This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: CIN 201).


A tribute to the Indian troops who had fought in the Libyan campaign.

Over film of Indian troops marching near Pyramids, commentator speaks of Indians serving in many areas overseas but especially in Libya: this leads into General Auchinleck who (speaking to the camera) talks of the quality of the soldiers under him. A brief sequence on training (Carriers and Bren guns) with praise of Indians for quick learning followed by shots of despatch riders, convoy moving to new positions, pitching camp, digging trenches, digging out lorry stuck in sand, air raid alert. Some (newsreel, not very well reprinted) action and advance material followed by more shots of marching soldiers (with occasional close ups) and film of Italian prisoners. "Fighting for the Empire, and reasonableness, and decency... They may have setbacks, but they will triumph".


Remarks: fair only.



In July 1940, the Film Advisory Board (FAB) was constituted to oversee the production of propaganda films in India. Organised by the Government of India, the FAB was comprised primarily of leading figures of the Indian film industry. The production of films was partly funded by the British government’s Ministry of Information (MoI), who therefore had a say in the appointment of staff (Woods, 2001, 297). Disappointed with the quality of early FAB films, the MoI suggested that a British documentary expert should supervise production (Garga, 2007, 66-67). Alex Shaw, a filmmaker of some standing, was duly selected and arrived in India in late 1940.

Although Shaw succeeded in improving the quality of the FAB’s films, he resigned after only 10 months in the post, claiming that this was ‘partly on personal grounds, partly because he was not accepted by the Indian industry’ (Garga, 2007, 80). His appointment had been widely criticised in the Indian movie press, and Shaw further believed that the Indian members of the FAB had wanted his efforts to fail (Garga, 2007, 69-70; Woods, 2001, 301). B.D. Garga argues that ‘Shaw was the right man for the job but had arrived at the wrong time’ (Garga, 2007, 70-71). His term in India coincided with a period of nationalist civil disobedience. Shaw had wanted to make films that addressed the political situation, but found little desire on anybody’s part for films about the situation and certainly not for those made by a British filmmaker.

Shaw produced 13 original documentary films while in India, a high proportion of which report on military matters. Defenders of India was edited by Pratap Parmar, who Shaw described as the ‘mainstay of the Unit’ (Garga, 2007, 73); it was ‘recorded’ at the film studios of Bombay Talkies, whose Rai Bahadur Chunilal was a member of the FAB. The film covers the Indian troops who fought in the Libyan campaign, the first campaign in World War II in which Indian troops had a fighting role. Ashley Jackson has stated that at the outbreak of the War the Indian Army was a ‘dated force’ (Jackson, 2006, 364). In his terms, modernisation started ‘perilously late’ (Jackson, 2006, 364). The number of Indian soldiers expanded rapidly, however, from around 200,000 men in 1939 to around 900,000 by the end of 1941 (Jackson, 2006, 363). It was in January 1941 that Sir Claude Auchinleck, who provides the foreword to this film, was created Commander-in-Chief of India.

Shaw wished to introduce a more subtle and less authoritarian form of war propaganda to the FAB, but could not go as far as he desired. While he believed that propaganda should be ‘concealed as far as possible’ (Garga, 2007, 71), J.B.H. Wadia, chairman of the FAB, called for ‘direct war propaganda in our films’ (Garga, 2007, 72). Wadia argued that, as the films were aimed at a predominantly illiterate Indian audience, they needed to be told in a ‘straight-from-the-shoulder manner’ (Garga, 2007, 72). In India the FAB filmswere dubbed into several languages, and were circulated to the country’s 200 English-language cinemas and 1,000 Indian-language cinemas. They were also distributed, via mobile cinema vans, to the vast rural population who provided the main source of military recruits (Woods, 2001, 299)

Shaw’s remit was further complicated by the differing aims of the Government of India and the MoI. The former body was chiefly concerned with the reception of the FAB’s films in India, whereas the MoI was interested in their reception beyond the sub-continent (Woods, 2001, 298-99). The MoI wanted the films be shown in Britain, in other Empire countries, and also in the USA. These separate markets brought further confusion about how the War cause should be portrayed.

In the USA and Britain the Shaw-era FAB films were usually only accorded a non-theatrical release. Nevertheless, according to MoI figures, Defenders of India had been shown to 180,000 people by March 1943 (Leach, 22 March 1943). The MoI also remarked upon the improved standard of FAB’s films, although noting that their ‘weak point’ remained their commentaries (Leach, 22 March 1943). Meanwhile, R.R. Ford, film officer for the British Library of Information of New York, regarded Defenders of India and an accompanying film The Handymen asrepresenting a ‘great advance’ on earlier films. However, in accordance with his desire that British officers be ‘kept out of the picture’, the footage of Auchinleck was excised from the film for its American release (Ford, 15 October 1941). 



Perhaps understandably, given the circumstances surrounding the creation of the film, Defenders of India is pulled in a number of directions. The film’s geographical perspective shifts: both in terms of the countries that it focuses on, and in regard to those that it is addresses. The background to the film is the contribution of India’s troops to the Libyan campaign: Auchinleck begins his foreword by recalling ‘the great part played by Indian troops in the defeat of Italy in Africa’, and the film concludes with borrowed footage of this campaign. The bulk of Defenders of India is filmed in Egypt – regularly illustrated by using pyramids as a backdrop – and deals with the training of Indian troops. However, a more important geographical location is the one that is mentioned in the film’s title. Although these troops are working abroad, they are ‘defenders of India’. In his address, Auchinleck argues that ‘These Indian troops who are fighting in the Middle East, and those other Indian troops which are standing on guard in the Far East, are protecting India: they are keeping the war at a distance from India’s shores’.

In this respect, the film is addressed to potential Indian recruits. Furthering this drive, the soldiers are portrayed as being noble (the camera often looks upwards, framing individual soldiers against clear Egyptian skies), ordered (the film opens and closes with marching Indian troops) and efficient (there is detailed footage of the soldiers undertaking various parts of their training). The soldiers also receive many words of praise: they are described as being ‘aspiring’ and ‘brave’ and of showing ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘enterprise’. This boosting of the Indian soldier serves other purposes. The film is also addressed to those beyond the sub-continent, as indicated by the regular use of the word ‘they’ to describe the Indians who appear on screen. The film wishes to reassure soldiers in other parts of the Empire of the ability and comradeship of Indian troops. Auchinleck talks of the ‘reputation which they have gained amongst their fellow soldiers from all parts of the commonwealth who are fighting side-by-side with them’. There is a repeated stress that the soldiers’ training and their equipment are now up to speed. The film closes with rapidly cut images of equipped Indians, matched by rapid-fire commentary: ‘these are the men: the men of the tanks, the men of the lorries, the men of the Bren guns, the men of the rifles’. British officers are shown to be in command. As well as the notable intrusion of Auchinleck (who is filmed in his office, sat behind his desk), there are recurring scenes at the training camp in which the British officers orchestrate activities. In this respect, the American audience does not appear to have been the filmmakers’ main concern.

The filmmakers have made fair use of the materials to hand. The borrowed footage of the Libyan campaign does not contain many shots of Indian troops, and so the main activity takes place in the training camp. Although this gives the filmmakers the freedom to frame the soldiers and their training as desired, the film does suffer from a lack of action. Some dynamism is achieved by filming scenes from several perspectives and by constructing a narrative that links the activities together. However, the commentary, which is spoken in an upper-class British accent, is overly dramatic and frequently sounds ridiculous (for example, ‘it is no picnic – it is war!’, said to the accompaniment of a tent being erected). It falls to the commentary to attempt to reconcile the film’s multiple aims: ‘These are the men who, fighting for the Empire, and reasonableness and decency, are defending their homeland’. No matter what its perspective, this is a film in which bombastic propaganda wins out over subtlety.

Richard Osborne (February 2010)


Works Cited

Ford, R.R. (Film Officer, British Library of Information, NY), letter to J. Hennessey (Principal Information Officer, Bureau of Public Information, Home Department, Government of India), 15 October 1941 [document in India Office materials held at the British Library. File: L/I/1/691 ‘Films from India’].

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).

Leach, F. Burton (India Section, Empire Division, MoI), letter to J.F. Gennings (India Office, Whitehall), 22 March 1943 [document in India Office materials held at the British Library. File: L/I/1/692 ‘Films – India’].

Woods, Philip, ‘From Shaw to Shantaram’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 21/3 (August 2001), 293-308.




Technical Data

Running Time:
8 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
757 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Film Advisory Board of India
Stimson, Robert
film editor
Parmar, Pratap
introduction ("with foreword by")
Auchinleck, Claude (General)
Shaw, Alexander
Production company
Indian Film Unit