Information Films of India

B. D. Garga has described the Indian documentary film as being ‘a war baby, conceived by the British and nurtured by the Indians’ (Garga, 1987, 26). This dual parentage provided the Indian documentary with an unusual and often fraught gestation.

At the beginning of the Second World War the British government’s Ministry of Information (MoI) noted its two main objectives for Indian documentary film: to promote War propaganda within India itself, and to portray a positive image of British rule of India to audiences abroad (Garga, 2007, 62). The person initially in charge of reconciling these aims was Desmond Young, who had been employed by the Government of India as its chief press advisor at the outbreak of War. Despite being a film novice, Young was enthusiastic about his task. He believed that film was the ideal medium to extend Indian military recruitment ‘beyond the so-called “martial classes”’ (Garga, 2007, 63). Young first turned to British advertising agencies operating in India to oversee his propaganda films, believing that ‘it was their business to know about selling through pictures’ (Garga, 2007, 63). These agencies nevertheless turned to established Indian film studios to help with the documentaries’ production.

In early 1940 Young showed his first batch of films to the MoI. Among them were He’s in the Navy (1940, Wadia Movietone), which showed the recruitment of naval cadets, and Planes of Hindustan (1940, Wadia Movietone), which detailed the activities of the Indian Air Force. These films were quickly made and were rudimentary in the extreme. Young conceded that ‘Since there has been no demand for documentary shorts in this country in the past, direction is somewhat amateurish’ (Young). The MoI found them ‘interesting’, but not of sufficient quality for distribution abroad (Garga, 2007, 64). In India, Young found that dubbing the films into the country’s major languages was ‘comparatively simple’, but getting them shown in cinemas that usually only showed Indian-language films provided a more difficult problem (Young).

It was this situation that led to the creation of the Film Advisory Board (FAB), which was formed on 4 July 1940. Between them, the FAB’s members controlled ‘all the principal circuits in India’ (Young). This situation led to complaints from the Indian press that the organisation operated as a mutually beneficial cartel (Garga, 2007, 69). It was the FAB’s remit to put before the Indian public ‘films of interesting war subjects and others of informatory value’ (Garga, 2007, 65). Several of the FAB’s members, including its first chairman, J.B.H. Wadia, were nationalists, but they were willing to make films that supported British war aims. Srirupa Roy believes that for some of them providing this support was a ‘tactical manoeuvre’, as they believed it would help ‘the long term goal of national independence to be secured’ (Roy, 2002, 239).

Despite the formation of the FAB, the MoI remained unconvinced that quality documentaries could be produced in India (Garga, 2007, 66). As a result the noted British documentary producer and director, Alexander Shaw, was despatched to the sub-continent to head a film production unit, set up under the aegis of the FAB. During his period in charge Shaw employed some talented Indian filmmakers, including Partap Parmar and Ezra Mir; he also succeeded in improving the quality of the films produced. Among the 13 short documentary films he was responsible for were Defenders of India (1941), covering the contribution of Indian soldiers to the Libyan campaign, and The Handymen (1941), which outlined the work of the Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners.

Shaw had to reconcile a number of conflicting demands. While he had wished to introduce a more subtle form of propaganda to his films, others at the FAB demanded that the films be made simple in order to address the illiterate among the Indian audience (Garga, 2007, 71-72). Moreover, he also had to satisfy both an Indian audience and the audience abroad. During his period in charge the funding and the choice of subject matter of the FAB productions were split jointly between the Government of India and the MoI (Woods, 2001, 298). Philip Woods has noted that, caught between these two camps, ‘The films have none of the verve and imagination of the best British official propaganda films of the Second World War, but neither do they have a distinctive indigenous quality’ (Woods, 2001, 304). While several of Shaw’s films were shown in Britain and distributed to other Empire countries, they were less readily accepted in America. R.R. Ford, the films officer for the British Library of Information of New York, noted that Defenders of India and The Handymen represented a ‘great advance’ on earlier films, but he still felt that they were only suitable for non-theatrical distribution (Ford). He also noted 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, 78).

There was a further problem. As Garga states, ‘Shaw was the right man for the job but had arrived at the wrong time’ (Garga, 2007, 70-71). He arrived in India in the winter of 1940, a time of nationalist civil disobedience. Shaw later noted that the fact that his film unit 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 made it not only frivolous but also irrelevant’ (Garga, 2007, 68). He resigned from his post on 21 October 1941, two months before the expiry of his contract. A telegram from the Department of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India, to the Secretary of State for India reveals that the ‘Reason was partly personal and partly connected with his work’. It goes on to explain that ‘Neither Shaw nor his wife liked the country and the latter did not keep fit in Bombay. Shaw rightly felt that he was not getting all the co-operation he expected from members of Film Advisory Board that the Producer being an Englishman was resented and that his having been specially drafted from England to teach them production of documentaries aroused professional jealousy’ (Govt of India, Dept of Information & Broadcasting). On his return to Britain, Shaw was outspoken in his criticism, stating that ‘The unit had to function under the control of the FAB who were determined that it should fail because all the bitterest and the most interested parties sat on the Board’ (Cinetechnician, cited in Garga, 2007, 80). Wadia responded that this was a ‘positively un-British . . . slanderous attack’ (Woods, 2001, 301).

Understandably, the Department of Information & Broadcasting thought it ‘desirable to get an Indian Director in Shaw’s place’ (Govt of India, Dept of Information & Broadcasting). They selected V. Shantaram, a director working for the Prabhat Film Company, hoping his appointment would ‘mollify Indian public opinion and secure hearty co-operation of Producers’ (Govt of India, Dept of Information & Broadcasting). Santaram’s period in charge coincided with a time of deeper nationalist unrest in India. India’s leading political party, the Indian National Congress, rejected the mission of the British politician Stafford Cripps, who had promised Dominion status for India, and instead embarked upon the open rebellion of the ‘Quit India’ campaign. During this period most of the FAB’s films were produced for non-theatrical distribution in India: the Government of India felt ‘compelled owing to the political situation to give preference to producing films for local display’ (Leach).

As the political situation within India intensified, and the threat of a Japanese attack became more real, the Indian government chose to take increased control of film propaganda. Their first step was to disband the FAB, and put in its place a ‘production and distribution manager appointed by Government’ (letter from P.N. Thapar, Secretary to the Government of India, 5 January 1943, cited in Garga, 2007, 94). The members of the FAB board tended their resignations on 18 January 1943, and two months later the government launched their replacement organisation, Information Films of India (IFI). The Indian government then introduced specific legislation for the industry. On 15 May 1943, they issued an order under Rule 44A of the Defence of India Act, making it mandatory for every exhibitor in India to include in each programme one or more films approved by the government, this material providing a minimum running time of twenty minutes. This order became effective on 15 September 1943, coinciding with the launch of the government’s own newsreel, Indian News Parade. The government justified this measure on the grounds that only about a third of Indian cinemas had been showing their official films; they believed that ‘Films in a country like India with the majority of its population illiterate are one of the most potent mediums of education and it was thought inadvisable not to tap this medium to its fullest possibilities (‘Note for Cut Motion’). A further measure was taken on 17 July 1943, when the government introduced a licensing system, which placed an embargo on the production of any unauthorised film. With these measures in place, the number of official productions increased. The FAB had produced films at the rate of twenty-seven per year; by 1944 the IFI had doubled this output (Garga, 2007, 108).

Ezra Mir, stalwart of FAB productions, was chosen to head IFI. Rule 44A had been specific that official films should develop ‘the right kind of war-mindedness’ (Defence of India Rule: 44A. Control of Cinematograph Exhibitions’). Mir responded by creating films such as Hillmen Go To War (1944), which details the enlistment of the men from Himachal Pradesh in north-west India. He nevertheless also wished to make films about India’s history, trades, and cultures. Consequently IFI produced films such as Musical Instruments of India (1944), whose subject matter is outlined in its title, and In Rural Maharashtra (1944), which, although dealing with military recruitment, is largely concerned with farming practices. According to Garga, Mir ‘realized that the future of Indian documentary could be made secure not on war propaganda, which was transitory, but with films that dealt with the socio-economic and cultural life of the people’ (Garga, 2007, 108-09). Correspondingly, more Indian personnel were brought into the organisation. Winifred Holmes, who worked for IFI, notes that by 1945 ‘all but three of the production and administrative staff were Indian’ (Holmes, 1946, 43).

The Indian government supported Mir’s aims. In March 1944, the Hon. Sir Syed Sultan Ahmed stated that ‘I believe this is the right line and this is why people are beginning to look forward to our films instead of groaning when the title is screened’ (Ahmed). The Indian press had previously been hostile to the films of FAB and IFI, but towards the end of the War began to give them some qualified praise. The editor of the Talkie Herald wrote that ‘Recent public appreciation of some of the short films produced by the Information Films of India has struck me as something rather unusual and creditable’ (Garga, 2007, 110). The films also received interest from abroad. Tree of Wealth (1944), about the variety of uses for the coconut tree, drew praise from Walt Disney and was nominated for an Academy award (Garga, 2007, 110). Nevertheless, the Indian audience was the main focus for these films: by 1944 a few of IFI’s films were being distributed non-theatrically in Britain, but none were receiving a commercial release (Brock).

With the cessation of hostilities the IFI continued to make films. Bassien an Indian Fishing Village (1946), for example, details the trade of a Catholic Indian fishing community. However, in the run up to Indian independence the activities of the organisation were curtailed. In March 1946 the legislative assembly cut the IFI’s grant, leading to the abolishment abolition of IFI on 1 May 1946. In September 1946 the Defence of India Rule was withdrawn. The IFI had been viewed with suspicion by many Indian nationalists, and had been accused of ‘try[ing] to dragoon an unwilling nation into the war’ (Narwekar, 1992, 23). Between them the FAB and IFI produced 170 films, the majority of which were concerned with War propaganda, but among them there were innovative productions that addressed India’s culture and crafts. Garga believes that, ‘Looked at dispassionately, the IFI films covering almost every aspect of Indian life had made the audience aware of their own country, a vast subcontinent of 400 million people with different languages, religions, climates, customs, food and festivals. It was no mean achievement’ (Garga, 2007, 115). The IFI was revived after Independence as the Films Division of the new Indian government, and it would earn a worldwide reputation for its work (Woods, 2001, 294). Here it is worth returning to the Defence of India Act, which in addition to being prescient, was aware of the mixed parentage of the Indian documentary film: ‘D.I.R. 44A is a child of the war. But [at] the end of its life it will establish a new line of activity in the Indian film industry. Creating a market for shorts where it never existed before it will bring into being organisations for the production of educational shorts which will survive the war by the intrinsic merits of their productions’ (‘Note for Cut Motion’).

Richard Osborne (July 2010)


Works cited

Ahmed, Hon. Sir Syed Sultan, ‘Speech at the Meeting of the Publicity Advisory Committee, Delhi, 11 March 1944’, in Extract from “Indian Information”, Vol. 14, No. 134, April 1st 1944. [document in India Office materials held at the British Library: File: L/I/1/692 ‘Films – India’].

Brock, R.W. (India Section, Far East Division), letter to A.H. Joyce (India Office, Whitehall, 26 February 1945) [document in India Office materials held at the British Library. File: L/I/1/692 ‘Films-India’].

‘Defence of India Rule: 44A. Control of Cinematograph Exhibitions’ [document in India Office materials held at the British Library: File: L/I/1/686 ‘Films for Publicity’].

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).

Garga, B.D., ‘The Indian Documentary’, Cinema in India, I (January 1987), 25-30.

Govt of India, Dept of Information & Broadcasting to Secretary of State for India, Telegram, 2 December 1941 [document in India Office materials held at the British Library. File: L/I/691 ‘Films from India’].

Holmes, Winifred, ‘Postscript to India. An account of the work of Information Films of India’, Sight and Sound, 15/58 (1 July 1946), 43-45.

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’].

Narwekar, S. Films Division and the Indian Documentary (New Delhi: Publications Division, Government of India, 1992).

‘Note for Cut Motion on 15th March 1944: Defence of India Rule 44A’ [document in India Office materials held at the British Library. File: L/I/1/686 ‘Films for Publicity’].

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.

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

Young, Desmond, ‘Publicity through Films’, letter 29 October 1940 [document in India Office materials held at the British Library. File: L/I/1/684 ‘Films for Publicity Purposes General File 1939 and 1940’].

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BASSEIN : an Indian fishing village

BASSEIN : an Indian fishing village (1946)has video enhanced entry

Short documentary about Bassein, a fishing village 25 miles north of Bombay on the shores of the Arabian ...



Behind-the-scenes in the Indian Air Force.

The film shows: aircraft in flight; a newspaper headline stating 'three Japanese planes ...


DISTRICT OFFICER (1945)has video enhanced entry

INTEREST. The work of a district officer or magistrate in the province of Bengal.

Map of India showing the province of ...


HILLMEN GO TO WAR (1944)has video enhanced entry

PROPAGANDA. The way in which Indian hill tribes make contributions to the War effort.

An annual religious festival accompanied by music ...


INDIA MARCHES (1941)has video enhanced entry

A brief look at an Indian Army Regiment (15th Punjab).

Material includes reveill; arms drill; bayonet practice; signals training ...



Natural rubber production in Travancore.


MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS OF INDIA (1944) enhanced entry

India' s most popular instruments.

Title card: 'Musical Instruments of India' over picture of instruments. Rolling script: 'Part of the ...


PLANES OF HINDUSTAN (1940) enhanced entry

Documentary on life in the Indian Air Force (IAF) culminates with a plea to Indian audience for more ...