India-British film heritage explored

A screening of the film version of Emily Bronte’s classic “Wuthering Heights”, which starred Indian-origin actress Merle Oberon in the lead, launched a new project that will explore lesser known aspects of India-British cinema history.

“A Hidden Heritage — Indo-British Film Collaboration in UK (1930-1951)” is being masterminded by London-based South Asian Cinema Foundation (SACF) with the help of a 41,500-pound grant from Britain’s Heritage Lottery Fund.

“The idea is to expose a little known area of India-British film heritagein the UK and highlight the life and work of many people of British and South Asian origin who played a distinguished role in cinema during the period of our study,” SACF director Lalit Mohan Joshi told PTI.

Oberon, an Anglo-Indian actress born in Mumbai, stands out “due to the way people of mixed race origin were viewed at the time and the steps she felt compelled to take to safeguard her career”, he said.

The actress moved to Britain to pursue her career and went on to make her mark in Hollywood in films like “The Private Life of Henry VIII” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel”. She kept her Indian origins a secret and sometimes claimed she was born in Australia.

“However, there were others too who we will focus on during the course of the project,” Joshi said.

The year-long project will highlight the work of Sabu, the first actor of Indian origin to become an international star, and explore the on-screen partnership of Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani.

“Their film ‘Karma’ (1933) was the first India-British talking film completed in the UK and released with much fanfare in both London and Birmingham,” said Joshi.

Sabu, who worked in the Elephant Palace of the Maharaja of Mysore, sailed to London at the age of 11 and won fame after starring in Alexander Korda”s “The Elephant Boy” (1935), a film adaptation of Rudyard Kipling”s “Toomai of the Elephants”.

SACF has partnered with the British Film Institute to collate data and will work closely with the British Library and University of Westminster.

The film heritage project will end with a screening of Jean Renoir’s “The River” (1951), which was shot in Bengal and was based on the novel by famous English writer Rumer Godden.

It will highlight the crucial link between Britain and Satyajit Ray, the filmmaker who placed India on the world’s cinematic map. Ray met Renoir while the film was in production and they became friends.

Besides film screenings across London, the project will include exhibitions on Indo-British film collaboration, production of a documentary on the subject and workshops for schoolchildren.

A Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) spokesperson said: “Using money raised through the National Lottery, the Heritage Lottery Fund aims to make a lasting difference for heritage, people and communities across the UK and help build a resilient heritage economy.”

HLF has supported almost 35,000 projects with over 5.3 billion pounds across the UK.