This film is held by the BFI (ID: 20049).


The manufacture of kerosene tins in an Indian factory.

Opening shot of palm trees and bullock cart carrying kerosene tins (62). Villages using empty tins for carrying water from the river, flattening the tins out and lining the roofs of village huts, cutting the metal up, bazaar where the empty tins are used as food containers (124). Newly-finished tins coming off a conveyor belt (140). Stages in manufacture shown - tinplates stacked up, the plates are trimmed and hemmed (245). Lettering is marked and embossed on each plate. Each plates then bent into a right angle to form two sides of a tin (266). The two bent pieces are joined to form the body of the tin (317). The bottom and the top of the tin are then made and joined to the body (384). The seams are tightened and soldered (476). A handle is made and attached to the tin by hand (541). Finished tins passing along a conveyor belt (561). Tins containing kerosene being sold in bazaars, lamps filled with oil (593). Bullock cart carrying tins (666ft)



Tins for India (1941) is credited as being a ‘Burmah-Shell Production’. The two leading oil suppliers in India, the British-owned Burmah Oil company and the Dutch and British venture Royal Dutch Shell, formed a joint marketing operation for the sub-continent in 1928. It is, however, the hallmarks of the Shell Film Unit that are evident in this short film. Founded in 1934, the Shell Film Unit has been described as being ‘the most highly regarded documentary unit based within a private corporation’ (Russell). As with the majority of films made by Shell in its earlier years, Tins for India carries no writer credit, a factor that Stuart Legg attributes to the company’s belief ‘in the primacy of the visual’ (Legg, 1954, 210). A significant proportion of Shell’s documentaries were released to cinemas, as well as non-theatrically. Tins for Indiawas reviewed in the Monthly Film Bulletin with regard to its suitability as an educational film (MFB, 1942, 139).

The Shell Film Unit has been noted for its employment of talented filmmakers. Tins for India is one of the early directorial works of Bimal Roy, who would later play a leading part in India’s social-realist ‘Parallel Cinema’ movement and who is now regarded as having been one of Indian cinema’s greatest directors. Tins for India was made prior to Roy’s feature film directorial debut, and was produced at Calcutta’s New Theatre Studios where he had gained his first film employment as an assistant cameraman (‘Bimal Roy – The Silent Master (1909-1966)’). New Theatres was formed in 1931 by producer B. N. Sircar and prior to World War II had established itself as one of India’s most creative film companies, known primarily for its output of ‘wholesome, home spun films, enriched with melodies’ (Mishra).

It has not been possible to discern whether Tins for India was distributed in the sub-continent as well as in the UK. The film’s Indian production and the fact that it was reviewed in the British press nevertheless illustrate the international nature of the oil trade. Burmah Oil was a major shareholder in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now one of the roots of British Petroleum (BP)) and confined its operations to the Indian sub-continent where this company had no business interests. During the period of British rule the company had a monopoly on oil production in Burma. In India, Burmah Oil and Shell had established control of the market via a system of controlled prices for kerosene (Jones, 1979, 370). G. C. Jones has argued that the price agreements ‘almost certainly led to prices in India being higher than they should have been’ (1979, 371).



The Monthly Film Bulletin noted that Tins for India is ‘An advertising film in which the advertisement is rather obtrusive’ (MFB, 1942, 139). However, although oil production is prominent in the film, Tins for India shares the tangential qualities of many of Shell’s other promotional shorts. Here it is the production of oil containers and not oil itself that forms the major subject matter. Moreover, the film is ostensibly concerned with the afterlife of the tin cans and not with their use for oil.

In this respect the film presents the activities of Burmah-Shell in a benign light. The tin cans purchased for oil go on to have a freely available ‘useful purpose’ once they have been emptied. They are shown being used as water containers, being flattened to make tiles for a roof, being cut into various articles (including lamps that will later contain oil), and being used as storage units by shopkeepers. The bulk of the film strives to show why the tins are so serviceable. In considered detail each stage of the tins’ construction is shown. This segment serves as a subtle advertisement for the dependability of the products of Burmah-Shell: ‘The durability and strength of these tins is known to every villager’.

The film is notable for the different ways in which it portrays its scenes of life in India and those of the construction of tins in the factory. Here, in keeping with the Shell Film Unit’s policy, it is primarily the use of images that conveys this difference and not the film’s dialogue. The film chooses to focus on rural India, described as ‘the real India’, for its representation of the sub-continent. This sets up an obvious contrast with the mechanised construction shown in the factory. The scenes of rural India are linked by a series of cross-fades and the opening and closing segments of village life are circular. The opening three scenes – of a bullock cart travelling on a road, a raft heading downstream, and a man carrying water containers - are shown in reverse order at the close. Their patterning is also reversed, where the participants had crossed the screen in one direction in the opening they go the other way at the close. Each of these devices helps to give the impression that rural life is eternal and unchanging. In addition, the cyclical construction of the film mirrors the endless recycling of the tin can.

The scenes in the factory are filmed in the opposite manner. Here the sharp rhythm of the machines is matched by the use of sudden cuts in the film rather than cross-fades. Moreover, the story line is linear. Despite the fact that production of tins is ongoing, the film chooses to focus on the construction process of a can from start to finish. It gives the impression that we have witnessed the speedy construction of a tin occurring in real time. Some of these images are cut so that they cast opposing diagonals across the screen, in others a predominantly horizontal image will be followed by one that has strong verticals. This enhances the rhythmic effect and helps to reinforce the sense of industrial dynamism.

The film could be said to be offering a standardised contrast between the ancient ways of rural India and the mechanised efficiency that Europeans have introduced. Yet it is noticeable that all the workers shown in the factory are Indian; there is no white overseer. Moreover, although the primary focus is on the tin can as it evolves among the web of conveyor belts, the film does also provide some studied portraits of the Indians at work. They are also shown to be skilled operators, rather than as cogs in the machines.

Richard Osborne (October 2009)


Works Cited

‘Bimal Roy – The Silent Master (1909-1966)’, http://www.bimalroymemorial.org/broy.php.

Jones, G. C., ‘The State and Economic Development in India 1890-1947: The Case of Oil’, Modern Asian Sudies, 13/3 (1979), 353-75.

Legg, Stuart, ‘Shell Film Unit: Twenty One Years’, Sight and Sound, 23/4 (April/June 1954), 209-11.

Mishra, Ambrish, ‘Days of Glory: A Flashback to the New Theatres Studio’, http://www.downmelodylane.com/article_general_glory.html.

Russell, Patrick, ‘Shell Film Unit (1934-)’, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/513754/index.html.

‘Tins for India’, Monthly Film Bulletin, 9:97 (1942), 139.




Technical Data

Running Time:
8 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film
700 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
ROY, Bimal
ROY, Bimal
Production Company
New Theatres
Production Company