Backstories are invariably fascinating, particularly when they are about a well-known person or an institution. The images based on the hitherto unseen archive of Josef Wirsching, cinematographer of Bombay Talkies, were first showcased in an exhibition curated by Rahaab Allana, Alkazi Foundation and others. Subsequently, well-known film studies and media scholars skilfully blended text with images to give us this elegant contribution to the history of the studio.
Bombay Talkies: An Unseen History of Indian Cinema
Alkazi Collection of Photography in association with Mapin Publishing New Delhi and Ahmedabad
During crucial decades in India’s history and that of the country’s growing film industry, Bombay Talkies made socially relevant films with strong female characters, often foregrounding the beauty and talent of Devika Rani. If, in the popular imagination, the organisation is associated with the charismatic Himansu Rai and Devika Rani, this fascinating visual journey introduces us to many others as well. While the photographs are clearly centre stage, the essays more than provide the context for them.
Georg Wirsching’s Foreword explains how his grandfather, Josef Wirsching, met Himansu Rai and Devika Rani in pre-Nazi Germany. Wirsching’s employers, Emelka Studios, deputed him and three others to work on Rai’s production, Light of Asia. It was an extravagant international co-production, and one that firmly established Wirsching’s commitment to India. Incorporated in 1934, Bombay Talkies made several films, with its German crew training young people in film craft.
Not meant for the silver screen
In her Editor’s “Introduction – What Photography Can Tell Us About Cinema’s Past”, Debashree Mukherjee writes that the amazing behind-the-scene photographs “show us a world of meaning that was never intended to be projected on the silver screen” (page 25).
Thus, we see Josef Wirsching, Devika Rani, R.D. Pareenja and director Franz Osten relaxing with their feet in water during a location shoot for Izzat, a “clapper boy” marking a spot, the crew loading equipment─including dogs─onto a low river craft, a close-up of Wirsching servicing his camera with deep concentration, endless rehearsal shots, and so on.
Mukherjee notes that between the 1930s and the 1950s, Bombay cinema was strongly influenced by German Expressionism and Wirsching played an important role “in popularising this stylised form” (page 29).
In “How Photography Gives an Account of Itself – the Wirsching Collection as a Nation of Photography”, Sudhir Mahadevan traces the relationship of the archive to other emerging visual genres such as the home movie and family album. He discusses in detail a fairly complex photograph (page 62) from Achhut Kanya where Wirsching shoots a moment of confrontation between two actors.
The image uses chiaroscuro, focussing not just on the mise en scene but also the crew at work, the equipment and the array of lights needed to convey daylight. In another double-spread (pages 76-77), a rehearsal from the historical drama Vachan is under way; it encapsulates the actors, the sets, lights, camera, over-awed clapper boy, a pensive young man near the elaborate light equipment, and much more. Thus, one photograph tells the story of film-making in that era, invaluable for specialist and aficionado alike.
This theme of what makes a film is repeated in Priya Jaikumar’s “A Scholar and an Angel Unravel Izzat”, a hypothetical interaction between a film scholar and “an angel of history”, one that looks at behind-the-scene images that were nevertheless staged. Clearly, the gorgeous Devika Rani listening intently to director Franz Osten, of her winking and of being bound to a tree by the newly-promoted lab assistant turned actor, Ashok Kumar, are not random shots. As Jaikumar points out, the Wirsching archive has photographs that “capture some of the micro gestures… which are never fully captured on the film screen” (page 98).
European sensibility and Indian cinema
Rachel Dwyer’s “A German Eye on Indian Beauty – Josef Wirsching’s Portrayal of the Female Star in Hindi Film” looks at “defining images of three of the greatest stars of Indian cinema and ideals of Indian beauty”, Devika Rani, Madhubala and Meena Kumari. She writes of the cinematographer’s use of light and shadow that “helped smooth their on-screen roles as disruptive women and their off-screen, sometimes scandalous, star images” (page 105).
Ultimately, Wirsching blended his European sensibility with the requirements of Indian cinema, ensuring a hybridity that has endured through generations of cinematography. However, his archive memorialised not just the actors but the entire mis en scene, much of it based on existing buildings and outside spaces.
As Debashree Mukherjee comments in “Between the Studio and the World – Built Sets and Outdoor Locations in the Films of Bombay Talkies”, the organisation had a “growing desire to transcend geographic boundaries and address an imagined pan-Indian audience with light, socially instructive entertainment” (page 129). Thus, waterfalls, streams and rural India find space along with growing urban landscapes.
Interesting nuggets—and some photographs—of others associated with Bombay Talkies comes through in the interview of the film historian Virchand Dharamsey with Kaushik Bhaumik (“Re-visioning Bombay Talkies: Restoring Parallaxes to an Image”). We learn about Sashadhar Mukherjee and Savak Vacha, who joined as assistants in the sound department but grew to be key personnel.
- The book uses Josef Wirsching’s personal archive of photographs; Malavika Karlekar says the sweep of evocative images has one turning the pages time and again and marvelling at the value of personal archives.
- One of the themes covered in the book is how Bombay cinema between the 1930s and 1950s was strongly influenced by German Expressionism with Wirsching playing an important role “in popularising this stylised form”.
Wirsching and battleship Emden
The final essay by Eleanor Halsall, titled “Josef Wirsching and the Kreuzer Emden – The Entangled Politics of the Interwar Years”, deals with his prior involvement with the making of the film on the battleship Emden. During the First World War, the battleship had targeted Madras harbour, and the dominant idiom of the film was, according to Halsall, “definitely masculinist”. In the course of her discussion, Halsall speculates about Wirsching’s political allegiances during a critical phase of Germany’s history—though in his Foreword, Georg Wirsching quite categorically states that conversations with his father indicated that Josef had “wanted to distance himself from Nazi ideology” (page 17).
If one is left wondering, the corpus of Josef Wirsching’s amazing archive, meticulously preserved by his family, soon dispels any reservations. While repetitions about Wirsching’s background and the history of Bombay Talkies needed editing, the sweep of evocative images, so well chosen and presented, has one turning the pages time and again ─ and, of course, marvelling at the value of personal archives.
Malavika Karlekar is the editor of Indian Journal of Gender Studies and Women and Photography, an online newsletter of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi.