This film is held by the BFI (ID: 20048).


PROPAGANDA. The way in which Indian hill tribes make contributions to the War effort.

An annual religious festival accompanied by music and dancing is something the hillmen look forward to with pleasure (182). The years between the celebrations of this festival are busier than usual as the people join in the struggle for peace. Goats assume added importance to their owners as whole families earn their living by producing wool and weaving blankets for the fighting men (268). The wartime demand for timber has meant extensive tree felling. Tree trunks are lowered into the valley's, down chutes into the rivers and floated to the plains towns. At the end of the season, even the chutes are dismantled and sent down-stream (375). Gas-producing plants need a steady supply of charcoal. The hillmen pile up logs, cover them with packed earth and burn them slowly to turn them to charcoal (453). Resin gatherers, once casual workers are now fully employed collecting resin for turpentine and rosin production (523). Silk-worm cultivation and the production of silk thread is another industry that has been expanded by wartime demand (580). Crushed and ground chestnuts yield good quantities of starch. The chestnut residue is used as a basis for bread (655). Tea picking has become so necessary that there are not enough workers to meet the demand. Picking, weighing, drying and packing tea are all processes requiring a large number of people (746). Even potato production is an economic proposition (772). All these essential goods are carried down the mountains by the hillmen themselves (791). In the towns, they can enlist in the army (825) and go to training camps to prepare for war (871). (889 ft).



In 1943 the Film Advisory Board, the body that had been created to oversee the production of wartime documentaries in India, was dissolved and Information Films of India (IFI) was created in its stead. Under this new organisation the Government of India assumed full responsibility for propaganda films. In addition, the government implemented the Defence of India Rule 44A, effective from September 1943, which required that every cinema in India show at least 2000 feet of government ‘approved’ film at each performance. To ensure that the IFI’s films reached as wide an audience as possible they were issued in separate English, Hindustani, Bengali, Tamil and Telugu versions (‘Note for Cut Motion’). This closer governmental control of film production was the response to two main threats: the unrest in the sub-continent caused by the nationalist Quit India movement, and the growing seriousness of the war in South-East Asia (Garga, 2007, 97). Hillmen Go to War was made in 1944, the year in which Japanese forces came closest to invading India, fighting battles at Imphal and Kohima.

The Second World War deployed a large amount of Indian resources and manpower. By 1943, India was third only to Britain and Canada in producing goods for war supply (Jackson, 2006, 358). The number of soldiers serving in the Indian Army grew from 205,058 men in October 1939 to 2,251,050 in July 1945, the majority of whom came from rural areas (Brown, 1994, 319; Garga, 2007, 109). The war effort had its effect on the Indian economy, bringing with it inflation and food shortages (Brown, 1994, 325).  Of all the Empire countries India provided the most serious opposition to Britain’s war effort. The outbreak of war witnessed the leading Indian political party, the Indian National Congress, resign from government rather than support the war cause, and in 1942 the party launched the ‘Quit India’ movement, demanding full independence for India.

The ‘hillmen’ featured in this film come from the state of Himachal Pradesh in north-west India. This area is home to a number of different territories and tribes, including the Koilis, Halis, Dagis, Dhaugris, Dasa, Khasas, Kinnars and Kirats. During the late eighteenth century much of the state came under the control of Gurkhas, and it was only following the Anglo-Nepalese war (1814-16) that the area came under British stewardship. This film focuses on the contributions of Himachal Pradesh to the war cause. During the period of British rule the chiefs of the hill states were largely loyal to the colonial government (Ahluwalia, 1998, 31). Nevertheless, the area was not immune to the political awakening in the sub-continent. From the late 1930s onwards the local protest organisation Praja Mandal campaigned on two main objectives: a weakening of the autocratic rule of the hill chiefs and independence for India. During the war this movement urged the local people not to recruit to the army or to give money towards war funds (Ahluwalia, 1998, 32).

Hillmen Go to War was produced by the head of the IFI, the Indian director Ezra Mir. During the war Mir increasingly steered the IFI documentary output away from military propaganda towards films that reflected the socio-economic and cultural life of Indian people (Garga, 2007, 108-09). It was directed by Kenneth Villiers, who had found fame as an actor in the 1936 film Things to Come, but who was directing documentaries in India as part of his war service duties (Davis). The composer of the film’s score, Walter Kaufman, although born in Bohemia, was a noted scholar of Hindu music and was the composer of the signature tune for All India Radio (Cook and Cook). 



Hillmen Go To War is a somewhat transitory film among the IFI’s output: while pursuing war propaganda it also provides a study of the hill people in Himachal Pradesh.

The war effort is the principal subject of the film and as such it overshadows any effort that is made to provide a rounded account of the people. There is no information regarding which of the area’s tribes is being featured and there is little mention of the regions that are on display. As expected, the protest movements within the area are ignored. Instead the film focuses on the increased agricultural output of the area.

What is interesting about this film is the manner in which it subverts one of the standard representations of the sub-continent in colonial documentaries. The film begins with a familiar trope: India is represented by means of village life; existence is shown to be harmonious, custom-driven and unchanging. There are images of religious dancing and the worship of idols: ‘it happened like this every year’, the commentary states. Several other documentaries highlight what they view as the circularity of Indian life by opening and closing with the same scenes. This is a linear film however and one whose subject matter is change: ‘the hillmen’s year has been filled with new work, new interests, new contacts with the world down below’. There are images of increased crop yields and new trades, and the film concludes with hillmen signing up for the army. This cause of this change is not labelled as British in origin, but instead comes under the abstract notion of ‘war’. As the dialogue progresses it is this word that takes the place of an earlier stress on the ‘peace’ of the people’s existence.

Although the film is concerned with progress it still retains a condescension towards ‘primitive’ India: charcoal manufacture is outlined as being a ‘simple task’ and resin gatherers are described as ‘once casually tapping a tree here and there to have a tit-bit to sell at the market’. The film is unusual in that it considers the future effects of the expanded wartime economy: there is a stress on saving the increased income ‘as an insurance against disaster’. However, even here the ancient ways of rural India are underlined: the commentary imagines the ‘earthenware jar where they keep their savings’. Similarly, the pastoral score provided by Walter Kaufman harks back to the notion of India as a rural idyll.

The documentary is more progressive in the way in which it films the hill people. Several of the film’s segments begin with panning shots, which sweep across the countryside to arrive at scenes of agricultural activity. Thus the location of the industry is effectively established. In filming the locals at work there is a determination to show exactly what is taking place, the skill that lies behind it, and also to provide portraits of the workers. In each instance a mixture of shots is used – there are medium long-shots disclosing the overall activity, shots of hands at work upon the substances and goods, and head-and-shoulders shots of the workers. The aptitude and dignity of the people are underlined in manner that is absent in the commentary. Nevertheless, there remains the fact that the people are filmed in this manner to help state the case that they will provide ‘healthy, strong, fighting manpower’ for war. In this respect, there is an extent to which the film’s linear construction could be said to jeopardise its propaganda purposes. The documentary first concentrates on the wartime supply of goods and food but concludes with the local supply of men: planting the thought that they too could be considered as fodder.

Richard Osborne (October 2009)


Works Cited

Ahluwalia, M. S.  Social, Cultural and Economic History of Himachal Pradesh (New Delhi: Indus Publishing Company, 1998).

Brown, Judith M., Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy, 2nd edn (Oxford: OUP, 1994).

Cook, William and Gayle Cook, ‘Walter Kaufmann Archive: Biography’, http://library.music.indiana.edu/collections/kaufmann/biograph.html.

Davis, Allan, ‘Obituary: Kenneth Villers’, Independent (31 August 1992), http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-kenneth-villiers-1580529.html.

Garga, B. D., From Raj to Swaraj: The Non-fiction Film in India (New Delhi: Penguin, 2007).

Jackson, Ashley, The British Empire and the Second World War(Hambledon: Continuum, 2006).

‘Note for Cut Motion on 15th March 1944: Defence of India Rule 44A’ [document in India Office materials held at the British Library. File: L/I/1/686 ‘Films for Publicity’].




Technical Data

Running Time:
10 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
899 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Production Company
Films Division, Government of India





Production Organisations