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Bollywood’s first faltering steps abroad: The challenges of shooting of Africa mein Hind(1939-1940)

Seth Govind Das invited Basu to direct a movie based on Indian connectivity with Africa.

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Africa mein Hind

It is difficult to imagine in our times the problems associated with the filming of Indian movies abroad during the colonial period. While censorship and government restrictions acted as major hindrances another major dampener was, of course, access to finance. So, while the Indian movie industry’s (major bases in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras) technical dependence on the West continued. There was little evidence of actual movies being shot in foreign locations prior to independence. 

A major exception was the Hindustani movie Africa mein Hind (India in Africa) directed by Hirendra Kumar Basu (1903–1987) and released in 1940. Hirendra Kumar Basu was a noted film director and producer (sometimes also credited as a music director and occasional actor) who had directed several movies in Bengali and Hindustani or Hindi. In his long career between the 1930s and 1950s, he produced and directed nearly twenty movies in Bengali and Hindustani or Hindi. In 1938, he was approached by the Indian nationalist leader Seth Govind Das (1896–1974) to make a film about Indian connections with Africa. As Basu recollects:

I knew Seth Govind Das-ji from earlier days. He told me that the Europeans were distorting history to suit their narratives as Indians lack proper documentation of Indian achievements abroad. He said that the movie Trader Horn [released by Hollywood in 1931] showed that the whites were the first ones to risk their lives in establishing contacts with the Africans. 

But in reality, it was the Indian trading community who was first to trade with the Africans. Kathiawaris from western India would carry essential items like salt, needles, and thread along with various spices…The exchange would often be not in return for cash but ‘batta’ or exchange in kind. In return, the African forest tribes would sell ivory, diamonds and other gems, and gold dust along with other forest products.

First Indian movie in African location

Seth Govind Das invited Basu to direct a movie based on Indian connectivity with Africa. He also arranged the necessary finance and logistics using his African connections. The film Africa mein Hind, duly directed by Basu, was released in 1940. It was the first Indian film to be shot entirely on location in Africa. Basu later wrote an account based on his travels and shooting experience. Though Basu was neither an adventure tourist nor widely travelled, his account also reflects the Indians’ interest in engaging with issues related to nationalism, particularly in the colonial context.

Basu sailed from Bombay (Mumbai) along with his film crew and actors on 31 January 1939 and reached Mombasa, Kenya. Here he had his first brush with the racist policies of the colonial government. Realizing that Nairobi was nearly 500 miles from Mombasa, some of the film crew, especially women, wanted to travel by train rather than by car. Their local Indian fixer, Mr Patel, however, informed them that all the crew would have to travel third class as it was not certain when first-class tickets would be available. Moreover, no Indians could travel in first class even if there was one European co-passenger.  

There was another incident described by Basu while staying in Arusha. There he had spotted about ten or twelve Japanese sitting with their bags and baggage in a field outside a hotel. Upon enquiry, it was discovered that there were not allowed to stay in that hotel by the management as it was meant for Europeans only. When he further asked if the Japanese were planning to spend the cold night sitting in the open field, he learned that they had wired the Japanese government in Tokyo giving details of their harassment and awaiting instructions from Tokyo. The next morning, the Japanese group could not be seen and Basu found out that they had been allowed to stay at that particular hotel. 

Apparently, the Japanese government, after receiving the cable, had instructed all Europeans to be evicted from the hotels in Japan. In order to avoid the crisis, various European consulates had cabled that particular hotel that the restrictions were meant for Indians only and not all Asians. Basu would recollect in his book how he had contrasted this attitude with that of Indians, not yet independent. Given his experiences, he would reflect in his book, ‘‘I would not have realized that human beings could be so oppressive towards their fellow men without travelling to Africa and meeting the English settlers there. They do not consider Indians to be proper human beings.’’ 

Spirit of adventure

While shooting for the film, at Thika, Basu also met a team from the famous Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) company which had also arrived in town to shoot a film and would be staying there for six months. He was highly impressed with their professionalism and resources. Basu recollected later that, “their production process was almost fully mechanized including movable laboratory, moving generator and light and reflectors, helping them shoot in the darker shades of the forest. Apart from this light equipment like small projectors, etc. would be carried out by them by hand. Sudhir, my chief cameraman got disheartened and said, ‘They would be doing proper shooting instead of tomfoolery like us.[iii]

The spirit of adventure along with a sense of national pride, however, continued to enthuse most of the team members.  Basu’s assistant director, Banerjee, for example, cheered up the team by saying, “our courage and skill are superior. We barely get even one per cent of the resources enjoyed by them and yet we compete with their cinema on the world stage.’” [iv] The team bravely managed to complete the shooting, in spite of meagre resources and logistical difficulties, A through sheer determination and grit. The film starring V. Nadrekar, Urmila Gupta and Vidya Devi in major roles was released in India in 1940.

Basu’s recollections of his shooting experience are important as in many ways, the text transcends the ordinary, descriptive features of standard travelogues, contextualizing the travel experience with ideas about the Indian nationalist discourse. The colonial context of modernization with its limitations, however, did to an extent restrict and limit Basu’s projection. 

Basu’s travelogue, for example, subconsciously adopts the Western trope in describing the continent of Africa as the exotic ‘Dark Continent.’ His frequent references to the racist principles of the colonial administration are limited to the privations of the Indian community—there is no mention of the sufferings of local indigenous populations. His praise for the rich wildlife and physical beauty of the land is frequently marred by critical asides about local people’s physique, food, attire, and habits. He frequently calls African workers ‘Kaffirs’, the European colonizers’ racial slur. 

It is not that his account is not sympathetic or oblivious to the sufferings of the indigenous populations. That is revealed in occasional references and fond recollections. But the modernist lens inherited through the colonial legacy perhaps distorted the vision of even sensitive, sympathetic non-Westerners when they looked at different cultures while engaging with imperialism and nationalism at home. Such shortcomings notwithstanding, rediscovering such voices, could fill up crucial gaps in our contemporary socio-cultural history.

Ref. Hirendra Kumar Basu, Bane Jangale [In Forests and Jungles] Deb Sahitya Kutir: Kolkata,

(The author is professor of history, Calcutta University. Views are personal)

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