A still indicating the scale of an indoor set from the 1938 movie “Vachan”; another of legendary actress Helen rehearsing the cabaret number “Yeh itni badi mehfil aur ik dil, kisko doon”; and, among many others, Meena Kumari leaning on a pino in a dramatic scene from the film “Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai”. All these photographs from the black and white era are being exhibited for the first time to trace the roots of Indian cinema’s boom.
Titled “A Cinematic Exhibition: Josef Wirsching and Bombay Talkies”, the display at the ongoing Serendipity Arts Festival here tells a story of a world across worlds, a story of cultural convergence that brought together Berlin and Calcutta, Munich and Bombay.
It draws from the photographic archives of Josef Wirsching, a German cinematographer, who made India his workplace and home. Wirsching’s archive comprises behind-the-scenes photographs of cast and crew, production and publicity stills that give us unprecedented access to the aesthetic decisions and creative communities that were vital to filmmaking in colonial India.
“Cinema happened like a boom,” says Wirsching’s grandson, named after his grandfather, from whose personal archives he has spent the last decade reproducing the photographs.
“But not many people realise or know that there was an entire movement behind it. It took many years to bring cinema into the consciousness of not only the viewers but also those who later became filmmakers,” added Josef, who is now based in Goa.
Elaborating on the rise of cinema in the country, he said Indian artists at the turn of the 20th century actively sought to “forge an aesthetic language that could be simultaneously nationalist as well as modern”. Frustrated with European academic canons and colonialist stereotypes, they turned to local artistic genealogies and avant-grade movements outside the British empire.
Germany, with its long history of Indological enquiry, became an ally in this endeavour. Thus, Rabindranath Tagore visited Germany in the 1920s, and, in turn, the Austrian art historian, Stella Kramrisch, joined Shantiniketan and organised a landmark “Bauhaus” exhibition in Calcutta (1922).
This two-way cultural exchange was keenly felt in cinema; the success of “Oriental” films such as “Sumurun” (1920) and “The Indian Tomb” (1921) was met with Indian filmmakers approaching German studios for technical training. Raja Ravi Verma had already popularised German chromolithographic techniques and European approaches to the body through his mass-produced calendar art. In the 1920s, intrepid nationalist filmmakers such as Dadasaheb Phalke, V. Shantaram and Himanshu Rai self-consciously reworked these influences with inspiration from passionate German plays.
And then came the Second World War, which led to a different kind of exchange when Jewish exiles such as Walter Kaufman and Willy Haas moved to Bombay and entered the local film scene. Bombay Talkies Studio, inaugurated in 1934, embodied the cultural dynamism of the moment in its core team led by Himanshu Rai, Franz Osten, Josef Wirsching, Niranjan Pal and Devika Rani.
Josef added that Bombay Talkies played a foundational role in defining India’s commercial film form, producing some of the most iconic musicals of the era which focused on urgent issues of social reform. These films borrowed freely from East and West to create a new aesthetic that many called “Swadeshi modernism” — a heady pastiche that begs us to question easy notions of Indian and foreign, traditional and experimental.
Josef Wirsching’s artistic imagination infused Bombay cinema with the psychological depth and stylistic ethos of German Expressionism. At the same time, his photographic archive gestures towards another meaning of what we call “cinematic” — a term that is commonly used to describe moments in reality that seem elevated beyond the everyday. In these images displayed at the ongoing exhibition, we see the interaction of individuals, objects and environments, framed by a vision that captures the beauty and drama beneath the surface of the laborious work of film production.
Josef said that he had contacted the Indian government and the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), but to little avail. A camera used by his grandfather, rare and vintage in its own right, along with negatives of many films, were given to the Film and Television Institute of India, all of which have disappeared now. His endeavour found momentum after he met the organisers of Serendipity, where the photographs are first exhibited.
The Wirsching Family — Wolfgang Peter Wirsching, Rosamma and their sons Josef and Georg — are the only heirs of Josef Wirsching (1903-1967) and are currently the owners of his entire personal photographic collection consisting of more than 6,000 images and the largest collection of photographic evidence of the start of the Indian film industry, which has now acquired the “Bollywood” moniker.