Book: A Biographical Dictionary of Indo-British Cinema (1930-1951)

Books / Oct 4, 2014


For more than two centuries, Britain and India have had a special relationship. During the time of the British Raj, India was regarded as ‘the jewel in the crown’ of Empire. Since independence, India as the largest democracy in the world, has been a key member of the Commonwealth and millions of immigrants from the Asian sub-continent have settled in Britain. The special relationship extended to the cinema as this volume fascinatingly demonstrates. It remains a remarkable fact that British Cinema’s only indisputable child star in the 1930s was an Indian –Sabu. Several major stars were actually born in British India (Margaret Lockwood in Karachi, Vivien Leigh in Darjeeling) while their parents were stationed there. One star, Merle Oberon, concealed the fact that she had been born in India because she was of mixed race, having a British father and a Eurasian mother, and feared that this fact would harm her career. Throughout her life she claimed to have been born in Tasmania. Indian artists Himansu Rai and Niranjan Pal pioneered Anglo-Indian cinematic Merle by making films both in Britain and in India in the 1920s and 1930s. Leading British filmmakers sought to bring their visions of India to the screen, notably the Korda brothers with The Drum (1938) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger with Black Narcissus (1947).

The rich story of cinematic collaboration has carried on to the present day with the late Sir Richard Attenborough making his celebrated biopic Gandhi (1982), David Lean adapting E.M. Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ for the screen and the exquisitely crafted Merchant-Ivory films entrancing millions. Long may the creative relationship between Britain and India continue.

Jeffrey Richards

Emeritus Professor of Cultural History, Lancaster University

Introduction & Acknowledgements

A Biographical Dictionary of Indo-British Cinemais an A–Z of Britons, people of South Asian origin and some from other parts of the world, who worked together in the field of cinema in UK and India. They include a host of actors and actresses, novelists, story and scriptwriters, directors, producers, editors, lyricists, musicians, dancers, cinematographers and set designers who were connected with Indo-British cinema between 1930 and 1951. Makers of documentary films have also been included in the remit of this book.   

We encountered all these film personalities during the work we conducted as part of the South Asian Cinema Foundation or SACF’s film heritage project –A Hidden Heritage: Indo-British Film Collaboration (1930-1951) for which the SACF was awarded a grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2013.

The period we have covered begins in 1930 when India, though still under the British Raj, was struggling to break free from the shackles of colonial rule. It ends in the year 1951 by which time Britain had partitioned India, granted freedom and also quit the country in 1947.

By South Asia we mean those lands that make up present day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma. The biographies presented here are of a diverse group of people who contributed in various capacities to relevant films of the period covered by our project. It talks of their family and background, struggles, achievements and their contribution to Indo-British cinema. Because some of those in this collection of biographies were colonial subjects who had come to Britain during the twilight years of the British Empire when ideas of Orientalism, imperialism, racial discrimination and biases against miscegenation prevailed, these biographies also offer some insights into the socio-political atmosphere of the first half of the 20th century.    

Interestingly, this publication has brought together well-known, less known and even some unknown names within the covers of a single book. It illustrates that films are creative partnerships in which a few find prominent places in the halls of fame, some receive lesser recognition or fade out of public memory and countless others, due to the nature of the film medium and the political setup, the social attitudes and the biases of their times, are compelled to work from behind the scenes or from the margins and get scant or no acknowledgement of their cinematic contributions. Our intention is to expose bits of hidden Indo-British film heritage by turning the spotlight  on the contribution of some who have so far been in limbo.    

In producing these biographies, we have consulted unpublished primary sources in the British Library, British Film Institute, University of the Arts London, BBC Archives and published works including biographies, autobiographies and articles in newspapers and magazines. In addition, we were able to locate and use new information generated through our research in UK and India.

In some instances, descendants of Indian film personalities were a rich source of material. In this connection, we are especially grateful to the grandsons of eminent Indian writer and actor Dewan Atmanand Sharar –Akash Khurana (film actor) and his brother Vikash Khurana (theatre artist and writer) –for providing priceless information and rare photographs from their family treasure-trove. Actress Tori Roy also provided some snippets about her grand aunt Suprova Mukherji, who played the lively Indian Christian nanny (Nan) in Jean Renoir’s classic, The River (1951).

From within the world of academia, we owe special thanks to Jeffrey Richards, Emeritus Professor of Cultural History, Lancaster University and Charles Drazin, Lecturer, Queen Mary University of London. Besides agreeing to come onto our Advisory Board, the contribution of these eminent scholars was invaluable. While Charles helped us by making sure we did not miss out important names from our collection of biographies, Jeffrey Richards not only provided similar guidance but through his corrections, improvements and suggestions, added considerable value to our work. Jeffrey was also generous enough with his time to agree to write the biography of Sabu that we have included in this collection. By coming up with an apt title, he also did the namkaran (naming ceremony) or christening of this publication. In India, the highly respected film archivist P.K. Nair hailed as the “Celluloid Man” in Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s film on him in 2012, was a constant source of guidance and inspiration.

Finally, we thank our funders, the Heritage Lottery Fund, for their financial support and all our volunteers for their cooperation, ideas and assistance.

Kusum Pant Joshi, Chief Researcher, SACF andLalit Mohan Joshi,Director SACF & Editor, South Asian Cinema

Arliss, George(10 April 1868 –5 February 1946).  British stage and film actor, filmmaker, author and playwright. Born on Good Friday in London’s posh Museum Street in Bloomsbury, he was christened George Augustus Andrews by his parents, Rebecca and William Arliss Andrews. As Arliss’ family had been in the business of printing and publication since the year 1700, his father is said to have assumed the title of ‘the Duke of Bloomsbury’.

Instead of fulfilling his father’s wish of taking up the family’s print business, George started touring the English Provinces in the 1880s as an itinerant actor and finally made his stage debut in London’s West End in 1890. His actress wife, Florence Arliss, often acted with him. It was, however, only after he teamed up with the famous and highly connected English theatre actress, Mrs Patrick Campbell, that he shot to fame.

Pulled by the powerful lure of America for Britons of his times, he crossed the Atlantic with Mrs Campbell’s theatre company in 1901 and soon became a successful actor in stage plays such as The Devil (1908), Disraeli (1911)and The Green Goddess (1921) in New York’s Broadway.

In the early 1920s, he made a breakthrough into silent cinema. Many of his silent films such as The Devil (1921), Disraeli (1921) and The Green Goddess (1923), were celluloid versions of his successful stage plays of an earlier period. His forte lay in rejuvenating historical figures such as Benjamin Disraeli (Disraeli won him an Oscar when he remade it as a talkie in 1929) and as the Duke of Wellington in Gaumont-British’s The Iron Duke (1934). He also became known for playing oriental roles such as the Sultan of Rungay in East Meets West (1936) and the Rajah of Rukh in the silent film version of William Archer’s The Green Goddess (1923) and again in its talking version made in 1929.     

Gaumont-British’s East meets West was his second last film. He accepted the assignment after returning to live and work in Britain. It was while playing a Sultan in this film that he was placed under the guidance of well-known English storywriter, novelist and playwright from India, Dewan Sharar. Describing this arrangement, a contemporary magazine wrote: “Mr Arliss is a truly magnificent figure in this film. He fairly scintillates with diamonds, jewel encrusted turbans, and cloth of gold in his part as a powerful Eastern rajah. So that the star won’t go wrong on detail, Gaumont-British have engaged famous Indian author and playwright, Dewan Sharar, to stand at Rajah Arliss’ elbow and stop him from pulling any fast ones.” Another film where Dewan Sharar was cultural adviser to Arliss was His Lordship (1936). Also released as A Man of Affairs in the USA, it was adapted from a play, “The Nelson Touch”, by Neil Grant. Arliss’ last film was Dr Syn (1937).

Besides acting, he was an auteur who made ten films for Warner Brothers including The Man who Played God (1932) where Bette Davis made her film debut as a female lead. A writer and playwright, Arliss has left behind three autobiographical works:On the Stage (1926), Up The Years From Bloomsbury(1927), a delightful piece of writing reflective of his times, and My Ten Years in The Studios (1940).He died in London and lies buried in London’s All Saints’ Churchyard on Uxbridge Road, Harrow Weald.

Barnes, Binnie(25 March 1903 –27 July 1998). British actress. Born in London, Binnie worked on stage and in films. Alexander Korda chose her to play Henry VIII’s 5th wife, Katherine Howard, in his celebrated period film, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). The same year, she was the leading lady in Korda’s London Film Productions’ romantic comedy, Counsel’s Opinion (1933). She then acted as Rosita, a pure and simple maid in another important Korda film, The Private Life of Don Juan (1934). She moved to America in 1934 but returned to Britain in 1938 to act in a remake of Counsel’s Opinion. In its new avatar, the film was called The Divorce of Lady X (1938). Binnie played Lady Mere, a dominating and much married woman, while the heroine’s part was performed by Merle Oberon, an Anglo-Indian actress from Calcutta (now Kolkata). Binnie also did other roles in some British films mainly shot in Europe. She continued her film and theatre work even moving back to America. She married American film producer, Mike Frankovich and died aged 95 in Los Angeles. She was buried in California’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale.

Biro, Lajos (22 August 1880 –9 September 1948). Screenplay writer, author and playwright. Born in Hungary, he was a journalist in Budapest before fleeing to Vienna after the 1918 October Revolution. There, he began working as a screenplay writer with filmmaker and fellow Hungarian, Alexander Korda.He also won renown as an author and playwright.

After moving to America in 1924, his play, The Czarina, was bought by American actor, screenwriter, producer and film director,Ernst Lubitsch. In 1932, he migrated to Britain and secured work as screenplay writer for London’s Gainsborough Pictures. In 1932 his close friend Alexander Korda hired him as chief story/ screenplay writer after setting up his brand new film company, London Film Productions.

Among the Korda films on which he worked as storywriter were: Wedding Rehearsal (1932) where Merle Oberon got her first break as female lead, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) in which Merle had a very fleeting but poignant role and another Merle starrer Over the Moon (1939). Two outstanding Korda films for which he wrote the script were: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) starring Merle Oberon and Hungarian actor Leslie Howard and The Thief of Bagdad (1940), a spectacular fantasy film built around Sabu, Britain’s first child star of Indian origin.

Lajos made a significant contribution in laying the foundation of the prestige of London Film Productions. He died at the age of 68 in London and was buried in North London’s Hampstead Cemetery.

Borradaile, Osmond Hudson (17 July 1898 –23 March 1999). Photographer and cinematographer. Born in Winnipeg, Canada but brought up in America, he was a cameraman with the distinction of being one of the world’s most celebrated location cinematographers. Borradaile had a penchant for going to the farthest corners of the earth to film in natural environments and exotic locations to acquire rare footage for serving as backdrops and stock footage for his films.

Instead of opting for formal education, he built his knowledge base from real experiences in the school of life. His interest in films led him to work in the Jesse 2Lasky Company. In the 1920s, he mastered the craft of photography and film projection and gained wide experience of location photography.

He migrated to Britain in the early 1930s where Alexander Korda spotted him in 1933. It was while working in Korda’s newly established London Film Productions that he found exciting opportunities, especially for outdoor shooting. Some important Korda films where he is credited as camera operator include: The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1935). Spectacular films in which his love and unique enthusiasm for outdoor shooting found a vent were Korda’s pioneering black and white Elephant Boy (1937) which introduced Sabu to the film world and two technicolor pro-imperial films: The Drum (1938) and The Four Feathers (1939). He was also involved in making Korda’s famous war propaganda film, The Lion has Wings (1939) and his colourful fantasy film, The Thief of Bagdad (1940). He died in Vancouver, Canada.

The above findings are part of the research which ensued in the project – A Hidden Heritage: Indo-British Film Collaboration (1930-1951)

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