Cinema (2018 | Issue 4)

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Indian and German films couldn’t be more different! They are at opposite ends of the spectrum, with the former leaning towards emotion, song and dance. But did you know German cinematographers, directors and production designers contributed a great deal to Indian cinema? What’s Up, Germany? dips into film archives and traces fascinating stories of Germans working in the Bombay film industry before and after World War II.

Indian and German films couldn’t be more different! They are at opposite ends of the spectrum, with the former leaning towards emotion, song and dance. But did you know German cinematographers, directors and production designers contributed a great deal to Indian cinema? What’s Up, Germany? dips into film archives and traces fascinating stories of Germans working in the Bombay film industry before and after World War II.

In the 1920s, Himanshu Rai, a bright young Indian lawyer based in London, became very interested in film-making. He approached Emelka Studios in Munich for a collaboration. This culminated in Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia, 1925), the first ever Indo-German co-production. Emelka Studios provided the technical crew and equipment, while the script, location scouting, casting and capital were Rai’s responsibility. In February 1925, Rai boarded a ship to Bombay, along with director Franz Osten, cinematographers Josef Wirsching and Willi Kiermeier, production designer Karl von Spreti and assistant director and interpreter Bertl Schultes. Having made pre-production arrangements, the German crew went back home and returned three months later to shoot the film in actual Indian locations. Prem Sanyas, which tells the story of the Buddha, met with an enthusiastic response in Munich in 1925.

BOMBAY TALKIES

Later, when Rai and the actress Devika Rani opened the Bombay Talkies studio in 1934, they invited their German colleagues to work with them in India. The result? Between 1935 and 1939, Osten directed 16 feature films for Bombay Talkies without knowing a word of Hindi! He, along with other Germans, were jailed by the British government in India when World War Two broke out. Osten was later released and sent to Germany due to ill health.

JOSEF WIRSCHING

German cinematographer and photographer Josef Wirsching, who had worked on Prem Sanyas, also joined Bombay Talkies. He shot some of the most seminal movies of the time: Janmabhoomi (1936), Achhut Kanya (1936), Izzat (1937) and Prem Kahani (1937). Wirsching introduced elements of German Expressionism to Indian cinema through his groundbreaking camerawork: unconventional angles, ethereal lighting and atmospheric compositions. Toting a Leica camera with the revolutionary 35mm

German cinematographer and photographer Josef Wirsching, who had worked on Prem Sanyas, also joined Bombay Talkies. He shot some of the most seminal movies of the time: Janmabhoomi (1936), Achhut Kanya (1936), Izzat (1937) and Prem Kahani (1937). Wirsching introduced elements of German Expressionism to Indian cinema through his groundbreaking camerawork: unconventional angles, ethereal lighting and atmospheric compositions. Toting a Leica camera with the revolutionary 35mm film, he was a permanent figure at Bombay Talkies. His still photographs were the subject of much excitement and discussion. Between 1925 and 1967, he took many iconic photos of India and its people, film locations, legendary actors and behind-the-scene activities—nearly 6,000 to be precise!

film, he was a permanent figure at Bombay Talkies. His still photographs were the subject of much excitement and discussion. Between 1925 and 1967, he took many iconic photos of India and its people, film locations, legendary actors and behind-the-scene activities—nearly 6,000 to be precise!

Like Osten, he too was jailed during World War Two. Between 1939 and 1947, he was in an internment camp, after which he went back to Bombay Talkies. This was when he shot Kamal Amrohi’s unforgettable Mahal (1949), starring Ashok Kumar and Madhubala. Ten years later, Wirsching joined Amrohi’s production company, Kamal Pictures (Mahal Films), as director of photography. He filmed most of Pakeezah—for the first time in colour and in CinemaScope—but could not complete it. He passed away in Bombay on 11th June 1967. Josef Wirsching is remembered for his everlasting work that set the standard for Indian cinema in the decades to come.

WALTER KAUFMANN

This German composer and musicologist migrated to India in 1934 along with Franz Osten. He was the director of European music at All India Radio and composed its signature tune, which is still played today! He also founded the Bombay Chamber Music Society and composed background scores for Hindi films like Toofani Tarzan (1937), Prem Nagar (1940) and Ek Din Ka Sultan (1945). After having lived in Bombay for more than a decade, Kaufmann moved to England in 1946.

All images: Bombay Talkies, via Wikimedia Commons