was made for the National Tea Board, the commission coming via the Film Producers Guild, a consortium body that channelled industrial film commissions to its member companies (Russell). According to Patrick Russell and James Piers Taylor, the film, alongside Cyprus is an Island (1946) and Three Dawns to Sydney (1948) ‘set the pattern for Greenpark’s post-war production: lyrical and literate, award-winning, international and essentially apolitical’ (Russell and Taylor, 2010, 44).

The film has a respected production crew. It was directed by Ralph Keene, one of the foremost documentary filmmakers of the 1940s and Managing Director of Greenpark. It was edited by John Trumper, who would later edit The Italian Job (1969) and Get Carter (1971). Its score was created by Elisabeth Lutyens, the noted modernist composer and the first female composer to score a British feature film (Huckvale, 2008, 54), as well as a prolific composer for documentaries. And its script was written by Laurie Lee, who had earlier worked with Keene on Cyprus is an Island, a film that Greenpark produced for the Ministry of Information. (Lee was one of several noted British authors, including Dylan Thomas and H.E. Bates, to have been employed by Greenpark.)

A String of Beads did not garner the same attention as the earlier Lee/Keene collaboration. While Cyprus is an Island was praised as being ‘possibly the best documentary of the quarter’ by Sight and Sound (Spring 1947, 42) and brought forth the book We Made a Film in Cyprus (1947) by Lee and Keene, A String of Beads received lesser notice, although it was reviewed positively by the Monthly Film Bulletin, who regarded it as being suitable for adults, adolescents and family audiences (MFB, 30 April 1948, 44). There also remains some confusion about the production. Peter Noble states that Lee and Keene travelled to India in 1946 to make the film (Noble, 1959, 161), but Richard Barsam believes – presumably erroneously – that Keene shot the film in Ceylon (Barsam, 1992, 244).

Lee’s commentary locates the film in Assam, the largest tea-growing region in India and the only region of the sub-continent where tea is an indigenous plant. The first British tea plantations in Assam were created in the 1830s, with production relying on imported, and originally indentured, labour.  Most of the early workers came from nearby Bengal and they faced appalling conditions, both on their journeys to Assam and in the plantations. Rox Moxham has calculated that by 1900 over 200,000 acres of tea had been planted at the cost of ‘several hundred thousand’ Indian lives (Moxham, 2003, 153). Workers were tied to employment on the estates for contract periods of 3-5 years; the estates were guarded; and flogging of men and women ‘was almost ubiquitous’ (Moxham, 2003, 136, 143, 144).



A String of Beads has various aims. One is to present employment conditions on the tea estates as being humane and benevolent; another is to show that the estates are productive and well run. However, the method chosen to present these aims – depicting life in Assam as ‘a tea-garden idyll’ – makes them somewhat difficult to reconcile.

To create their idyll the filmmakers chose to focus on a series of key events in the lives of a young couple, Ramdas and Mangri: their courtship, their marriage, and the birth of their first child. To this end workers of the tea estate are employed in acting roles; the Monthly Film Bulletin praised the lead couple for being ‘completely unselfconscious’ and also commended the ‘charm and humour’ of the enactment of the story (MFB, 30 April 1948, 44). Their rituals are sensitively portrayed and are covered in some detail. The film explains the negotiations that are involved leading up to the marriage, and the crew apparently worked hard to make the wedding appear ‘authentic’, as only members of the same caste could be filmed together in these scenes (MFB, 30 April 1948, 44). The film also benefits from the production talents of its crew. It is skilfully shot, for example employing panning movements that move from landscapes towards individuals, thus mirroring the story’s progression from the general to the personal; Lutyens music is sympathetic, using both Indian and western art music idioms to dramatise the story; and Laurie Lee’s script provides deeper characterisation than always to be expected of sponsored films.

Ramdas and Mangri’s story provides opportunities to show the foresight of the employers, in particular in revealing the maternity provisions on the estate. The pastoral bliss of the young couple and the role of the tea estate are not always so easily brought together, however. In fact, to depict an idyll the tea-garden sometimes has to be removed. In the opening scenes we first see Ramdas beyond its bounds, buying his string of beads at the local market; we are told that ‘all the morning is his, all the river is’. The couple’s initial meeting also takes place at a distance from the estate’s compound. We see Mandri at the end of her working day journeying away from the cultivated tea-gardens, ‘through the living colours of her country’, to the wilderness of the jungle, where Ramdas is shown hunting a bird; when they come across each other Ramdas makes a gift of his beads to her: ‘the hunter has found his prize’.

The film also has a need to depict the work of the estate, and here it is surprisingly frank in showing how the young couple’s lives are circumscribed. The morning after their wedding we are informed that ‘the short, sharp holiday is over and Ramdas and Mandri awake to their new life, which is their old life, their life of work and wages’. Similarly, after their child’s birth they soon return to the gardens, accompanied by ‘the first of their family’, who is lain on a blanket as they return to work. While they are depicted as being happy in their employment, the film has no qualms about underlining their endeavour, admitting that Mandri’s ‘body is tired, her fingers are stained from the green leaves’. But who are they working for? The film removes almost all traces of white people from its depiction of the estate (there is just one senior white worker present, captured in the distance in a large group scene). Elsewhere, Indian workers are shown in senior positions, and there is an interesting scene in which workers are shown receiving their pay and bowing in gratitude to someone who remains out of shot.

Is there a larger metaphor at work in this film? It was made as India moved from being a colony to being a commonwealth country, achieving independence but still linked economically to Britain. Here the workers on the tea estates are shown to have assumed control over certain aspects of their own lives – the film concludes with its shots of the young family in the tea garden, stating that ‘they are its children and its inheritors’ – they are nevertheless shown as being reassuringly hardworking, loyal and productive.

Richard Osborne (June 2010)


Works Cited

‘A String of Beads’, Monthly Film Bulletin, 15/172 (30 April 1948), 44.

Barsam, Richard Meran, Nonfiction Film: A Critical History (Indiana University Press, 1992).

‘Cyprus is an Island’, Sight and Sound, 16/61 (Spring 1947), 42.

Huckvale, David, Hammer Film Scores and the Musical Avant-garde (London: McFarland, 2008).

Lee, Laurie, and Ralph Keene, We Made a Film in Cyprus (London, New York, Toronto: Longmans Green and Co., 1947).

Moxham, Roy, Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire (London: Robinson, 2003).

Noble, Peter, The British Film Yearbook: Volumes 1947-1948 (British Yearbooks, 1959).

Russell, Patrick, British Petroleum Films, Screenonline,

Russell, Patrick, and Taylor, James Pier, Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain (London: Palgrave / BFI, 2010).




Technical Data

Running Time:
27 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
3000 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
KEENE, Ralph
KEENE, Ralph
LEE, Laurie
National Tea Board
Assistant Editor
Assistant Photographer
FADER, Teddy
Assistant Photographer
cast member
cast member
LUTYENS, Elisabeth
Music Director
STILL, George
Production Company
Film Producers Guild
Production Company
Greenpark Productions