This film is held by the BFI (ID: 59226).


Life on a road in India, showing the traffic, people and animals.

Main title and credits (48). Bullock and camel carts on a country road in India (124). Travelling shot from road of Muslim hermitage. Ground view -The hermitage hut is perched on a low hill. Surrounding it are poles holding white pottery jars - placed there by women for fertility. Two Moslem men pray (169). Bullock carts pass elephants feeding - pan of the elephants feeding under the shade of trees and tended by their handlers (239). The elephants bathing in a river (281). Two yogis sitting on a wall -one with his arm raised. A small caravan of a rajah passes in state. The rajah is carried in an ornate litter and preceded by his sword bearers walking backwards. He is also accompanied by two dancing girls who dance beside the litter and two drummers. His wife, in a less ornate litter, follows behind (410). Boy leads a sacred cow with a blue ribbon around its neck indicating its status as a sacred cow (438). A motor bus stops on the road, a Moslem woman (heavily veiled) is carried past in a litter (481). Two camel carts on the road. They pass a man painting his sheep with lines and sports of paint. It is Ramadan and no meat can be consumed by Muslims - so they decorate their sheep (531). A large well - women draw water from the well, helped by two bullocks which draw the water from the well by walking down a ramp beside the well (582). The caravans take rest at noon- carts, bullocks and travellers resting in a village (634). A snake charmer with two snakes (680). A man with performing animals - a goat balances on a small stump; a monkey then rides its back; the monkey does somersaults, dances and plays the drum - intercut with views of the watching crowd (771). The travellers resting in a village (817). Ox carts pass along the road and travel into the distance (874). The End (889ft).



A Road in India is one of a number of travelogue films made by the company World Window in the late 1930s. The company was the brainchild of the wealthy husband and wife team F.W. Keller and E.S. Keller. Inspired by the results of their own amateur travel films, the Kellers sought out a film crew to make professional travelogues, beginning with a series of films shot in Europe and then later filming in Asia (Cardiff, 1996, 50). World Window was formed specifically to produce these ten-minute documentaries, which were distributed in Britain and America by the American company United Artists. For A Road in India the core crew consisted of director and editor Hans Nieter and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, allied with the talents of musical composer Giovanni Fusco, who would later achieve fame providing the soundtracks to several of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films.

The World Window documentaries are notable for their employment of Technicolor film, which, according to Jez Stewart, was the first colour process ‘to provide a lifelike, cost-effective system on a large scale, which satisfied audiences and exhibitors alike’ (Stewart). Stewart notes that the cumbersome camera equipment involved ‘made it difficult to capture natural occurrences on film’ (Stewart). Jack Cardiff was one of the earliest acknowledged masters of Technicolor, and would later receive a cinematography Oscar for his recreation of India in Black Narcissus (1947), a film that was shot entirely in the studio. When approached by the Kellers he had warned them of the difficulty and expense of using Technicolor equipment in the field. The couple acceded to his requests for a support crew, tracking dolly, camera crane and well-upholstered van (Cardiff, 1996, 50).

Although this film studiously eschews any mention of politics or of Indian advancement, the period in which it was shot was one of significant gains for Indian nationalists. The 1935 Government of India Act agreed in principle to a ‘Federation of India’ and also granted a large degree of autonomy to provincial governments. In the following 1937 elections the Indian National Congress assumed power in several of the provinces.

This film instead focuses on the life that exists along an unspecified stretch of Indian road. The film is prone to some of the criticisms levelled at British documentaries made by Dhruba Gupta in his article ‘Image of India in Colonial Films’. Gupta argues that ‘The colonial film-makers legitimize colonial rule in India . . . to depict this land of “the other” as a place without much movement of “progress”, of exotic rituals, wild animals, primordial villages with superstitious people’ (Gupta, 1995, 259).



A Road in India is not a conventional travel film. It does not focus on a core group of protagonists moving towards their goal. There is no sense of destination or of advance. In each scene the camera primarily remains rooted in one position; rather than heading forward it allows the disparate traffic of India to pass before it. On display there are Muslims and Hindus and paupers and princes: this road is meant to be reflective of all India. No major landmarks are featured and the location of the road is never given.

All this serves the filmmakers well. Progress is not a concern of this documentary. Instead it depicts an India in which ‘the dawn of the world is just around the corner’. The road serves as ‘a ribbon of the present, threading the fantastic centuries of ancient India’. For the filmmakers the east is ‘enigmatic and disturbing’, and the people who populate it ‘are of yesterday and all the ages back into the remote times’. Thus it delivers a retinue of snake charmers, street entertainers, yogis and rajas. The film even attempts to discern the native factor that ‘made mechanical invention unnecessary’, hitting upon the idea that ‘it may well be due to the working elephant that in India the science of dynamics never got beyond the wooden wheel’.

There are in addition practical reasons why there is no forward motion in this film: the heavy Technicolor equipment would not have facilitated shots filmed from a moving vehicle. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography is instead dependent on the dynamics that can be achieved with panning shots, tracking shots and the movement on the road itself. These devices are employed to deliver one of the film’s recurring tropes: the commentary talks of ‘that weird contrast which is India’ and the ‘contrast which forever typifies the Indian road’. Cardiff delivers these contrasts by the use of panning movements, which surprise us with the unexpected combinations that they bring to the screen. One panning movement takes us from half-naked yogis towards a richly attired raja, while another moves from camel-yoked carts towards a Muslim decorating his sheep as part of his Ramadan observance. Elsewhere Cardiff films an overheated omnibus being overtaken by a palanquin, ‘a type of vehicle which has not changed for more than 2000 years’. He uses his tracking shots to gradually unveil various aspects of village life: covered women, al fresco barbers, cotton spinning, gossiping travellers.

As with other films in the World Window series, the film’s content has been determined by the company’s desire to make best use of the Technicolor process. Jack Cardiff delivers the ‘kaleidoscope of colour’ that is outlined in the commentary, most notably by focussing on the vibrant materials that make up the Indians’ clothes. His work received praise in contemporary reviews. Today’s Cinema, for example, remarked upon the film’s ‘exquisite Technicolor production’ (TC, 22 May 1940, 21). Today, it is the element of the film that is most highly valued. Robin Baker has talked of the cinematography providing ‘compelling viewing’ (Baker).

At times it can be compelling for unintended reasons. This film describes India being a land in which ‘fact and fantasy are yoked together’, but one of its problems is that these ingredients have been deliberately assembled. It is clear that the juxtapositions captured by Cardiff’s camera haven’t occurred by chance, but have been intentionally arranged and choreographed. Similarly, the combination of colours has been put together with forethought. Moreover, if the ‘fantasy’ elements of this film can be called into question, so can its ‘facts’. Of particular note is the relentless concentration on the ‘backwardness’ of India. The film is also clumsy when it attempts to provide background details. For example, on witnessing a Muslim woman in burqa the viewer is informed that her religion forbids the world ‘the smallest inkling of her charms’. Finally, what further undermines the film is its neglect of one of contemporary India’s most vivid contrasts: at no point in this documentary do the British enter the frame.

Richard Osborne (October 2009)


Works Cited

‘A Road in India’, Today’s Cinema, 54/4418 (22 May 1940), 21.

Baker, Robin, A Road in India, Mediatheque, BFI, London.

Cardiff, Jack, Magic Hour (London: Faber and Faber, 1996).

Gupta, Dhruba, ‘Image of India in Colonial Films’, in 100 Years of Cinema, ed. by Pradbodh Maitra (Calcutta: Nandan, 1995), 257-65

Stewart, Jez, ‘Road in India, A (1938)’,




Technical Data

Running Time:
9 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
Colour (Technicolor)

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain, USA
FUSCO, Giovanni
Production Company
United Artists
Production Company
World Window
Production Company
World Window Inc. U.S.A.
Sound Re-recording
Western Electric Mirrophonic