Movie nights at the Imperial

Empire Cinema
December 1, 2000

 According to Prem Chowdhry, it was only by chance that she stumbled across newspaper references to a working-class riot in Bombay in 1938 against the showing of a British film, The Drum , and thus took up the writing of this book. The film was one of many “empire films” that were particularly popular in the 1930s with audiences both in the West and in India itself. They were redolent with racist and imperialist assumptions and have largely been studied by film historians like Jeffrey Richards for their impact on western audiences. It is Chowdhry’s great contribution to examine, for the first time, the impact of these films on Indian audiences.

Chowdhry deconstructs three empire films, The Drum (1938), Gunga Din (1939), and The Day the Rains Came (1940). Her readings are well researched and extremely rich in their exploration of a very large number of issues raised by the films. She examines the ramifications of race, gender and nationalism with subtlety, showing how the films reinforced ideas of white imperial superiority at a time when it was being challenged by an increasingly powerful nationalist movement. The suggestion is that over time the films showed greater sophistication of propagandist approach, moving away from themes of frontier warfare and masculinity towards softer, more “feminine” themes of development and partnership within the continuing imperial connection. However, all the films were intent on denying India’s claims to nationhood and playing up its backwardness, and its divisions on caste, class and religious lines.

For all her skill in analysing the films, Chowdhry’s arguments are fundamentally flawed in so far as they posit that these empire films, whether made in Britain or in Hollywood, represent a deliberate attempt by officials to propagate imperial values that were specifically chosen to meet the particular circumstances of the late 1930s.

First, there is not enough discussion of the Hollywood context of Gunga Din and The Day the Rains Came . It is never successfully explained why the Americans, who were intrinsically hostile to British imperialism and sympathetic to Gandhi, should have been complicit in making these pro-British empire films, other than the argument that they too were white racists. The empire topics and locations are, therefore, surely chosen for their exoticism and their adventure rather than for their contemporaneity and propaganda message. They are essentially westerns situated in the orient.

Second, Chowdhry flies in the face of very clear evidence that officials in both the government of India and the India Office in London were highly embarrassed by these sorts of films and would prefer that they had never been made. They regarded these films as useless for propaganda purposes and during the second world war fully concurred with the American ban on them.

This is an important book on an important subject, which should be of particular value to those interested in film history, cultural studies and imperial history. These films were some of the most popular of their time. One can learn an enormous amount about contemporary attitudes and of the diverse responses that cinema audiences across the world made to such films. Chowdhry is excellent at pointing up how Indian audiences could subvert the imperial messages of the films but her book highlights the desperate lack of evidence we have about Indian audiences and their responses to film. We urgently need an oral-history project in India to record memories of cinema going in the colonial period before it is too late. Meanwhile, we must avoid assuming too readily that the colonial state could manipulate the use of feature films as ready-made imperial propaganda.

Philip Woods is principal lecturer in history, Thames Valley University, London.

Empire Cinema: Image, Ideology and Identity

Author - Prem Chowdhry
ISBN - 0 7190 5725 6 and 5792 2
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £45.00 and £15.99
Pages - 284

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