Imperilling the Prestige of the White Woman

Timelines: All, India Categories: 1920s, Country, Decade, Film, India, Media
Date: 1926


The representation of white women on-screen provided a significant source of tension in early debates on film censorship in India. Prior to the 1927 Indian Cinematograph Committee (ICC), the British Social Hygiene Council sent a delegation to India in 1926. One member and social worker, Mrs. C. Neville Rolfe, produced a memorandum for the British government that claimed “In every province and State visited by the Delegation the evil influence of the cinema was cited by educationists and the representative citizens as one of the major factors in lowering the standard of sex conduct, and thereby tending to increase the dissemination of disease” (in ICC 1927,116). Poonam Arora (1995) attributes the ICC’s consideration of white women’s representations in films to Constance Bromley, the former secretary and manager of J.F. Madan’s Opera House theatre in Calcutta. Bromley published the article “Films that lower our prestige in India: Imperilling the prestige of the white woman” in the Leeds Mercury newspaper and her claims were repeated in British parliamentary debates. Bromley (1926, 5) wrote:
“All respectable Indians keep their women folk set apart from the public gaze. They walk and take air in parks and secluded places specially reserved for them where no man may set his foot. The purdah nashin ladies are heavily veiled and when they visit any place of entertainment it is usually in small parties, sitting in boxes – the front of which is entirely covered with what looks like a huge mosquito net – seeing, but unseen.”
Colonial anxiety thus related to both the representation of white women on-screen, especially in Hollywood films, and their own visibility to the racially and class diverse audiences of movie theatres.

Miriam Sharma (2009) suggests that Arora overstates the significance of Rolfe and Bromley’s interventions to the establishment of the ICC. Priya Jaikumar (2006) also demonstrates that the moral concerns over sexuality and racialised propriety existed alongside the British colonial interest in securing India as a market for Empire (effectively only British) films against competition from Hollywood. While the ICC did investigate the concerns of the British Social Hygiene Council, the National Council of Women, and other stakeholders over cinematic representations of white women, its conclusions ultimately rested on judgements made about audiences stratified by taste and capacity. The ICC concluded that Western “social” films containing sex scenes were not problematic because most Indian filmgoers did not typically patronise them, and didn’t understand them if they did. The governmental tendency for one social group to speak on behalf of another, in this case relatively educated Indians discussing the capacity of the Indian “masses” to interpret sexual content, was replicated in the gendered composition of the ICC: in Bombay and Karachi, the ICC interviewed 64 men and nine women (Jaikumar 2006). – Liam Grealy

Further reading:
– Arora, P. (1995). Imperilling the prestige of the white woman: Colonial anxiety and censorship in British India. Visual Anthropology Review, 11(2), 36-50.
– Bromley, Co. (1926). Films That lower Our prestige in India: Imperilling the safety of the white woman. 26 August. Leeds Mercury, 5-6.
– Jaikumar, P. (2006). Cinema at the end of empire: A politics of transition in Britain and India. Durham: Duke University Press.
– Majumdar, N. (2009). Wanted. Cultured ladies only! Female stardom and cinema in India, 1930s-1950s. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
– Sharma, M. (2009). Censoring India: Cinema and the tentacles of empire in the early years. South Asia Research, 29(1), 41-73.

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