Prof. David Campion

Royal Pavilion at the Coronation of George V as Emperor of India, Delhi, 1911 © Life Magazine



FROM romanticized stereotypes of exotic India to the most controversial policies of colonial rule, some of the most enduring images of the British Raj in the popular imagination of Americans have come from films. Some of these films are of average quality and imperfect in their historical accuracy, but many are excellent and effectively recreate the environment and compelling issues that people living in British India faced at different moments in their history. And since films are the media through which much of the general public gain their impressions of British India and other parts of South Asia, they are worthy of consideration by historians for that reason alone.

Below is a selection of films useful for complementing our study of the history and culture of British India. Most of these films can be obtained at Watzek Library. You can also find many of them on Netflix.

Some information courtesy of Internet Movie Database. Used with permission

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)
The Drum (1938)
Gunga Din (1939)
Kim (1950)
Northwest Frontier (1959)
The Man who would be King (1975)

Bhowani Junction (1956)
Gandhi (1982)
The Jewel in the Crown (1984)
Mountbatten, The Last Viceroy (1986)
Earth (1998)
Train to Pakistan (1998)
Jinnah (1998)
Hey Ram (2000)
The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002)
Pinjar (2003)
Bose, The Forgotten Hero (2005)
Black Narcissus (1947)
Jhansi ki Rani (1952)
The Long Duel (1967)
Conduct Unbecoming (1975)
Shatranj ke Khilari (1977)
Junoon (1979)
The Far Pavilions (1984)
The Home and the World (1984)
A Passage to India (1984)
The Deceivers (1988)
Lagaan (2001)
The Rising (2005)
Before the Rains (2007)

Staying On (1979)
Heat and Dust (1982)
Cotton Mary (1999)


Director: George Stevens, 1939

This classic film, starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks jr, was one of the very first Hollywood depictions of India. Set in the nineteenth century, three British soldiers and a native waterbearer must stop a secret revival of the murderous "Thuggee" cult before it can spread across the land. The film is based very loosely on Rudyard Kipling's 1892 ballad of the same name (though it is more like The Three Musketeers) and is interesting for its stereotypes as much as for its story.

© RKO Pictures


Director: Nicholas Meyer, 1988

In 1825, Lt. William Savage, a reform-minded District Officer in the service of the East India Company, undertakes to rid his district of what the British viewed as the two greatest problems of Indian society: "Suttee" (widow immolation) and "Thuggee" (a secret cult of robbers and murderers). Savage's actions are eventually thwarted by his profit-minded Company superiors, but not before he attempts to infiltrate the cult and become one of the "deceivers." Based on the 1952 novel by John Masters.

© Warner Home Video


Director: Satyajit Ray, 1977

In 1856, officials of the East India Company move to consolidate their hold over North India by annexing the wealthy kingdom of Awadh. The chief minister to the Nawab attempts to warn his ruler and local landlords of the impending danger but they ignore him and instead indulge their obsession with playing chess. The game becomes a metaphor for the larger game of politics played by the British as they maneuver to capture Awadh's king. Based on the 1924 short story by Premchand.

© Shemaroo


Director: Sohrab Modi, 1952

This epic film tells the true story of Rani Lakshmi Bai, ruler of the small princely state of Jhansi in central India. The Rani of Jhansi struggled to save her state from British annexation and died in 1857 while personally leading her soldiers into battle. Her heroism, leadership, and sacrifice have been celebrated in folklore and repeatedly invoked by Indian nationalists. This was the first Indian film in Technicolor and one of the first to enjoy distribution in the US under the title The Tiger and the Flame.

© Geneon


Director: Ketan Mehta, 2005

This Bollywood epic is the first major film to focus on the 1857 Indian Rebellion—or "Mutiny" as it is usually referred to in British history. The story follows the rebel leader Mangal Pandey, an Indian sepoy in the service of the East India Company, and his friendship with a British officer. Pandey was a real figure but one about whom little is known. Filming began in 2003 and the opening scene was launched by Charles, Prince of Wales, during an official royal visit to India.

© Yash Raj Films


Director: Shyam Benegal, 1979

Set during the Uprising of 1857, this film focuses on three women of an Anglo-Indian family who take refuge from the rebels with a local moneylender to whom they have a substantial debt and who, thus, has a vested interest in their survival. When they are discovered, their lives are spared as the rebel leader, Javed, wishes to make the youngest woman, Ruth, his second wife. The plot is further complicated when British forces return seeking vengeance for the mutiny.

© Shemaroo


Director: Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001

In 1893, the people of a small village in colonial India hope that they will be excused from paying lagaan, the crippling land tax that the British have imposed. Instead, the capricious officer in charge challenges them to a game of cricket, a game totally unknown to them. If they win, they get their wish; if they lose, the increased tax burden will destroy their lives.

© Columbia/TriStar


Director: John Huston, 1975

This adaptation of the famous 1888 novella by Rudyard Kipling tells the story of Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, two ex-soldiers roaming through British India. They decide that the country is too small for them, so they trek beyond the Northwest frontier to "Kafiristan" in order to become kings in their own right. Kipling appears briefly as a character in his own fictional tale.

© Warner Home Video


Director: Henry Hathaway, 1935

The 41st Bengal Lancers are stationed on the Northwest Frontier of British India, guarding against Afghan invaders led by the wily Oxford-educated Mohammed Khan. Experienced, though insubordinate, Lt. McGregor (Gary Cooper) is joined by two younger officers through various adventures and hardships. This film is a noteworthy period piece from the 1930s but is less well known than Gunga Din, which was released a few years later and has become a cinema classic.

© Universal


Director: J. Lee Thompson, 1959

This film takes place in 1905 in the Northwest mountain regions of India where a local Hindu raja allied to the British is battling rebel Muslim tribesmen. In order to get his son—the crown prince—and his governess to safety the raja entrusts them to the care of a British officer. The film is a typical Saturday morning cliffhanger, but the direction is quite good.

© RCI Home Video


Director: Victor Saville, 1950

This adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's famous adventure novel from 1901 recreates the "Great Game" of spying and surveying in British India's Northwest frontier. The title character is a young British orphan who, like an Anglo-Indian Huck Finn, roams the bazaars and roads of his adoptive country surviving through theft, begging, and being a messenger and spy for the British.

© Warner Home Video


Director: Peter Duffell, 1984

Based on the bestselling 1978 novel by M.M. Kaye, this miniseries is an epic of high adventure in colonial India revolving around the romance between Anjuli, a half-caste Indian princess, and Ash, a British officer raised in India. The Far Pavilions drew upon and helped perpetuate a popular sense of "Raj nostalgia" in the early 1980s. As such, it offers a lavish, entertaining, but highly romanticized vision of exotic India under British rule.

© Acorn Media


Director: Michael Anderson, 1975

The plot revolves arounds a scandal in a British regiment stationed in India in the 1870s. Lt. Drake is from a middle-class background and is eager to advance himself by making the right impression. Lt. Millington, the son of a general, is not keen on army life and desires to get out as soon as he possibly can. When the widow of the regiment's most honored hero is assaulted, Drake must defend Millington from the charges in an unusual court-martial. Based on the 1969 play by Barry England.

© Crown Films


Director: Satyajit Ray, 1984

In 1907, Nikhil—a wealthy yet enlightened and charitable Bengali landowner—encourages his wife Bimala to emerge from the traditional female seclusion of purdah and introduces her to his old friend Sandip, a radical leader in the Swadeshi movement. Bimala is deeply affected by Sandip's revolutionary fervor and experiences a profound political awakening that draws her out of her home and into the tumultuous world of Indian nationalism. Based on the 1916 novel by Rabindranath Tagore.

© Columbia/TriStar


Director: Ken Annakin, 1967

Set in the 1920s, this film is based very loosely on the true exploits of the notorious Bhanta dacoit, Sultana, and the colonial police officer, Freddy Young, whose mission it was to capture him. Sultana (Yul Brynner) and Young (Trevor Howard) develop a strong respect for each other during their game of evasion and pursuit across the hills and plains of North India. However, the portrayal of Sultana as a nationalist rebel and Young as ambivalent toward British imperialism in India is historically inaccurate.

© Rank Organisation


Director: David Lean, 1984

Tensions between Indians and the colonial British residents of the town of Chandrapore boil over when a visiting Englishwoman, Adela Quested, accuses a young Indian physician, Dr. Aziz, of rape during a tour of the local caverns. Based on E.M. Forster's 1924 novel, this film can be seen as a study of colonial relations, perceived differences between East and West, and the nature of memory and friendship.

© Columbia/TriStar


Zoltan Korda, 1938

Set in the Northwest Frontier, the plot revolves around an uprising against the British and their Indian allies. The film offers a gallery of imperial stereotypes: the gallant English officer and his devoted wife, the plucky Scottish drummer, the treacherous Indian rebel, and the obsequious loyal prince. Though popular with British audiences, The Drum caused protests in Madras and Bombay, where it was viewed—not unreasonably—as pro-British propaganda. Some filming was done in the princely state of Chitral, now the province of Khyber-Pakthunkhwa, Pakistan.

© United Artists


Director: Santosh Sivan, 2007

Set in 1937 in the Malabar District of the Madras Presidency, this film focuses on an affair between an English spice plantation owner and his Indian housekeeper that ends tragically. The central character is T.K., a servant on the plantation, who discovers the affair and is torn by loyalty to his employer, village politics, and the rising tide of Indian nationalism. Among other things, the film captures well the beauty of the Indian state of Kerala in which it was filmed.

© Lions Gate


Director: Richard Attenborough, 1982

This epic film portrays the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi from his days as a young lawyer in South Africa to his death as the spiritual leader of the Indian nation shortly after independence. It also provides a vivid account of the Indian nationalist movement from its beginnings through the independence and partition of the Indian subcontinent. This critically-acclaimed film took decades to produce and won eight Academy Awards in 1983.

© Columbia/TriStar


Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947

This strange and haunting film focuses on a group of Anglican nuns who arrive in a remote location in the Himalayas to set up a school and clinic for the local residents. The fragmentation and collapse of their own community force them to abandon the mission. The film was released a few months before India’s independence and some critics speculate that the plot is an allegory about Britain’s retreat from India. Based on the 1939 novel by Margaret Rumer Godden.

© Criterion


Director: Raj Kumar Santoshi, 2002

This film portrays the controversial life and death of Bhagat Singh, the Punjabi revolutionary who took up arms against colonial rule in India. Condemned by the British as a terrorist and hailed by many Indians as a freedom fighter, Bhagat Singh was initially inspired by the Gandhian example of non-violent non-cooperation but later rejected it after growing frustrated at its apparent ineffectiveness.

© Tips Films Pvt. Ltd.


Director: Christopher Morahan, 1984

This fourteen-part miniseries originally produced for Granada Television in Britain tells the story of a small group of Britons and Indians from the middle of the Second World War to the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947. The historical authenticity of the plot and complex characters provide an excellent glimpse into the psyche of the British in India during the final days of the "Raj." Based on Paul Scott's Raj Quartet novels published between 1965 and 1975.

© A&E Home Entertainment


Director: Shyam Benegal, 2005

This film focuses on the final years in the life of Subhas Chandra Bose, one of the most controversial figures in Indian nationalism. A rising star in the freedom movement, Bose fell out with Gandhi and was pushed to the margins of Congress politics. At the outbreak of war in 1939, he fled to Germany and later conspired with Japanese forces to lead an army of Indian soldiers against the British during the Burma campaign. Bose remains a hero to many Indians, especially in his native Bengal.

© Sahara Media


Director: Tom Clegg, 1986

This TV miniseries traces the events and experiences of the last viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and his wife Lady Edwina. In early 1947, Mountbatten arrived in India to oversee the transfer of power to independent India and Pakistan. The film captures well the challenges, dilemmas, and tragedies involved in the British withdrawal and the partition of the Indian subcontinent.

© Bonneville Video


Director: Jamil Dehlavi, 1998

Muhammad Ali Jinnah being judged in the afterlife is the premise of this controversial film about the founder of Pakistan. The story traces Jinnah's political development from champion of Hindu-Muslim unity to his demand for a separate Muslim state. The film was meant to revise the largely unflattering portrayal of Jinnah presented in earlier films such as Sir David Attenborough's Gandhi. Yet the casting of an Englishman (veteran English actor Sir Christopher Lee) in the title role was criticized by many Pakistanis.

© Dehlavi Films


Director: Deepa Mehta, 1998

The movie opens in the city of Lahore in Punjab in 1947 before India and Pakistan became independent. Lahore is a cosmopolitan city, depicted by a group of working class friends from different religions. The rest of the movie chronicles the fate of this group and the maddening religious conflict that sweeps across Punjab as the partition of the two countries is decided and Lahore is given to Pakistan. Based on the 1988 semi-autobiographical novel The Ice Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa.

© New Yorker Films


Director: Pamela Rooks, 1998

Tensions run high in a Punjab village in the run-up to partition between independent India and Pakistan. Sikhs living in this border town have heard rumors of Muslims assaulting, killing, and raping other Sikhs and Hindus—many of whom are their friends and relatives. Enraged at the breakdown of civil order and eager for revenge, they plan their own attack upon a crowded train full of Muslims headed to Pakistan. Based on the 1956 novel by Khushwant Singh.

© Video Sound


Director: Chandra Prakash Dwivedi, 2003

Lajjo is a recently married Hindu woman abducted by Muslims during the chaos of partition and taken to Pakistan. There she is forced to become the second wife of an abusive and controlling alcoholic. Her determined sister-in-law, Puro, sets out to search for her, encouraged by her brother, but cautioned by her parents who would prefer not to lose another child. A compelling story that deals with abduction, a widespread and largely overlooked aspect of partition violence.

© Lucky Star Entertainment


Director: George Cukor, 1956

In the summer of 1947 the British are on the verge of finally leaving India. Among the few sorry to see them leave are the Anglo-Indians—half British and half Indian. They are going to miss the patronage of their white cousins, the job reservations, and the important status and positions they currently hold. This film revolves around Victoria, an Anglo-Indian woman and her relationships with British, Indian, and Anglo-Indian men. Based on the 1954 novel by John Masters.



Director: Kamal Hasan, 2000

This film traces the descent of an Indian archaeologist from moderate politics into Hindu fundatmentalism after the murder of his wife in the Calcutta riots of 1946. Although produced as a commercial Hindi film, it boldly addresses the communal violence that accompanied the partition of the subcontinent and the reaction of the Hindu right to Gandhi's pleas for communal harmony. Some "disturbing" portions were cut by the Indian film censor board.

© Blue Mountain Digital


Directors: Ismail Merchant and Madhur Jaffrey, 1999

In 1954, seven years after India has gained independence from Britain, many Indians still feel like second-class citizens in their own country, as the nation's sovereignty has not immediately erased the perception that the British are superior to Indians. An example is Cotton Mary, an Anglo-Indian nurse in the employment of the wife of a BBC correspondent. Mary claims she is the daughter of a British army officer (although she has no firm evidence) and views herself as more British than Indian.

© Universal


Director: Silvio Narizzano, 1979

Based on Paul Scott's Booker Prize-winning novel from 1977, this film tells the story of retired colonel Tusker Smalley and his wife Lucy who made the decision to "stay on" in India after the British withdrew in 1947 and as most of their friends returned home. Now retired, Tusker and Lucy are the only remaining British residents in a once-busy hill station. Problems arise when the Indian owner of their bungalow plans to change the one corner of India in which they hoped to preserve their Anglo-Indian life.

© HBO Films


Director: James Ivory, 1982

Anne, an Englishwoman, is investigating the life of her great-aunt Olivia whose destiny had always been shrouded with scandal. The search leads back to the early 1920s, when Olivia, recently married, came to live with her civil servant husband in an Indian princely state. Slowly, Anne discovers, upon getting pregnant by an Indian local in the early 1980s, that she and Olivia have more than a little in common. Based on the 1975 novel by Ruth Prawar Jhabvala.

© Home Vision Entertainment

Created by campion@lclark.edu | Updated May 2016