‘Bombay Talkies: An Unseen History of Indian Cinema’: German who shaped Indian cinema : The Tribune India

‘Bombay Talkies: An Unseen History of Indian Cinema’: German who shaped Indian cinema

‘Bombay Talkies: An Unseen History of Indian Cinema’: German who shaped Indian cinema

Bombay Talkies: An Unseen History of Indian Cinema Edited by Debashree Mukherjee. Mapin Publishing. Pages 196. Rs 3,950

Book Title: Bombay Talkies: An Unseen History of Indian Cinema

Author: Debashree Mukherjee

Abhilaksh Likhi

The legendary filmmaker Kamal Amrohi directed commercially successful films like ‘Mahal’ (1949), ‘Dil Apna Preet Parai’ (1958) and ‘Pakeezah’ (1972). Who was his cameraman? Surprisingly, a German by the name of Josef Wirsching! Even more surprising is the fact that Josef was the cameraman of socially relevant films like ‘Achhut Kanya’ (1936) and ‘Kismet’ (1943), produced by the then famous film studio Bombay Talkies.

This book is a fascinating account of over 20 films captured on celluloid by Josef Wirsching during those formative years of Bombay cinema under the banner of Bombay Talkies. It is also a collection of rare behind-the-scenes photographs from the personal archive of Josef, preserved by his late son Wolfgang Peter Wirsching. The book, further, beautifully encapsulates six essays by famous film historians on the then-evolving language of Hindi cinema which strove to be commercially successful and yet socially reformist.

Films made under Bombay Talkies from the 1930s through the 1950s bore a strong influence, amongst others, of ‘German Expressionism’. In fact, Josef Wirsching played a significant role in popularising this style from the cinema of 1920s in Germany (e.g. ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’). He composed, the book reveals, frames with huge pools of darkness, sharp highlights, eerie shadows, distorted angles and sets that appear to overwhelm the viewer. Such expressionist techniques enriched Bombay Talkies’ melodramatic screenplays such as of ‘Janmbhoomi’ and ‘Jeevan Naiya’. In fact, Josef’s work, according to the book, is memorable for crafting glamorous images for some of India’s most famous actresses: Devika Rani, Madhubala and Meena Kumari. In her essay, Rachel Dwyer describes such cinematic framing as a ‘German eye on Indian beauty’.

How did Josef land up in India? Bombay Talkies was founded in 1934 by the husband-wife team of Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani, who had previously worked in Germany. After the Nazis’ rise to power, the largest German film studios were taken over for propaganda purposes. This was also a time when new sound technologies made it possible to make Indian films in Indian languages for Indian audiences. Interestingly, with a multilingual and transnational film crew from Germany, Bombay Talkies produced some of the biggest hits, starring, for instance, actor Ashok Kumar. In fact, during the filming of the silent film ‘Light of Asia’ (1925), Josef encountered India for the first time.

Can a German cameraman be considered a pioneer of Indian cinema? During the 1930s and ’40s, Bombay Talkies played a foundational role in defining India’s commercial film form. Herein Josef as an ace cameraman amongst a large German crew, the book claims, trained in film craft many young men and women who found themselves becoming award-winning film technicians over the years to come. The only flaw in the book’s detailing is elaborating on the cinematic genius of some of these names. Readers, in addition, would have loved to know more about the adaptation of Wirsching’s German Expressionist style by filmmakers like Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt in their early films.

Bombay Talkies closed in the late 1940s with a rival faction forming another studio called ‘Filmistan’. Josef Wirsching was never a part of these power tussles or transitions, as he spent intermittent spells during the war period and longer in internment camps till his death in India in 1967.

The reader also wants to know more about the reasons why the film studio system gave way, over the years, to independent film production in India. The book, nevertheless, is a unique attempt to present an engaging narrative about the dynamics of an evolving film form with rare archival photographs, letters and publicity stills.