Film History Essentials: Panorama of Calcutta (1899)

What it’s about:

A traveling shot aboard a boat captures a view of life along the Ganges River in India. People bathe, wash clothes, and engage in other activities in boats and on the shore.

Why it’s essential:

Panorama of Calcutta is the oldest surviving film of India currently known to exist, but there is a great deal of uncertainty about who filmed it. It has frequently been credited to John “Mad Jack” Benett-Stanford (see right), whose official description in the Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema is: “Rogue, fox-hunter, war cameraman and archetypal English squire.” Benett-Stanford only made films from about 1898 to 1900. He captured the only images of British forces at the Battle of Omdurman in Sudan in September 1898. (This battle was famously depicted in the climax of the 1939 film The Four Feathers.) He was also the first person to arrive in South Africa with a movie camera after the outbreak of the Second Boer War in October 1899, and he shot a number of films there in the following months.

If Benett-Sanford was responsible for this film, his journey to India would have had to take place between his time in Sudan and South Africa, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that he made such a trip in 1899. He did spend time in India, beginning his military career there a decade earlier, and he was a well-known cameraman for the Warwick Trading Company (the distributors of this film). Those two facts may have led to his being credited, seemingly incorrectly. According to Colonial Film, some sources credit an “unknown foreign cameraman” instead. This suggests that the film could be the work of Hiralal Sen, one of the first Indian filmmakers.

Sen (see left) made his first film in 1898, with a camera borrowed from a traveling film show. He then bought a camera from the Warwick Trading Company, and formed the Royal Bioscope Company with his brother (likely the first film production company in India). The company existed for about 15 years, and Sen made newsreels, actualities, filmed stage performances, and created some of India’s first filmed advertisements. His 1903 film Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves was the first Indian feature film. Tragically, shortly before his death in 1917, a fire destroyed all of his films, and no films definitively attributed to him are known to have survived.

However, he did have a business connection with the Warwick Trading Company during this time. Sen also operated out of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), where he grew up, making it seem plausible that he could have filmed Panorama of Calcutta. There’s just one problem: This film was not shot in Kolkata at all. It was actually filmed in Varanasi (formerly Benares), the “spiritual capital of India,” over 400 miles to the northwest.

The mislabeling of the film dates to its original catalogue listing by Warwick, though whether this was accidental (due to the film’s inclusion in a batch of films depicting Kolkata), or deliberate (to provide the film’s British audience with a more familiar frame of reference) is unknown. As for the identity of the cameraman, perhaps it was filmed by an associate of Sen’s from the Royal Bioscope Company. It may also have been filmed using the camera Sen borrowed in 1898 (owned by a “Professor” Stevenson), as the traveling film show continued on through India.

In any case, despite not being as well-known to Western audiences of the time, Varanasi is actually an appropriate location to appear in India’s oldest film. It is the oldest continually-inhabited city in India, with a history dating back over 3000 years. Sometimes called the “City of Temples” due to the thousands of temples located there, it is a destination for tens of thousands of pilgrims every year.

The true heart of the city’s spiritual practice lies along the ghats that line the shores of the Ganges as it flows past the city’s eastern edge. These ghats, the steps leading down to the water’s edge, are clearly visible throughout Panorama of Calcutta. These distinctive structures facilitate activities that can be either mundane (bathing and laundry) or religious (ritual ablutions, cremations, etc.).

What to watch for:

This film is a constant experience of tantalizing glimpses that are gone from the frame too soon. There is so much going on in every moment of the shot that it would be difficult to take it all in even if the camera were stationary. Because the image is in constant motion, no one person is visible for more than about five seconds, which is barely long enough to form even the simplest impression of what they may be doing. Several people seem to pause and take notice of the camera, as well.

The architecture of the ghats along this section of the river are the true highlight of the film. They are beautiful and ornate, but also functional, and there’s an incredible variety of form and purpose in evidence. Note, too, the ubiquity of the large umbrella-like shades that are set up all around. Between those and the various boats that come between the camera and the shore, there’s a great deal blocking the camera’s view of the people on shore. Overall, the effect is of a scene teeming with life and activity.

Finally, just past the halfway point, the boat (getting out of the way of an oncoming craft) turns away from the shore and then turns back parallel in a way that makes the camera seem to pan right and then left. This creates a very unique effect for its time (cameras did not yet “pan” by themselves), particularly as the camera is turned back to the left. It seems to follow the passing boat, creating a momentary illusion that the boat the camera is on has reversed directions. These maneuvers also provide a much wider shot of the shoreline, showing the ghats continuing on out of sight far ahead.

Films like this, whether from India or other locations around the world, frequently advertised the extreme contrast they showed between scenes of far-off places and the familiarity of more domestic scenes. It’s interesting to consider how a British, Colonial-Era audience would have viewed this as an exotic glimpse of a subject state that most of them would never have a chance to see firsthand. Meanwhile, for a modern audience, a film of ordinary life in 19th-century England is equally exotic. The past is no less foreign to us than the other side of the world was to early cinema audiences.


~ by Jared on April 21, 2023.

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