Mapping The German Origins of Bollywood

Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar in a scene from "Nirmala" (1938). Photo: courtesy Wirsching Archive

Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar in a scene from Nirmala (1938). Photo: courtesy Wirsching Archive

 In 1934, barely three years after the first Indian talkie Alam Ara was released, three entrepreneurs got together to set up Bombay Talkies, which was to be the most professional studio of its kind. What made Bombay Talkies unique was that it was funded by some Bombay’s biggest tycoons and was even listed on the stock exchange.

Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai, two of the founders, had worked in Germany; the latter had co-directed Prem Sanyas, an Indo-German joint production that was based on Edwin Arnold’s Orientalist book, Light of Asia, in 1925. So when they set up Bombay Talkies, they brought in some of their German colleagues to work in the company. One of them was Josef Wirsching, who had shot Prem Sanyas in India in 1925. Wirsching joined the Bombay Talkies studio in Malad, Bombay and came to be known for his distinctive German Expressionist camerawork in films like Achoot Kanya, Mahal, Sangram and Dil Apna Preet Parai. After Bombay Talkies, Wirsching had filmed many documentaries and later worked with Kamal Amrohi, filming most of Pakeezah before he passed away in 1967. The film, 14 years in the making, was only released in 1972.

Wirsching had leapt at the opportunity to leave Nazi Germany to come to India and settled down in the country. Even his five year internment in Deolali and Dehradun during the Second World War, along with others resident in India who were from Axis countries, did not discourage him. During his 30 years in the country he took thousands of photographs and now his grandson Georg is putting together a book which will document these images of India during the 1930s, ‘40s and beyond as well as photos taken on the sets of the films Wirsching shot. 

Big project

Collating and curating these photos and publishing a big coffee table book is a monumental task and George Wirsching has decided to go the crowd-sourcing way. “This way the film loving public will get a chance to play an important part in making this project a reality by placing their pre-orders in advance,” Wirsching told The Wire. “Everybody who funds this project will get a tangible form of return for their contribution as a postcard set, or art prints or the book he says. His plan is to raise around Rs 3 million from individuals and institutions. The limited edition book, tentatively titled ‘Bollywood’s German Origins’ is due to be published some time next year.

The idea for a book came to him after he met the legendary film archivist P K Nair who was apparently impressed at the sheer scale of the collection – almost 6000 pictures taken by Josef Wirsching (and a few taken of him too) — and how well it was preserved. “He inspired us to bring out this material in the form of a book and an exhibition so as to help preserve this bit of our film history and make it available to the large numbers of Indian film historians, researchers and students.”

Once the decision was made, Georg Wirsching set up a website and the response has been very heartwarming, he says. “Many people are writing articles, books or even making documentaries about Josef Wirsching’s work in German and Indian cinema they come to us for authentic,” he says.

A photo of Varanasi taken by Josef Wirsching in 1925. Courtesy Wirsching Archive

A photo of Varanasi taken by Josef Wirsching in 1925. Courtesy Wirsching Archive

The images are a rich and varied mix of portraits, landscapes and images depicting the changing ethnographic and cultural landscape of India over the years – from Gateway of India to Jantar Mantar — and also of legendary actors such as Devika Rani, Meena Kumari, Ashok Kumar, Helen and Kishore Sahu. There are many anecdotes about the stars and his observations about life in India at the time.

Georg, who has studied in India and now lives in Goa, came across these photos in 2008—“since 1987 this collection has always been sitting at home with us. Every time I asked my father about what was in that big air tight, sealed steel trunk that we used to cart around whenever we moved, he would tell me that it was my grandfather’s photographic collection which I would get a chance to look at when the time was right.” He then learnt about his father’s enormous contribution to Indian cinema; “very few really know the true story of the man, so I hope we will do that with this book.”