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Crisis and Struggle: The formation of the cinema in British India, 1913-1947

Shoesmith, Brian Patrick (1989) Crisis and Struggle: The formation of the cinema in British India, 1913-1947. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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The formative period of the Indian film industry occurred against a background of political turmoil that emerged from the Congress struggle to win independence from Britain. The political struggle induced a state of crisis for British rule that had economic, cultural and psychological dimensions. This crisis of hegemony was displaced by the British onto film. As a new medium af communication film presented the British authorities in India with a set of specific problems that transgressed their conscious desire for the maintenance of political and cultural hegemony. In order to control film, and through this their hegemony, the British sought to establish economic, social and political boundaries in which film could operate. Film, however, in India originated beyond the immediate culture sphere of dominance of the British. In the first place it originated in America and increasingly after the 1920s in the Indian cultural domain. Effectively the cinema was beyond the control of the British. Film production in India was located firmly in the Indian economic and cultural domains and British influence on its formation and development was marginal, which reflects the political situation of the period 1913-47.

In taking this view I contest the orthodox accounts of the formative years which implicitly accord the British a central role. The orthodox view sees the British role in film as reflecting the central political role of the British in the events of 1913-1947. However, the British fought essentially rearguard actions against the inevitability of Indian political independence. Their role was similar in respect to controlling the cinema. Another dimension of the orthodoxy is to see the influence of the British as essentially malign. The view arises from the claims of the film industry itself which, through its professional organizations, sought legitimacy for the industry through a variety of means, including government financial support. When the Government of India investigated the problems of the Indian film industry in 1927-28 it found a thriving industry based on the indigenous money markets for its capital. Far from being negligible the industry had grown at a healthy rate from its shaky beginnings in 1913, its rate of production increasing rapidly through the 1920s. Consequently the Government could find no reason for providing financial support to the industry.

In constructing my account of the formative period of the Indian film industry I look closely at the complex political, economic, cultural and communal relationship surrounding the industry. In the first place I look at the crisis in British hegemony and show how it shaped the Anglo- Indian discourse of film. Then I go on to trace the development of the various Indian discourses on film, comparing them to the British, showing how it was Indian discourses that shaped the parameters of development. These are related to the influence of the Hollywood staple on both discourse formation and film practice which I show to be a finely measured and complex act of reciprocity. In order to substantiate my claims I examine in close detail the economic base of the film industry and relate it to the development of the Indian film as an indigenous cultural form. The complex set of relations between the form and the economic base, it will be shown, existed entirely in the Indian domain which was both misunderstood and misrepresented by the British. To understand the depth of the disjunction I examine the various interventions on the part of the British into the Indian film discourse to show how marginal their influence really was. This view is augmented by a chapter that addresses the vexed topic of censorship which has hitherto dominated accounts of the British influence on the Indian film industry. Again, through an analysis of censorship data I show the marginalization of the British who found it impossible to constrain Indian film production because of its location within traditional cultural practices.

In conclusion I argue that the crises of the formative period of the Indian film industry were determined by Indian considerations: the lack of capital, the struggle to gain cultural legitimacy, the problem of political recognition. The struggle to achieve these represents the struggles within Indian formations more than a struggle against the domination of British control.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor(s): Hodge, Bob
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