By Namit Arora
James A. FitzPatrick (1894-1980), American movie-maker, is best known for his 200+ short documentary films from around the world. They appeared in two series, Traveltalks and The Voice of the Globe, which he wrote, produced, and directed from 1929-55. Commissioned by MGM, the shorts played before its feature films and were no doubt a mind-expanding experience for many. Some of them are now online at the Travel Film Archive. Nearly eighty years later, what should we make of FitzPatrick and his travel films?
FitzPatrick's shorts on India—including Jaipur, Benares, Bombay, The Temple of Love (Delhi & Agra, no audio), and others not yet online—are a rare and unique window into Indian public life in the 1930s. We can see what many of these cities' prominent streets and traffic looked like before motor vehicles and billboards, what familiar urbanscapes and skylines looked like, and how uncrowded these cities were before the big rural migrations, not to mention 70% fewer Indians. It is interesting to hear an American public figure from the 1930s pronounce on the castes of India, the religiosity of the Indians, and how they shared their public spaces with animals. They have the charm of quaint narrative conventions we find in period pieces. His films are valuable records of history also because they are a unique encounter of two very different cultures—illuminating the world behind the lens through the one in front.
But having said that, I also think their present value owes more to the paucity of video records of everyday life from that era, than to the quality of FitzPatrick's mind. FitzPatrick seems to me very much a man of his time. In his directorial choices and opinions, he may well qualify as a textbook orientalist. This is not to say that his films are devoid of truth, empathy or humor. It is to say that he brought along with him a marked sense of cultural and racial superiority, as he trained his viewfinder on what he found amusing, outlandish or admirable.
FitzPatrick saw Bombay as “the first constructive imprint of western civilization upon this much talked of and generally misunderstood country.” He was impressed by the cosmopolitan life and energy of Bombay, whose population was “over one million people, representing practically every race and creed in the world.” But even in Bombay, he notes, “the 15th century is constantly rubbing shoulders with the 20th” and “the ancient procession goes on in strange defiance.” In his day, Jaipur was apparently “off the beaten track of tourist travel” despite being “unquestionably the most colorful of all the cities in India [and] one of the cleanest and most prosperous.” He doubts if there is another “place in the world where birds and beasts live in closer proximity with mankind.” The people of Jaipur, he finds, have “a contented and peaceful nature, living in a sort of bovine resignation to life”. While in Benares, “the Hindu Heaven”, he suspects that “in the whole world there is no stranger manifestation of human faith in the supernatural than what is witnessed here on the banks of the sacred Ganges.” It confounds him that millions of “dumb animals”, “made and kept worthless by the Hindu religious code, roam the land devouring annually millions of dollars worth of food for which they produce nothing.”