Multifaceted pioneer

Himanshu Rai, founder of Bombay Talkies, was one of the pathfinders of Indian cinema. Pran Nevile writes about The Light of Asia, the first film of this versatile actor, director, producer and writer. After this film, Indian cinema found its place on the world map

Himanshu Rai and Sita Devi in The Light of Asia. Rai played the leading role of Prince Siddhartha
Himanshu Rai and Sita Devi in The Light of Asia. Rai played the leading role of Prince Siddhartha

Sita Devi, who played the role of the beautiful Yashodhara, was called Gopa in the film
Sita Devi, who played the role of the beautiful Yashodhara, was called Gopa in the film

None of the actors applied any make-up and no artificial studio lights were used
None of the actors applied any make-up and no artificial studio lights were used
Photos courtesy: Pran Nevile

Hailing from a distinguished Bengali family, Himanshu Rai gave up his law studies in London in the early 1920s to join the stage for reviving the long-neglected, dramatic traditions of India. His family considered it disgraceful and stopped his allowances. This only spurred his zeal to pursue his chosen vocation. He had first appeared in London in a Rabindranath Tagore play, Maharani of Arakan. Earlier, at the age of 11, he had acted in another Tagore play, Sacrifice, while studying at the school of drama at Santiniketan.

Raiís chief aim was to gain experience at the London stage. He took up any role that came his way. He realised that the West was interested in knowing more about the East, and there was a great scope for presenting something genuinely oriental to westerners.

On his return to India, he was disappointed to find the local theatres of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras presenting poor copies of the western shows. He decided to organise a professional company for producing plays, based on Indian themes, for showings at home and abroad. He founded Indian Players, a group of 20 amateur artistes and took it to London. Their play, The Goddess, a satire on the failings of Indian priesthood, scripted by Niranjan Pal, was a great success in London, Manchester, Liverpool and other cities. There was widespread applause and audiences flocked the theatres for three months in the summer of 1922.

Soon, the fame Indian Playersí fame reached Europe and the group was invited to perform in France, Italy and Egypt but the language problem was a big hurdle. It was then that Rai recognised the value of cinema, as the universal dramatic medium because the problem of language disappeared on the screen.

Looking for a suitable story with historical setting, a story that would highlight the glorious past of India, Himanshu Rai chose the early life of Gautama Buddha. The centuries-old legendary form of the story contained the necessary elements of conflict between love, romance and renunciation, carrying universal appeal, so essential to a popular drama. Rai wanted to show to the West not only the grandeur and glitter of ancient India but also its rich cultural heritage and old dramatic traditions.

The script was written by the well-known playwright Niranjan Pal, on the basis of Edwin Arnoldís classic, The Light of Asia, about the life of Prince Siddhartha and his receiving enlightenment as Buddha.

Himanshu Rai worked out a grandiose project and persuaded Emelka Film Company of Munich to become a partner in this joint venture. It was the first case of an international co-production for any Indian film producer. Convinced of its commercial viability, the German company agreed to send to India a director, cameramen and technical crew and also provide all equipment. For processing and editing of prints in its Munich laboratories, it acquired all European distribution rights.

Like most actresses of the period, 15-year-old Renee Smith was given the screen name of Sita Devi
Like most actresses of the period, 15-year-old Renee Smith was given the screen name of Sita Devi

The western audience was struck by the sunset beauty of its scenes and the magnificent procession of elephants and people in colourful costumes
The western audience was struck by the sunset beauty of its scenes and the magnificent procession of elephants and people in colourful costumes

On his part, Rai undertook to raise funds in India to cover payments to the Indian artistes and shooting expenses and other location costs in exchange for Indian distribution rights, along with two prints from Emelka.

Himanshu Rai returned to India to raise finances for his venture. He had to struggle for two years to enlist the support of the Government of India, of the maharajas of different states, of the guardian priests of the old temples. He wrote about his difficulties, "There were many prejudices to overcome. I had many, myself. Pioneering is always beset with difficulties. For instance, when I approached some financiers in India and asked them to give us support, they looked at me in amazement`85`85.I was speaking a language they did not understand. "Why should we spend money to create only a shadow?" they asked. "Steel, gold, sugar ó why not some tangible asset instead?" they added.

Finally, a group of a dozen, principally lawyers, judges and other professionals, based in Delhi, organised a banking corporation to finance Raiís project, The Light of Asia. For this success, Rai acknowledges the help and support extended to him by Mrs Sarojini Naidu and his uncle C. R. Das, founder of the Swaraj Party.

Rai himself played the leading role of Siddhartha and members of his Indian Players group readily accepted minor roles assigned to them. But Rai faced many problems in finding a young lady to act as his royal spouse, the beautiful Yashodhara, called Gopa in the film. So, an advertisement was put out in important English newspapers in India, promising attractive terms to a suitable person.

Unfortunately, there was not a single reply worth considering. Then, one day in Calcutta, an Anglo-Indian friend of his sister came to call on them, accompanied by his 15-year-old daughter Renee Smith. The moment Rai saw her, he knew hers was the face he had been looking for so long. There was much resistance from the family but finally due to their daughterís enthusiasm and interest in acting, they agreed to let her join the company and play the leading role of Gopa, the heroine of the film.

Like most actresses of the period, she was given the screen name of Sita Devi. Rai spoke highly of Sita Devi and her dedicated performance, working for long hours in the scorching sun since all the shooting was done outdoors in natural light.

The Light of Asia was directed by Franz Osten and location shooting was done by the German cameramen Will Kiermier and Josef Wirschurg at various places connected with the life of the Buddha, such as Benaras and Gaya.

For scenes of the early life of Buddha as Prince Siddhartha, Maharaja of Jaipur offered generous help and also allowed shooting at his palace. His personal retinue and subjects dressed in valuable old costumes, richly decorated elephants, horses and camels were also made available to shoot certain scenes in the film.

It is worth noting that none of the actors applied any make-up and no artificial studio lights were used. To prevent any damage to the film in the heat of the plains, the exposed negative was developed in a laboratory specially set up in the hills.

The opening shots of the film show a group of European tourists in Bombay where they meet on old man, who narrates the story of Prince Siddhartha, his early life, his disillusionment after witnessing old age, sickness and death and then his renunciation for attaining enlightenment as Buddha. The film takes up the narrative as a flashback and ends with Gopa kneeling before Gautama, praying to become his disciple.

The German premiere of The Light of Asia was held at Munich on October 22, 1925, before a distinguished audience. It was acclaimed by the German media in superlative terms. The western audience was struck by the sunset beauty of its scenes and the magnificent procession of elephants and people in colourful costumes.

The showing at Munich was followed with gala openings in Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Venice, Geneva and Brussles with personal appearances by Himanshu Rai. The crowning success of the film was a royal command performance at Windsor Castle, where the Queen congratulated the producer Himanshu Rai. The film had a four-month run at the Philharmonic Hall, London, and it was adjudged one of the best films of 1925. For the first time, Indian cinema came to be widely known and found its place on the world map of cinema.

In India, the film received favourable reviews but only a limited success at the box office. The European success of The Light of Asia brought Himanshu Rai offers that resulted in two more Indo-German productions, Shiraz (1928) and A Throw of Dice (1929), both shot in India with Indian cast, including Himanshu Rai and Sita Devi. It was during the shooting of A Throw of Dice that Himanshu Rai came in close contact with Devika Rani, who was working in the film as costume designer. After the shooting was over, Rai and Devika got married and later both of them together set up the famous Bombay Talkies in 1934. Rai died in 1940 and after him Devika Rani took over the studio.





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