The Moving Image 3.1 (2003) 82-109
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More Than Morality
The Indian Cinematograph Committee Interviews (1927)
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By all accounts, during the 1920s and 1930s the British India government's interest in Indian film audiences was governed by racial anxiety rather than a desire for economic profit. The state seemed preoccupied with the content of North American films viewed by Indian audiences rather than with flooding India's market with British films. One is provoked to ask why a state, constituted on the strength of its exploitation of Indian raw materials and markets on behalf of imperial Britain, did not give film its passing consideration. The obvious answer is that Britain never had the opportunity. Since inception, India's film market was exploited by the United States until Indian films were able to create a domestic audience "without quota or subsidy," 1 consolidated with the arrival of sound technology and political independence. Another (perhaps less obvious) answer is that the British Indian state did [End Page 83] evaluate India as a potential film market to assist imperial Britain. The traces of this negotiation are submerged because the imperial agenda, in an increasingly politicized and anti-imperial context, involved subterfuge, indirect interrogation, internal dissension, and eventual repudiation.
To understand the possibilities for anti-state resistance, the changing nature of state control, and the advent of new trade relations in cinema, we need to revisit the colonial film archives for precisely such below-the-surface negotiations between state and industry.
In my analysis, I read specific debates that occurred in India in the 1920s, preceding a potential film quota regulation that could have benefited Britain's film industry. The debates created a context in which the British Indian state was rendered incapable of interfering in Indian film policy.
A series of events was triggered in India in the wake of the 1927 British Film Quota Act. The British Quota Act proposed that all film distributors and exhibitors operating in Britain should carry and screen a prescribed number of "British Empire films" as a way of protecting the British film industry from the onslaught of films from the United States. This quota was to increase on a sliding scale. Calculating the percentage of British films in relation to all films rented and exhibited within Britain, the quota began at 7.5 percent for renters (distributors) and 5 percent for exhibitors in 1927, increasing to 20 percent by 1936. Concomitant to the 1927 proceedings in Britain, India became the site of an official inquiry into the status of its film industry by a state-sponsored cinematograph committee. This committee was established by the British Indian government to assess film censorship, audience demographics, and the possibility of creating regulatory preferences for "Empire films" in India similar to Britain's Quota Act. Exhaustive investigations undertaken by the Indian Cinematograph Committee (ICC) in 1927-28 produced four fascinating volumes of written and oral interviews (termed "evidence" by the ICC), from 353 "witnesses": film producers, exhibitors, distributors, actors, film censors, newspaper editors, and educationists working in India. 2 As a result, the 1920s are among the best recorded decades in India's film history.
Initiatives to promote "Empire films" in colonies and dominions were motivated by Britain's interest in finding a larger market for British films. "British Empire films" was a vague term, technically referring to films produced in any part of the British Empire. As the 1927 British Quota Act reserved a quota for "British Empire films" within Britain, the term was used as grounds for bartering that similar quotas be passed within British colonies and dominions. 3 In fact, the exact provisions of a policy creating [End Page 84] "Imperial preference" for "Empire films" within the Indian market were far from clear, and this was duly pointed out by Indian interviewees, or "witnesses," to use the ICC's terminology.
The history of British imperialism in India is a history of the rendition of India into meticulously organized data, systematized and tabulated within matrices of the imperial state's administrative...