Spotlight: Sarah Erulkar
I was always so grateful when anyone employed me. I always felt I must be such an oddity that they had to sell me to the sponsor as well.
Sarah Erulkar spent her life as an exception. Indian, Jewish and a woman, her outsider status was woven into her identity. Yet, despite her obvious difference she not only broke her way into the white, male, British film industry of the 1940s/1950s, but thrived within it.
During the Second World War, a number of women made their mark in the British film industry, shaping the emerging new documentary movement. These women were as talented, determined and driven as their male peers, but few managed to sustain their careers into the 1950s, scuppered by institutional sexism, a boys’ club atmosphere and the pressure of family life. Yet somehow, despite living through this difficult period, Sarah quietly endured. By her retirement in the 1980s, Sarah had made more than 80 films spanning five decades. Her story is a remarkable tale of fortitude, determination and allyship. It is also a love story.
Sarah Erulkar was born in Kolkata, West Bengal, in 1923, to Flora and David Erulkar. Her father, a barrister who had represented Mahatma Gandhi, was a Jewish Indian from the historic Bene Israel community. The family moved to the UK when Sarah was five years old, where she grew up in respectable, snobbish British society. Although she attended a relatively liberal private school, Sarah’s race marked her as an outsider, a feeling she seems to have carried throughout her life. Decades later, in a 1991 interview for the British Entertainment History Project, Sarah vividly recalled the experience
It wasn’t a sort of terribly happy childhood… I remember sometime later, when I was wearing a sari – this was after the war and I was in films – and somebody couldn’t understand why I was wearing evening dress during the day… we were that rare really, is what I’m saying.
When World War II struck, teenage Sarah was evacuated to Wycombe Abbey, “a real snob place” she found so unbearable that she begged to be allowed to go to University early. She studied sociology, but was heavily involved in theatre, and settled on an ambition to make documentaries because it combined her love of performance with her interest in social justice.
I mean it’s the usual thing I suppose, I wanted to do good for the world, I wanted to go back and rescue India from the bloody British, you know, that kind of thing. And I think that was all part and parcel of it, you know. I sort of saw myself on a white horse – a white horse, a dark horse it should be – sort of going into Delhi.
Soon after graduating, aged 21, Sarah approached the Shell Film Unit and pitched a documentary shot in India. The film never came to fruition, but Shell were impressed and hired her anyway, a life-changing twist of fate.
The early 1940s was an exciting time to join the UK film industry. The British Documentary Movement, spearheaded by influential producer John Grierson, had provided opportunities for a new wave of talented, politically engaged young filmmakers to emerge. This movement included several significant and historically unsung women, including John’s own sisters Ruby and Marion Grierson, Kay Mander and Budge Cooper. Demand for propaganda, overlapping with sponsored filmmaking projects driven by Industry and Government film units, provided ample opportunities for young directors, many of whom were driven by an idealistic socialist agenda. As the war ended this boom peaked, and as the market began to contract over the next decade the women, who had made such a significant contribution to the development of this movement, were first to be pushed out.
Nonetheless, when Sarah began her career, it was an exciting time. At Shell she found, for the first time, that her background didn’t matter:
I’ve been very lucky in that because I really look upon the film industry as my background really, my nation… I lived in a kind of little bubble, which was very different from my childhood…. I wasn’t black, blue or anything, I was a film technician.
At Shell, Sarah was pleased to discover that they “liked Indians.” On set she was known for wearing a sari, a conscious decision to celebrate rather than ignore her identity as an Indian woman. At Shell Sarah did very well and did not, at first at least, feel like she was treated any differently to her male counterparts. Later, she would discover to her cost that she was wrong – although it was her gender, not her race, that would mark her apart.
Sarah began work at the Shell Film Unit in spectacular style, circumventing the usual gradual route in for women – secretarial work, assisting, script supervision – to be promoted to director on only her second film, Flight for Tomorrow (1947) about the repurposing of aircraft. Soon after, at 23-years-old, Sarah was sent to India where she directed Lord Siva Danced (1948), a portrait of the dancer Ram Gopal shot with an Indian crew. The film was a success, acclaimed in the UK and a huge hit in India. Sarah enjoyed the experience making it and would have liked to make more. However she hit upon another stumbling block related to a factor out of her control - in post-Independence India, it wasn’t Sarah’s race or her gender that scuppered her career potential, but rather her “Britishness”. Once again, Sarah found herself an outsider.
In her marriage, as in so many other aspects of her life, Sarah defied expectations. At Shell she met and fell in love with her colleague, fellow filmmaker Peter de Normanville. Both families were against the marriage. Peter’s mother urged her son to keep Sarah as his mistress and feared that their children would be outcasts, while Sarah’s father was deeply disappointed to see his daughter marry an Englishman. The couple married anyway in 1952, but the consequences were severe. Shell prohibited married couples working together, and the assumption was always that it would be the woman who would give up her career. Peter was far lower down the Shell pecking order – an Assistant Director on £8 a week next to Sarah’s Director salary of £16. Nevertheless, they were offered no choice. Sarah’s boss, the renowned filmmaker Arthur Elton, informed her that her new role was ”to put out Peter’s slippers,” and she was automatically fired.
In the 1950s, it was not unusual for married women to be forced out of work. In the British Doc scene there were a fair few marriages between working filmmakers, but there was often an expectation that the woman would subsume her career ambitions to those of her partner. This was certainly the case in other marriages, such as that between John Grierson and editor Margaret Taylor, who after her marriage became an uncredited enabler of her husband’s greatness. Fortunately, Peter de Normanville had no such expectation of his wife and on the contrary proved to be a real ally. Sarah later quoted her husband as declaring: “I married a film director and you’re going to stay a film director.”
Sarah was devastated to be forced out of her much-loved job, but she proved her resilience and bounced back quickly. While Peter stayed at Shell, Sarah went freelance, becoming a versatile jobbing filmmaker for hire.
Throughout her freelance years, from the 1950s to her eventual retirement in the 1980s, Sarah worked across numerous production companies, making commercial, government and industrial films. The topics covered by Sarah were broad and like a true professional she tailored her approach to the needs of her commissioners. The result is an extraordinarily varied output, showcasing a filmmaker as comfortable making a highly technical film about screws and fasteners (Spat System, 1960) as an empathetic doc about social care (District Nurse, 1952). Key to her work however is a lightness of touch and an accessibility, regardless of the sometimes specialist subject matter.
Only a fraction of Sarah’s extensive and esoteric output is readily available online, but what can be streamed gives you a sense of the range of her work and of her signature style. Regardless of subject, her films tend to be visually striking and absorbing. Even her instructional industrial shorts are frequently inventively shot and engagingly told. History of the Helicopter (1951) for instance, charts the history of aeronautical invention across the centuries via sweeping digressions into nature – the slow-motion silhouette of a hummingbirds flapping wings – and mythology – woodcuts of the Icarus myth. Similarly atmospheric is the public information film The Air My Enemy (1971). In this still timely environmental campaign film Sarah juxtaposes Shakespeare and poetry with feverish images of polluting machinery, coughing children and dead animals to create a hellish atmosphere.
Picture to Post (1969), takes similar visual techniques – rich use of colour, split screen, psychedelic filters – to add dynamism to the apparently dry technical subject of stamp design. In fact, this would prove to be one of Sarah’s most widely seen works, having been distributed worldwide as a supporting short. Thousands would have seen Picture to Post in the cinema, and the film went on to be dubbed into German, Spanish, Italian and Japanese, and won the director her first BAFTA.
A good proportion of Sarah’s work focuses on women and children, although it is hard to unpick here how far that representation was driven by the expectations of a market – assigning a “woman’s issue” to a female director – and how far it was driven by Sarah’s sentiments. Nonetheless, her initial interest in documentary had been sparked by a desire to make a difference, and those jobs with real meaning always meant the most to her, as she said herself:
If you’ve got that social purpose behind it, I mean that is what you’re really trying to do. That’s when you get the pleasure out of making.
A key example that unites Sarah’s filmic flair and interest in social values is Birthright (1958). This intriguing curio, which centres on work of the Family Planning Association, is a remarkable public information film with an experimental bent, combining frank discussion of contraception and fertility in the pre-pill era with curious aural flourishes. Electronic innovator Daphne Oram, the founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, worked as a sound adviser, making her influence felt through eerie processed sound and reverb.
Sarah had an affinity for children, and enjoyed working with them to make films for them, often using street-casting to find “real kids” and avoid stage school artificiality. The Smoking Machine (1964), for the Scottish Health Commission, is a public information film retold as a surreal tea-time caper. Centred on a group of excitable kids investigating the mysteries of smoking, the film quite wonderfully captures the absurdities of the adult world through a child’s eye and features a wry voiceover with some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Just as lovable is Teenage Talking (1978), also made for Scottish Health, a charming series featuring teenagers re-enacting and narrating scenes exploring hot topics such as “Men and Women” or “Communication”. A glorious time capsule of 1970s Scotland, all fan collars, huge hair and bleak discos, the films pulse with a playful kinetic energy, featuring dream sequences, fantasy elements and exuberant parent/child rows. The gleefully gawky teenage-ness of their realisation is all the more remarkable when you consider that Sarah herself was entering the last decade of her long career as she made them. While casting on location for these films, Sarah was struck by the poverty she saw, drawing parallels between the slums in Glasgow and those in Kolkata. She was struck too though, by the spirit of these people and their ability to find enjoyment even in cities blighted by extreme poverty.
One of Sarah’s frequent collaborators was influential producer Anne Balfour-Fraser. A fascinating figure in her own right, Anne came from a family of politicians and aristocrats, and early in her career dabbled in opera, singing at La Scala in Milan. When she found herself a single mother with a young son to support, she turned to filmmaking, founding her own production company and building a reputation through working with eminent figures like Kevin Brownlow and John Krish. As the granddaughter of a famous suffragette, Anne was particularly interested in women’s emancipation, a topic that frequently cropped up in her film output, once even making a documentary about Simone de Beauvoir with an all-female crew. Anne and Sarah formed a long professional partnership, and two of Sarah’s best-known films – the classic Public Information film Never Go With Strangers (1971) and A Woman’s Work (1961) – were made in collaboration.
Throughout it all, the many decades of graft and invention, Peter and Sarah’s long partnership endured. The marriage that threatened to derail her career, ended up being anything but an impediment to success. As Sarah forged her impressive freelance portfolio, Peter stayed at Shell and specialised in scientific films. Like his wife, he was renowned for his ability to make informational films that succeeded in conveying highly technical information with clarity, beauty and flair. They made for a glamorous bohemian couple frequently hosting cocktail parties for their artistic and intellectual friends at their North London home. They raised two daughters, Pierette and Siri, balancing work and family with unusual parity, synching their editing and shooting schedules so one parent was always home for the children in the evenings. The couple also worked together, returning to Sarah’s birthplace of Kolkata to co-direct The Living City (1977), which won the BAFTA for Best Short. In the transcript of that extensive 1991 interview with Sarah, Peter is present and occasionally interjects with supportive comments for his wife, praising her work when she is too modest and adding colourful detail.
Sarah retired in the mid-1980s, when her painful arthritis began to take the joy out of her work. Her final film, A Disease Called Leprosy (1985) took Sarah back to India for a last time. The budget was tight, but she manoeuvred to make it possible for Peter to serve as cameraman, so they could share this last shoot. Her career began and ended in India, the country that had inspired Sarah’s breakthrough first pitch at Shell, alongside the man for whom she had risked her career, who had over time proved to be her biggest ally.
The Camera is Ours: Female Documentary Makers, a season featuring work by Marion Grierson, Ruby Grierson, Kay Mander, Sarah Erulkar and Jill Craigie, runs at the BFI Southbank from 3-15 March 2022, followed by a UK Tour.
NB: All pull quotes come from this 1991 Interview with Sarah Erulkar & Peter de Normanville, conducted by John Taylor for The British Entertainment History Project.
“Sarah Erulkar,” Katy McGahan, BFI Screen Online.
“Post War Documentary,” Patrick Russell, BFI Screen Online.
“Birthright (1958),” Tim Boon, BFI Screen Online.
“Picture to Post (1969),” Alex Davidson, BFI Screen Online.
“Anne Balfour Fraser Obit.” Patrick Russell. Guardian.
“Anne Balfour-Fraser Obit.” The Scotsman.
“Scotland’s Forgotten Sisters”. The Scotsman.
“Sarah Erulkar (de Normanville)”. Interview with John Taylor. The History Project.
“Sarah Erulkar Obituary.” Katy McGahan. The Guardian.
“Sarah Erulkar Filmography.” The BFI.
“History of the Helicopter”. Youtube.
“Peter de Normanville Obit”. Anthony R. Michaelis. Guardian.