'This exhibition is critical to understand the emergence of what we call Bollywood today': Debashree Mukherjee on Josef Wirsching and the Bombay Talkies
The story of Josef Wirsching is illuminating in every sense of the word.
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 Debashree Mukherjee, about the time she 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 is an unprecedented archive of production stills, behind the scenes footage, and images of cast and crew from a period in the history of Indian cinema that has largely been forgotten.
It gives us a rare insight into filmmaking practices and international collaborations during the transition to the talkie era.
Moreover, we get to see glimpses of pre-Independence India and the aspirational energy of young men and women who tried to redefine themselves by entering the word of film production.
Chennai has its own parallel to the Josef Wirsching story – in the career of Ellis Duggan, an American cinematographer who came to India in 1935 prospecting for work and stayed for more than a decade.
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 can speak to this question as a film historian, and from a historical point of view, these materials are absolutely unprecedented. Most people don’t realise this, but 95% of the films that were made in India during the early talkie period are considered lost forever!
Given that we only have 5% of our film heritage available to view, still photographs such as these become very critical to help us understand the emergence of the global phenomenon that we call ‘Bollywood’ today.
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.
This is a very good question, and one that I have been thinking about for many years now as I complete my book, Bombay Hustle, which presents a practitioner’s eye-view of the consolidation of the Bombay film industry in the 1930s. My main argument is that practices of filmmaking were critical to the production of variegated visions of modernity and freedom in a moment of high-nationalism.
We first have to understand that this period (1920s-1940s) was a period of great flux in the life of the Indian subcontinent. India was in the final throes of a nationalist movement, women were becoming more visible in the public spaces of the city, labour agitations were at their height, the arts were seeing a new modernist efflorescence globally, and fascism was on the rise in Europe making an impact also on India, as many Jewish exiles moved Eastwards to flee persecution.
The group of people we see in this exhibition came from many different parts of India and the world, with very different backgrounds and exposure. The core group of Devika Rani, Himansu Rai, and Niranjan Pal had travelled extensively and worked in cosmopolitan creative contexts in cities such as Munich, Berlin, Paris, and London. They set up Bombay Talkies in 1934 with the explicit aim to produce socially-relevant films for an Indian audience, train young Indian film practitioners, and contribute to the growth of a swadeshi film industry.
There was a great sense of optimism about the role of cinema in educating people and also creating a cultural form that could withstand competition from much wealthier film producing centres such as Hollywood. And it worked. With the coming of talkie pictures, Indian film industries pushed American and British into the background, becoming one of the few countries in the world whose film market is not dominated by Hollywood.
This is a time of heady encounters of various types - personal, professional, cultural and inter-media. Film crews came together across barriers of religion, language, caste, and gender. India’s film industries presented a vocational arena unlike any other, especially for women. Urban workplaces offered women either blue-collar factory work or white-collar office work, self-selecting women on the basis of education, class and community identity.
Cinema, on the other hand, accommodated multiple genres of work and hence invited multiple types of women. Bombay Talkies employed women such as the Parsi singer-composers Manek and Khorshed Homji (Chandraprabha and Saraswati Devi), the elite homemaker Khursheed Mirza (Renuka Devi), the college graduate Leela Chitnis, the self-taught dancer Azurie, many others from professional performance backgrounds.
The Bombay film industry in the 1920s and 1930s was a decentralised and unregulated space where finance flowed in through disparate channels and workers were not unionised. This created a remarkable space of opportunity as well as exploitation. It is important to emphasise the diversity of India’s late colonial cine workforce, not only to point to its radical, secular potential, but also to remember that pay scales, social prestige, and occupational precarity within the workforce varied considerably.
Each studio had a different work culture. The photographs in this exhibition tell a story of the studio as a community. You will see the producers, camera assistants, cinematographers, actresses, and light boys in various intimate work relationships. Of course, cinema is a collaborative enterprise and depends on the collective participation of scores of individuals.
But Bombay Talkies went to special pains to build a community around the studio. Rai and Rani insisted that all salaried staff were housed in Malad and even ran an on-site medical facility, canteen and recreation room to create a sense of collegiality. At its zenith, Bombay Talkies had about four hundred people on its rolls.
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?
Bombay Talkies entered India’s filmmaking scene during the transition to the talkies (early-1930s), at a time when films were being produced in various cities such as Calcutta, Kolhapur, Lahore, Poona, and Bombay. Calcutta was by far the leading film production centre in terms of content and craft. Madras had not yet made the talkie transition and up until 1934, studios like Imperial Film Company and Sagar Movietone in Bombay, New Theatres and East India Film Company in Calcutta, and Prabhat in Poona made Tamil-language films.
So yes, there was direct exchange across multiple film production centres with respect to the use of studios and equipment. In 1935 Modern Theatres opened in Madras and an era of local Tamil-language production was inaugurated. Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai and S Theodore Baskaran have also pointed out that the early Tamil film industry was shaped by multiple cultural influences including the Company Drama format which was an adaptation of Bombay’s Parsi Theatre; makeup techniques from Calcutta’s specialists; and genres from Hollywood.
The story is similar to Bombay, Poona, and Calcutta too, where Hollywood, local theatre and literature, and regional literary traditions all exerted their influence on shaping cinematic style and language. The so-called South Circuit was also very important as a film exhibition market and many Bombay stars such as the ‘glorious’ Gohar, visited Madras to publicise their films.
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?
Bombay cinema from the 1930s-1950s reveals a strong influence of German Expressionism and Josef Wirsching plays a pioneering role in popularising this stylised film form. The expressionist vocabulary is strongly imprinted in Wirsching’s lighting designs and compositions. He frequently frames characters through arches, doorways, and windows; favours eccentric camera angles, and masterfully moulds light to create shadows and pools of darkness.
These techniques lend themselves beautifully to Bombay Talkie’s melodramatic screenplays, where socially transgressive emotions find spectacular expression in song and mise-en-scene. This stylised mode is seen in full force again in Mahal, a Gothic thriller which brought back the full toolkit of German Expressionism. When Indian film historians speak of expressionism in Indian cinema, they normally speak of V Shantaram’s Duniya Na Mane or VK Murthy’s work in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, but Wirsching’s work pre-dates these films.
In my view, it is clear that Wirsching made expressionist techniques popular in India and trained many young camerapersons, assistants, and gaffers in this cinematic language. When we appreciate the stellar work of VK Murthy in Pyaasa, for example, we must remember that such consummate play with light and shadow would not be possible without Wirsching’s influential work and his training of camera and lighting crews at Bombay Talkies.
At the same time, Murthy took the language of expressionism further and invented new techniques to create emotional depth and symbolic meaning through lighting and composition.
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?
Wirsching entered the world of filmmaking at the same time as Alfred Hitchcock. Both men started their careers at the Emelka Film Studios in Munich, a studio that was run by Franz Osten’s brother, Peter Ostermayr.
Hitchcock's debut directorial experience in Germany influenced his later work and he later said that “The Germans in those times placed great emphasis on telling the story visually; if possible with no titles or at least very few. In The Last Laugh, Murnau was able to do that, to dispense with titles altogether, except in an epilogue... I've always believed that you can tell as much visually as you can with words. That's what I learned from the Germans.” This visual storytelling style is very strongly in evidence in Bombay Talkie’s earliest talkie films such as Jawani-ki-Hawa.
On the Indian side, some prominent 1930s cinematographers include Adi Irani, Pandurang Naik, Faredoon Irani, V Avadhoot, Nitin Bose, Dara Mistry and Keki Mistry, whose work needs to be urgently studied.
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.