This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: CIN 202).


The work and training of the (Royal Bombay) Sappers and Miners; film stresses the military importance of their work as the "lifeline of the army" and the value to the men of their acquired skills once the war is over.

Film is introduced by shots of the advance on Tobruk: Indian Sappers and Miners are then shown doing PT to music; river crossing (in portable assault boats, then building a ferry with collapsible pontoons); washing and eating; a school for troops' children; the men themselves receive instruction (eg pneumatic drill, sign painting, welding, brick making and laying, carpentry, printing, surveying and all sorts of metal-working); road building (with new machinery); digging a railway cutting; practice in "digging in" slit-trench system, sandbag shelters, and dugouts; and bridging a river bed with a girder bridge.


Remarks: quite good.



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 film 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 at his post, claiming that this was ‘partly on personal grounds, partly because he was not accepted by the Indian industry’ (Garga, 2007, 80). The appointment of a British expert 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). During his period in charge, Shaw included more Indian personnel in the making of films, as reflected by The Handymen, which uses an Indian editor and cameramen, and employs an Indian narrator for its English-language version (Woods, 2001, 294). His term in India coincided with a period of widespread civil disobedience, during which Indian nationalists were refusing to co-operate with the government. Shaw wanted to make films that addressed the political situation, but was refused permission by the Government of India (Woods, 2001, 301). He later was of the opinion that, because the FAB was ‘set up by the British to help create a favourable climate of opinion at a time when the Indian mind was entirely set on independence’, it was ‘not only frivolous but also irrelevant’ (Garga, 2007, 68).

Of the 13 original documentary films that Shaw produced for the FAB a high proportion concern military matters. The Handymen focuses on the work of the Bombay Sappers and Miners, a regiment of the Corps of Engineers in the Indian Army. Tracing their origins back to the late eighteenth century, the Bombay Sappers and Miners served the British in numerous military operations both in India and abroad. In World War II they saw action in Malaya, Singapore, Burma, Abyssinia, Eritrea, North Africa, Syria, Italy and Greece.

The Handymen serves varied propaganda purposes. On the one hand, it encourages further military recruitment. On the other hand, it argues for the benefits of British rule in India. Here the propaganda is not only aimed at Indian audiences. Whereas the Government of India was chiefly concerned with the reception of the FAB’s films in India itself, the MoI was interested in the audience beyond the sub-continent (Woods, 2001, 298-99). Britain was anxious to ensure US support for the War, and consequently the FAB’s films are sensitive to American opinion about Imperial rule. R.R. Ford, of the British Library of Information in New York, had warned that ‘The fundamental problem is the unfortunate fact that very little, if anything, that a British person says about Indian affairs is believed here’ (Garga, 2007, 77). He therefore encouraged the production of films in which ‘Indians should be shown as often as possible in self-responsible duties, with British officers kept out of the picture’ (Ford, 15 October 1941).

Ford regarded The Handymen and another Shaw film, Defenders of India, as representing a ‘great advance’ upon early FAB films. Although neither film was deemed suitable for cinematic release in America, he endorsed their nationwide non-theatrical distribution (Ford, 15 October 1941). Similarly, the MoI thought that the Shaw-era films were of an improved standard, and in Britain, as well as the ‘Empire territories and neutral countries’, The Handymen received non-theatrical release (Leach, 22 March 1943). The MoI estimated that 1700,000 people had witnessed the film via its cinema units by March 1943 (Leach, 22 March 1943). Like other FAB films, The Handymen was dubbed into several languages and was circulated as widely in India as possible. It was distributed to the 200 English-language cinemas; the 1,000 Indian-language cinemas; and, via mobile cinema vans, to the vast rural population who provided the main source of military recruits (Woods, 2001, 299).



Reflecting its varied audiences, The Handymen serves several, overlapping purposes. It wishes to convey the contribution of Indian servicemen to the War cause; it wishes to encourage more Indian recruits; and it wishes to convey the progressive nature of British imperial rule to an American audience.

The film opens with borrowed footage of the advance on Tobruk. This serves two needs. On the one hand, its stresses the Indian contribution to an advance by an ‘army of the British Empire’. On the other hand, it introduces the particular contribution of the Sappers and Miners. We learn of ‘an enemy almost worse than the Italians’, and are informed that this is ‘the sand’. The role of the Sappers and Miners – the army’s ‘handymen’ - is to use their engineering skills to get the forces past such physical barriers.

The Sappers and Miners are then cleverly introduced on screen. While the commentary argues that it is their work that lies ‘behind the story of the smash-up of Mussolini’s African Empire’, we witness them performing synchronised exercises at a training camp in India. This emphasises both their non-combative role, and their readinessfor the job ahead. This sequence shows Indians conducting the training. British influence is also in evidence, however: the soldiers are shown exercising to an orchestra that plays western classic music on western instrumentation.

This sequence also sets the tone stylistically. It features shots of the men operating together as a team, interspersed with individual portraits of the soldiers –a pattern that will be repeated throughout the rest of the film. It also introduces us two soldiers who are named and who periodically feature in the following segments. As such, the subsequent action is personalised.

Shaw argued for a more subtle form of propaganda than the FAB’s films had hitherto displayed. To this end, the film aims to entice recruits, not by stressing the danger of the enemy, but instead by illustrating the benefits of army life. It combines footage of the skills that the men employ in the field (boat building, bridge and road construction), with the pleasures that their training camp has to offer (food, recreation, education). Its main emphasis, however, is on the trades that they are being taught for ‘when they return to civil life’ (engineering, construction, train driving). Here, British-backed instruction is portrayed in the most positive light.

The Handymen appears to be more progressive in its portrayal of Indian military personnel than the contemporary FAB film Defenders of India. In The Handymen, unlike Defenders of India, there is no footage showing the British officers in command; instead Indian soldiers are depicted operating in a self-contained unit. Moreover, there is less use of the divisive word ‘they’ to describe the Indian soldiers on screen; instead the language is more inclusive: ‘we’re going to show you’. Nevertheless, it must be considered to what extent this editorial policy was determined by American, rather than Indian taste. To best relay British achievements in the sub-continent R.R. Ford had requested films that show the ‘improved social services instituted by the British and with Indians responsible for operational control’ (Garga, 2007, 77-78). The Handymen duly complies.

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).

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.



  • the HANDYMEN

Technical Data

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

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Film Advisory Board of India
Bodhye, Jinaraja
Patel, Gordonbhai
Talyarkhan, A F S
film editor
Parmar, Pratap
Production company
Indian Film Unit
Production company
National Studios