Cinema (2018 | Issue 4)

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German Expressionism in Indian Film-01

India and Germany have been collaborating in multiple fields. Cinema is no different. We share a strong cinematic connection since the early 20th century. The Bombay film industry had German directors and cinematographers back in 1925! A strong team spirit and creative camaraderie enhanced their collaborations. What’s Up, Germany? examines how German Expressionism deeply influenced Indian film-makers like Himanshu Rai, Kamal Amrohi and V Shantaram.

Seeta Devi in Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia, 1925)

Seeta Devi in Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia, 1925)

I n Germany, the Weimar years (1918–1933) were marked by artistic freedom. Art and architecture were dominated by the Bauhaus School. Likewise, German cinema developed under the Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa) and gave Hollywood stiff competition. So even though the country faced political isolation post World War I and lacked funds, the creative scene was thriving. It was during this period that the German Expressionism movement was born. It emphasised the exaggeration of film sets, lighting, costumes and performances. This exaggeration or distortion was a reflection of inner realities. Dark themes like insanity and betrayal were explored. Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), FW Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) are great examples of German Expressionism. These films were characterised by unsettling camera angles, ominous shadows and surreal sets. In The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, lights and shadows were so essential to the movie, they were actually painted on the sets!

Madhubala in Mahal (1949)

Madhubala in Mahal (1949)

lights and shadows were so essential to the movie, they were actually painted on the sets!

It’s no surprise that German Expressionism gave birth to horror films and film noir (crime thrillers that explore the darker side of human nature). It had a huge influence on film directors across the world—then and now—from Alfred Hitchcock, Guillermo del Toro and Ridley Scott, to our very own Himanshu Rai, Kamal Amrohi and V Shantaram. Both Rai and Shantaram visited the Ufa studios in Germany.

Himanshu Rai Producer and actor Himanshu Rai’s Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia, 1925) marked the beginning of Indo-German collaboration in cinema. This silent film tells the story of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who went on to become the Buddha. Directed by the German director Franz Osten and shot by another German, cinematographer Josef Wirsching, it was the first Indian film to be distributed internationally.

Rai had studied in Germany and was deeply influenced by its cinema. His involving Germans in this film led to the introduction of German Expressionism in the Bombay film industry, as well as continued Indo-German collaborations. Wirsching, with his meticulous lighting and eccentric camera angles, played a major role in spreading this movement in India.

Marlene Dietrich in Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930)

Marlene Dietrich in Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930)

Madhubala in Mahal (1949)

Madhubala in Mahal (1949)

Kamal Amrohi The 1949 classic Mahal was produced by Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani’s Bombay Talkies studio and was shot by Josef Wirsching. Director Kamal Amrohi’s black-and-white love story, starring Ashok Kumar and Madhubala, was influenced by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. This is clearly evident in Wirsching’s play of light and shadow. Laden with metaphors, opulent sets and scary apparitions, Mahal dealt with reincarnation and unfulfilled love. Here, the physical became an exploration of the psychological. Interestingly, this film launched the career of Lata Mangeshkar with the haunting song “Aayega Aanewala”.

Marlene Dietrich in Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930)

Marlene Dietrich in Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930)

V Shantaram Shantaram’s Pinjra (1972) was based on the German tragicomedy Der blaue Engel (1930) by Josef von Sternberg. He indianised the story, turning it into a Marathi tamasha dance version. In the film, a school teacher falls in love with a sensuous lavani dancer. Produced in colour and later remade in Hindi, it won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Marathi. Shantaram’s earlier movie, Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957), won the Silver Bear at the 1958 Berlin International Film Festival. Incidentally, the film-maker went to Germany to print India’s first colour film, Sairandhri (1933).

All images via Wikimedia Commons