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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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