‘Business as Usual’? British Newsreel Coverage of Indian Independence and Partition, 1947–1948

  • Philip Woods
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the History of the Media book series (PSHM)


It is surprising that in all the attention that historians have given to India’s independence and to the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, little, if any, notice has been paid to the newsreel coverage of those momentous events.1 Yet the newsreels, perhaps more than any other mass medium, have defined the way in which we see the first major decolonisation of the twentieth century. The images of Nehru speaking to the Indian Constituent Assembly, his famous ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech, at midnight on 14 August 1947, and the joyous celebrations of 15 August in New Delhi are etched on the mind.2 As well as the celebrations, we remember the tragic scenes of mass migration, the miles of pitiful refugees clinging to the few possessions they could carry, and the trains in which so many would-be migrants would be slaughtered in the movement of over ten million refugees across the new boundaries between India and Pakistan. These are all images that come to us from the newsreels. Indeed, immediately after the Second World War when cinema attendance in Britain was at its height, and in the years before television news established itself, the newsreels were a major source by which the public received its images of current events. In addition to the British market, the newsreels had a worldwide audience, largest of which was in the US, but even in India itself these newsreels would have been shown, at least in the city cinemas which took western films.3


Princely State Street Scene News Magazine Indian Politician British Troop 
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  1. 3.
    An informed, though necessarily speculative, contemporary estimate of the worldwide audience for newsreels was that every week 215 million people watched them, one in ten of the population: P. Baechlin and M. Muller-Strauss, Newsreels Across the World (Paris: UNESCO, 1952), p. 9.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Arts Enquiry, The Factual Film (London: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 140.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    G. Clement Cave (managing editor of Pathé News), ‘Newsreels Must Find a New Policy’, Penguin Film Review, 7, 1948; L. Enticknap, ‘The Non-Fiction Film in Britain, 1945–51’, unpublished PhD diss., University of Exeter, 1999, pp. 77–9, 82–3, 95.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    P. Addison, Now the War is Over: A Social History of Britain1945–51 (London: BBC/Jonathan Cape, 1985), pp. 129–30.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    N. Reeves, The Power of Film Propaganda: Myth or Reality? (London and New York: Cassell, 1999), pp. 162–4. Sydney Bernstein’s cinema questionnaire (1946) found that 41 per cent of respondents found newsreels ‘good’, 49 per cent ‘fair’, 8 per cent ‘poor’, while 2 per cent were ‘don’t know’; cited in Enticknap, The Non-Fiction Film in Britain, 1945–51’, pp. 88–9.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Minutes of Newsreel Association of Great Britain and Ireland [NRA], British Film Institute [BFI], 14 July 1947, minute 2386; J. Turner, Filming History: the Memoirs of John Turner, Newsreel Cameraman (London: BUFVC, 2001). It appears that the influence of Commander Sir Arthur Jarratt, a friend of Mountbatten’s, was important in reaching this agreement, see Campbell-Johnson to Mountbatten, 11 July 1947, MB1/E30, Mountbatten MSS, Hartley Library, University of Southampton.Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    See P. Woods, ‘“Chappatis by Parachute”: The Use of Newsreels in British Propaganda in India in the Second World War’, South Asia, 23, 2 (December 2000), pp. 106–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 14.
    J. Mohan, Dr P. V. Pathy: Documentary Film-maker (1906–61) (Pune: National Film Archive of India, 1972), p. 45.Google Scholar
  9. 16.
    See J. Morgan, Edwina Mountbatten: A Life of Her Own (London: HarperCollins, 1991).Google Scholar
  10. 17.
    See A. Campbell-Johnson, Mission with Mountbatten (London: Robert Hale, 1951), p. 106; Ved Parkash’s dope-sheet for British Paramount News, 12 June 1947, ‘India Accepts the Plan’, Reel 7, British Universities Newsreel Database [BUND],, in which it is shown that Mountbatten repeated parts of his speech for the newsreels so that it would synchronise with an All India Radio recording which would accompany the film back to London. In the end this part of the film was not used.Google Scholar
  11. 18.
    This is very well brought out in J. Masselos, ‘The Magic Touch of Being Free: The Rituals of Independence on August 15’, in India: Creating a Modern Nation (New Delhi: Sterling, 1990), pp. 37–53.Google Scholar
  12. 36.
    See the dope-sheets for British Paramount News issue 1728, 22 September 1947, ‘Delhi Riots Kill Thousands’,; for details of the situation in Delhi, see G. Pandey, Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), chapter 6. Despite calls in Filmindia for stricter censorship of film of riots, the Government of India held firm to a policy of not placing restrictions on the access of photographers and journalists, Filmindia, 13, 12, December 1947, 7–9; Mountbatten Mss, Hartley Library, MB1/D20/7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 39.
    Campbell-Johnson, Mission with Mountbatten, pp. 279–80. Remarkably two of the world’s greatest photographers, Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson, were in Delhi at the time, both taking photos of the Mahatma for news magazines. See C. Cookman, ‘Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson: Gandhi’s Funeral’, The History of Photography, 22, 2 (Summer 1998), 199–209.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 42.
    Issue 1740, 3 November 1947, ‘India Despatch Shows Land of Ironic Contrast’. For the situation of the princely states, see I. Copland, The Princes of India in the Endgame of Empire, 1917–1947 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 46.
    News magazines such as March of Time or This Modern Age differed from newsreels in that they were made at less frequent intervals and often went into great depth on one issue. March of Time (MOT) was also well known for its outspoken commentaries and creative use of film material. See R. Fielding, The March of Time, 1935–1951 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).Google Scholar
  16. 47.
    See P. Hopkinson, Split Focus: An Involvement in Two Decades (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1969), pp. 118–23.Google Scholar

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© Philip Woods 2006

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  • Philip Woods

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