The Glorious Legacy of Bombay Talkies

Lost archives of the pioneering film studio Bombay Talkies have gone on display at an exhibition in Australia.

When Peter Dietze came across a box of old photographs and newspaper cuttings at his mother’s home, he was intrigued. They showed a man who he had never seen in any other photograph around her home. He wanted to know more.

That was in the 1980s. Since then, Dietze, a Melbourne-based visual designer, has made it almost his life’s mission to find more about the dark skinned man in the photographs and has unearthed a treasure trove of archival material. The man in the photographs was Himanshu Rai, founder of India’s famous Bombay Talkies and, it turned out, his grandfather. His mother Neelima, who scarcely knew her father, told Peter whatever little she had heard from her own mother, and the rest he has pieced through pictures, posters, cuttings, still photographs and films. It is now an impressive collection that went on display at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne on Wednesday, February 8.

“We got very excited when Peter came to us with his extensive collection,” curator Fiona Trigg told The Wire over the phone. “There were clippings from British newspapers, business correspondence with industrialists in Bombay to invest in his new venture Bombay Talkies and letters to his wife Devika Rani. It was difficult to select what we should exhibit, there was so much.” Many of the items are in a fragile state, and had to be carefully handled and restored before they could be shown.

Eventually, 70 items from the collection, which numbers over 3,000, were chosen. In the process, Fiona says, “she has learnt so much about this remarkable institution and its founders.”

A still from the film A Throw of Dice, starring Himanshu Rai and Seeta Devi. Cedit: Peter Dietze

A still from the film A Throw of Dice, starring Himanshu Rai and Seeta Devi.

Bombay Talkies was set up by Rai in 1934 along with his wife, who wanted to bring highly professional standards to Indian cinema. Both had returned from Germany, where Rai had made films such as Throw of Dice (1929) and Karma (1933) with German and British partners, and Rani had taken a filmmaking course in the famous studio Universum Film AG (UFA) Berlin.

Rai brought back German technicians with him, all of whom took the opportunity of escaping Nazi Germany, and began wooing investors in Bombay.

He roped in Sir Richard Temple, whose father had been governor of Bombay in the late 19th century. Sir Richard had a wide swathe of contacts of eminence in the city and investors were more than willing to back a venture with such a fine provenance – the board of Directors of the studio reads like a who’s who of the time: Sir Pherozshah Mehta, Sir Cawasji Jehangir, Sir Chunilal Mehta and F.F. Dinshaw.

Land was acquired in Malad in north Bombay, and sound stages, offices and even homes were built. Some film or the other was always being shot. Everyone was paid a salary and ate at the same cafeteria. Bombay Talkies came to be known for its films, but it was an uncertain business and in 1940, Rai died of a heart attack, possibly brought on by the pressures of running a large studio. Bombay Talkies lasted for all of 20 years and towards the end was in poor financial shape. By then it had made some landmark films, including Achut Kanya (1936), Kismet (1943) and Mahal (1946), and had on its rolls, at one time or the other, stars such as Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar, young Madhubala, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, directors Franz Osten, Shahid Lateef and Gyan Mukherjee, writer Ismat Chugtai, master technicians like Josef Wirsching and the first female music director Saraswati Devi.

“All that and more is in our family collection. It is quite a great story.” says Dietze from Melbourne. More than the Bombay Talkies part of it, Dietze wanted to know more about Rai, who was married to German actress Mary Hainlen in the 1920s but left her when he came across the young Rani. In 1926 Himanshu and Mary had a young daughter, Nilima but he left them when the child was 5 years old. Nilima married Ernest Dietze in 1947 and moved to Australia in 1952. “Fearing that the policy of White Australia would somehow affect them, Nilima did not mention the Indian connection.” Dietze and his brothers too had no idea of their Indian heritage – they thought they were of German extraction.

But after the discovery of the photographs and cuttings, Dietze, then in his 30s, began looking for more. It was not easy in pre-Internet times but even what little he found fascinated him – he realised Rai was a “handsome man and quite the personality and quite a pioneer”. He tracked down his films and saw them all. But in Melbourne, far away from India, there was not much to be learnt.

Then he had a stroke of luck. In 2001, he happened to be in New York and had some time to kill. He went across to the Nicholas Roerich Museum devoted to the Russian painter and got talking to an official, mentioning to him his own interest and links to Rai. After Rai’s death in 1940, Rai had married Roerich’s son Svetoslav and settled down in Manali. The museum had all her papers. The official led Dietze to a storeroom and showed him boxes upon boxes of material on both Rani and Rai. He told Dietze he could take it away if he wanted. “I was overwhelmed. It was too emotional. I returned to Melbourne and kept up a correspondence with the museum. Finally, they sent me seven boxes with archival material and I have learnt so much. I am now digitising everything.”

For historians, this archive is of tremendous interest since almost everyone and everything associated with Bombay Talkies have disappeared. After Rai’s death, control first passed to Rani and then to Shashadhar Mukherjee and his brother-in-law Ashok Kumar. They couldn’t run it, despite making hit films. The property got sold and all that remains is a wall in Malad. Dietze now wants to bring the exhibition to Mumbai to let everyone know about the great legacy of the country’s pioneering film studio.

Bombay Talkies runs at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, until July 2. All images courtesy ACMI and the Dietze family trust archive.

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