Full-length interview: An essential walk down memory lane with Georg Wirsching and the landmark Bombay Talkies
The story of Josef Wirsching is illuminating in every sense of the word. A cinematographer with the landmark studio, Bombay Talkies, Wirsching was a pioneer whose work played a crucial role in defining mainstream cinema in India.
At the exhibition, A Cinematic Imagination: Josef Wirsching and the Bombay Talkies, which will present rare behind-the-scenes photographs, production stills and publicity images largely dated between the 1920s-’60s, viewers will get to revisit a golden era of actors such as Devika Rani, Ashok Kumar, Leela Chitnis and Dilip Kumar.
While there are reams and reams waiting to be written on the subject, we held a chat with the curators Rahaab Allana and Debashree Mukherjee along with Creative Collaborator Georg Wirsching of The Wirsching Archive, to get straight to the heart of the show... Here's the complete transcript of our exchange with Georg Wirsching, about the time he spent to get the works together for this show:
Could you take us on a quick walkabout of this exhibition? What aspects make it a landmark display, and how much of a larger impact do you hope it will have, among audiences in Chennai?
This exhibition will give the viewer a glimpse into the world of one of the earliest and most prolific black-and-white era Indian Talkies film studios notably, 'The Bombay Talkies' Film Studios, the films they made and the people who learnt their craft there who went onto become paragons of Cinema in their own right. All this from nearly a century ago right from the glorious silent era of the 1920s till the full bloom of the talkies era in the 1930s and post-war independence in Indian Cinema.
What makes this exhibition a landmark display is that it encompasses the life work of a single person namely - Josef Wirsching, who dedicated his entire life to visually telling stories in a dramatic and compelling way through the emergent form of cinema which was taking the world by storm during the earlier part of the last century. All the images in the exhibition have been selected from a much larger collection of a few thousand negatives and prints which have been in our family's archive for the better half of a century since Josef's demise in 1967.
As far as what kind of an impact it would have on audiences in Chennai is pretty much the same impact it has had and would continue to have on audiences from any geographical demographics, especially since there is not much available in the way of visual documentation of how films were made during the nascent years of the birth of the Indian film industry.
So pretty much all kinds of audiences will get a first-hand glimpse of the behind-the-scenes workings of a film studio, candid imagery of some of the pioneering actors and technicians who worked in that era and the technological hurdles they had to surmount just to make a film in those early days.
Tell us a little about the relevance and significance of this show being hosted in Chennai. What kind of background information do we need to know about Josef Wirsching and the Bombay Talkies, in order to appreciate the show to its fullest?
Well to begin with; Josef Wirsching was a cameraman who was working for the Emelka Film studios in Munich Germany during the early-1920s when the studio was approached by an Indian lawyer and budding actor/filmmaker by the name of Himanshu Rai who, while working in England, tried to convince a few film studios to help him make an epic silent film based on the life of Lord Buddha, all of these British studios promptly turned him down because of the grandiose nature of the script. That's when he finally came to Emelka Film studios with this idea for the film he wished to make, entitled The Light of Asia or Prem Sanyas.
Upon hearing the story of the proposed film from Himanshu, the directors at Emelka decided that this film could definitely be produced at the grand scale they envisioned and they happily took up the challenge of making this film which was to be shot entirely on location in India, with a completely Indian cast in a completely ethnic setting with Himanshu playing the lead role as Gautama Buddha as well as providing the production costs, location, actors, crew and extras. Josef Wirsching was tasked to be the main cameraman along with Willie Kiermaier as his assistant cameraman and the film was to be directed by Franz Osten with the help of Barthe Schultes as an interpreter.
Therefore, in 1925, this team of four Germans set sail from Germany and came to India to shoot this epic silent film which was to go down in history as the very first Indo-German cinematic collaboration and most expensive silent film to be made completely on location in India at the time.
The success of this film encouraged Himanshu Rai to make a couple of more films in the years that followed namely Shiraz and A Throw of the Dice, which were again directed by Franz Osten. With these few films under his belt, Himanshu Rai decided to start his own film studio in India after gathering enough support and funding from some of the elite industrialists of Bombay during the advent of the 'Talkies' era in India in the early 1930s. That's when he again approached Emelka to help him source the equipment he would need for running a fully fledged studio along with the technicians he would need to help build and run the studio which he decided to call 'The Bombay Talkies Film Studios'.
Since Himanshu had already worked with Josef Wirsching and Franz Osten; he requested Emelka if they could join him in this path-breaking endeavour. That's how Josef came to become the chief cameraman for the Bombay Talkies Film studios which was set up in 1935 and made many iconic films until the studio's closure in 1954 but not before helping launch the careers of many paragons of the Indian Film Industry.
How rare are some of these photographs and material - from an archival context, and also in terms of value? Could you give us an idea of the inputs that the Alkazi Foundation has brought along with it here? How much of this has never been shown to the public before?
I've been personally involved with scanning, archiving and preserving this material in our collection consisting of a few thousand negatives and prints for the past 10 years along with interacting with numerous filmmakers, historians and archivists who were conversant with the genre including none other than the late Mr PK Nair, who was the head of the National Film Archive of India who I had the opportunity to personally show some of this material to in 2010.
I was informed by him and pretty much everyone I've interacted with- that ours is one of the largest, most meticulously preserved, photographic archives that document the changing times in Indian cinema right from the early silent years until the birth of colour epitomised in Josef's final film, Pakeezha. And since our collection includes behind-the-scenes production stills, publicity stills, candid personal snapshots of the stars, cast and crew along with imagery of daily studio life during those times; this is one of the rarest available collections that could concisely illustrate for the present day viewer a holistic view of the life of the Indian film industry from its near nascence.
In terms of value, well that is something that is completely subjective as people who would know of the history and the times being illustrated in these visuals- for them these images are an invaluable resource for reference, research, inspiration and nostalgia.
After hearing about our collection from a few scholars etc who came and interviewed our family since 2011 onwards; the Alkazi Foundation and the Serendipity Arts Trust approached our family in the summer of 2017 inquiring if we would like to showcase this material to the public for the very first time.
With the Alkazi Foundation's help, we were able to make a selection of 131 images that were to be exhibited in this first edition. They helped get the selected images professionally scanned, digitally restored, printed, framed and exhibited to the public for the very first time in more than 70 years at the Serendipity Arts Festival at Goa in 2017 for which this forthcoming exhibition in Chennai with the help of the Goethe Institut is a reprisal of.
How was it to be in that milieu back then, to be actually making a creative community - to be full of ideas, and rife with fresh possibilities? How positive was the atmosphere, and how optimistic was the overall purview of things? We'd like to get a sense of the camaraderie, the goodwill, and the forging of lasting, life-long relationships... all for the making of some landmark cinema.
Based on oral histories passed down from my grandfather Josef to my father Wolfgang Peter, which were in turn passed on to me; I could say that it was one of the most inspiring times to be working in Indian Cinema. The Bombay Talkies Film studios set a benchmark in employment equality as they only hired educated youngsters with a passion for cinema irrespective of what caste, creed or denomination they were from. For the technical crew comprising Josef and a few other Germans; every day was a challenge with new opportunities and newer obstacles to be overcome.
Yet with the untiring help of an amazing team of hard-working, educated youngsters recruited from different backgrounds and from different parts of the country all with the singular aim and passion to learn the beautiful art of filmmaking; those were days that would have been highly creatively charged as everyone knew they were learning and doing something important especially with the films that they made that questioned societal norms and the prevalent feudal structure.
Thus, for them, every day was a positive and optimistic step into a brighter and more hopeful future. The camaraderie and inter-personal connection everyone in the studio had with each other is clearly evident in the simple fact that all the extras in all the films were all employees of the studio, if there was a scene that needed a whole bunch of people then all the employees who were not too busy on that day of the shoot were drafted and put into costumes to fill up the scenes.
That's how a few actors including none other than Ashok Kumar who was initially Josef's laboratory assistant went on to become well-known actors. It was these close-knit casteless relationships between everyone who worked at the studios right from the main actors and technicians right down to even the coolies and watchmen that helped the studio run like a well-oiled machine and churn out 3-4 films a year up until the start of World War II.
Could you give us a sense of a parallel, in terms of the significance of the Bombay Talkies as compared to the world of cinema in Chennai, and in South India? How inter-connected were these two worlds, and was there much of symbiosis in terms of cinematic styles, and influences?
In terms of timelines; Bombay Talkies started operations in 1935 and was singularly the largest complete in-house studio complex in India which had everything from 3 large soundproofed studio buildings, processing laboratories, screening theaters, workshops for metal fabrication, carpentry and set construction, high voltage electrical connections, staff offices, costume and tailoring departments, onsite living quarters for the main crew, kitchens, canteens, storage facilities and even a hospital.
While at that time in the rest of India, most of the films that were being made were made by independent filmmakers renting out small ill-equipped studio spaces and getting most of their work done privately. It was not until 1940 onwards when maybe through observing the functioning of the Bombay Talkies Studios did the other well-known Chennai and south India based film studios like AVM studios and Gemini studios etc get founded.
In fact, some of the production assistants and technicians who worked at the Bombay Talkies went on to work in numerous film studios around the country and they obviously took their knowledge and experience there with them to influence the filmmaking processes in these newer studios.
Therefore you could say that the Bombay Talkies Film studios created a template for the founding of future Production houses around the country and therein lies the symbiotic transfer of filmmaking styles and cinematic influences which you may even see prevalent today.
There are many names in the world of cinematography from South India who made a great impact in Bollywood, and were also honoured for their work - for instance, VK Murthy, who shot so many landmark films for Guru Dutt, comes to mind. How would you look at the influence of Josef Wirsching, in comparison - especially, when it comes to black-and-white compositions and the aspect of lighting?
The Phalke award-winning filmmaker VK Murthy was born in 1924 when Josef was already shooting films for Emelka Film studios in Germany. VK Murthy's earliest stint in the film industry was as a production secretary on the film Mahal, a Bombay Talkies production released in 1950 which was filmed by Josef Wirsching based on a script written by Kamal Amrohi. This was a landmark film as it was one of the first few horror/suspense films to use live action special effects and extremely dramatic lighting and compositional techniques.
This would have surely created an impact on the young Mr Murthy, which he later used in his future productions for Guru Dutt, etc. Therefore you could definitely say that Josef's work did have a significant impact on him and nearly every other yesteryear filmmaker who had the opportunity to observe and learn directly from Josef Wirsching.
Could you give us some insights into the influence of German technicians and on image-making practices of the era? How did these influences shape the course of Indian cinematic history? And how much of those influences are evident even today?
As an example, I would like to point out a few filmmaking techniques that were used in the production of Bombay Talkies studios first film, Jawani-Ki-Hawa in 1935. This film which takes place primarily on a train combined the usage of live location footage from shooting on a real train travelling along the Bombay rail lines from Malad to Karjat along with shots of an entire train compartment built inside the studio with a rotating backdrop to indicate the scenery moving outside the train windows. All this was seamlessly blended together in the editing process so that the sound and lighting synced perfectly.
In another instance, for the film Always tell your Wife (1936), a song sequence was shot outdoors with live musicians playing with a dancer dancing amidst them all while on the open deck of a sailing ship. All being simultaneously recorded and cinematographed for perfect sound and live action syncing.
For the film Nav Jeevan (1939), there's a song-scene on a lake in a boat where the music track was played on an LP player in the boat while the actors sang the lyrics and all this was recorded live for again perfect syncing of sound and visual.
These were the days before playback recording and advanced editing techniques; so the innovativeness of the German technicians and crew in finding solutions to these production problems helped set a standard for filmmaking techniques that were used well into the years that followed and some of these techniques have evolved with time and advancing technology and are in use in some way or form even to this day.
A lot of these instances and technological firsts are visually illustrated in the collection of images going on display at the forthcoming exhibition.
There's a great deal to be studied here particularly in terms of cross-cultural exchanges in late colonial India. Could you shed some light on those exchanges - not merely on Westerners interacting with Indians, but also of Indians from different cultural backgrounds coming together through the movies. How did these exchanges impact the larger cultural picture, so to speak - outside of the movies, and in society, in general?
With respect to cross-cultural exchanges; we must first respect the fact that most of the films being made by the Bombay Talkies film studios prior to World War II almost always touched upon themes of societal injustice and the barriers put into place by a long-standing feudal system which was prevalent in the country for hundreds of years and the final visualisation and cathartic resolution of these injustices which were the main storylines of the movies worked on by this new breed of emergent filmmakers who were learning their craft at the Bombay Talkies imbued a sense of belief in them that change is coming and change is inevitable.
People from all walks of life and from different demographics and denominations worked together at the studio for a single purpose which was to create relevant films that not only entertained but taught life lessons as well.
The bonhomie among all the Indian staff at the studios extended way past Independence from Colonial rule even to the point that the studio employees in 1953-54 all worked for free to put together a film called Baad Baan in a final ditch effort to keep the studio afloat even after separate fires destroyed two of the three studio buildings and most of the studio equipment in the early 1950s.
Unfortunately, this film never saw the light of day and was never released due to various circumstances. Nevertheless, the connections and relationships that grew among these individuals always drew them together in the future years.
Even during the glory days of pre-war film making; opening day film premiers and private screenings were always a way to bring different communities and strata of society together. A case in point would be where during the premiere of Jawani-Ki-Hawa at Imperial theatre in Bombay on a rainy night in 1935, a crowd from the Parsi community in Bombay picketed the theatre to oppose the release of the film as a girl from a well respected Parsi family had acted in the film and since at this time the film industry, unfortunately, did not have much of a favourable reputation, the theatre had to be surrounded by police to ensure the smooth release of the film after respectable elder members from the community came together to placate the protesting crowds and ensure them that there was a respectable future in filmmaking and they had to adapt to keep up with the changing times.
Scenes like these can draw parallels to our present day where intercultural confrontations and exchanges happen when we look at how people riot and oppose the release of some films based on the flimsiest of reasons and yet after the film is released all the so-called 'tamasha' dies down.
Not all inter-cultural exchanges that cinema makes happen need take on these radical tones as there are many instances of positive and joyful outcomes and we only need to look around us every time there's a first-day-first-show release of a much-anticipated film and see the inter-cultural barriers fall apart as swarms of people from every kind of background and walk of life gather together to celebrate the newest release of their star's latest film.
On a more personal note Josef used to keep being called by other studios cameramen to assist them in their filmmaking processes, a case in point is during the filming of Mughal E Azam the cameraman RD Mathur who was an assistant of his in Bombay Talkies used to keep asking for his Josef's assistance in the colour scenes which Josef was more than happy to oblige.
Are there any other contemporaries of Josef Wirsching that we need to learn and know about? How would you compare the work that he did, to what was going on elsewhere, in other parts of the world?
One contemporary of Josef Wirsching who comes to mind is Alfred Hitchcock. Even though he worked predominantly in the west during the same years that Josef created some of his best work here in India; there are many parallels that can be drawn between their filmmaking styles with regards to dramatic lighting, composition and mis-en-scene, etc.
Josef essentially always kept himself updated with the latest filmmaking techniques and kept experimenting with the equipment and chemical processes that were emerging with the changing times. This was why he was the one who actually pioneered the introduction of technicolour film and 70mm cinemascope camera technologies with the filming of Pakeezha, which started in 1959-60 long before the first full-colour film was released here in India.
Lastly, could you give us a few words on the role played by the hosts of the Serendipity Festival, towards this initiative? In the last few years, the festival has made great strides for the sake of cultural exchanges. How does this exhibition rest as a sort of feather in the cap of the festival planners?
From personal experience I can wholeheartedly state that the Serendipity Arts Festival has set a high standard for creating a welcoming platform where the coming together of different artists, artistic and cultural influences can merge into a wonderful multi-sensory experience for the visitor to get a broad taste of the different art forms that surround us and mould our world view and understanding of art in today's day and age.
I truly hope this exhibition rests well as a feather in their cap the same way I truly hope it will help educate and inspire our present generation to appreciate the hard work that thousands of people over many generations before us helped us reach this point of technological and cultural advancement with respect to the ideas we wish to codify, the stories we want to tell, how we're going to tell it and what legacy we are going to leave behind for the future generations that will follow us.
Serendipity Arts Foundation in association with the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts and the Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan will co-host ‘A Cinematic Imagination: Josef Wirsching and the Bombay Talkies’ at the Lalit Kala Akademi, Chennai from July 19 to August 4, 2019.