The larger doctoral dissertation I am working on tracks histories of film work and material practice in late colonial Bombay (1930s-1940s). The inter-war years saw the Bombay film industry caught in a matrix of contradictory changes as sound technology gradually replaced silent film, sources and movements of capital started getting corporatised, a new kind of film worker was actively sought along class and caste lines, viewership increased exponentially, and anti-imperialist leftist ideologies made an entry into mainstream film content. Such a dynamic industry needed workers and artistes from far and wide. In 1937, the Manchester Guardian
reported that the Indian film industries employed 25,000 workers, and by 1938 the Christian Science Monitor
had the count at 35,000 skilled workers. Circuits of film work thus overlapped with everyday urban geographies to create palimpsests of labor and desire. Therefore, by focusing on networks of film practice and personnel, I hope to construct a twinned, interdisciplinary history of Bombay city and its legendary film industry.
For the Indiancine.ma fellowship I decided to focus on the early films of one of India’s most iconic talkie studios, Bombay Talkies Pvt. Ltd. I look at three films produced by Himansu Rai and directed by Franz Osten: Achhut Kanya (1936)
, Prem Kahani (1937)
and Nirmala (1938)
. It is worth noting that the German director, Franz Osten, directed a total of 16 talkie films for the studio, between 1934-1939, films that are among Bombay Talkies’ most iconic classics, and all this with a minimal knowledge of Hindustani. The exact selection of the three films in this curation has been driven by the availability of digital versions of these films that could be uploaded. Prem Kahani and Nirmala, especially, should prove to be a real treat for viewers as they have rarely (if ever) been screened after their initial release and thus remain quite under-discussed and under-analysed. This, then, is one of the foremost tasks of the Indiancine.ma community: to bring new films into the public domain so that our discussion of early cinema is better informed.Bombay Talkies Studio
Bombay Talkies was set up by producer Himansu Rai and his actress wife, Devika Rani Chaudhuri in 1934. This Bengali couple met and married in London in the late 1920s, moved to Germany to work at the UFA Studios, worked on a couple of international co-productions, and finally set up their own studio in Bombay in 1934 (1).
In Germany, Rai and Rani had learned the ropes of filmmaking. Devika Rani assisted in various departments at UFA, even famously holding Marlene Dietrich’s make-up tray on the sets of The Blue Angel
(dir. Josef von Sternberg, 1930), thereby closely observing the techniques of directors and actors such as Fritz Lang, G. W. Pabst and Emil Jannings. Rai and Rani moved to Bombay as Hitler’s rise to power became irreversible and brought some of their German colleagues with them. Their idea was to set up a studio that would also serve as a training institute for young Indians. Devika Rani has said in an interview: “…we felt that this was not an indigenous industry. So Rai thought it was best, as far as possible, to get experts from abroad for each department. And we had a sort of undertaking from them…to select a number of first-rate students from all over India… It was our aim to attract the best element in Indian society, with an educated and cultured background, to produce the highest type of art.” (2) BT self-consciously modeled itself as a national institution meant to train a creative workforce at par with international standards, it had clear policies about employing ‘respectable’ actresses and men with graduate degrees, and its team of European personnel headed the main departments at the studio. Joseph Wirsching was the head of the Camera Department, Franz Osten for Direction, Karl von Spreti for Production Design, Hartley for Sound, and about 300 students were interviewed in the first year itself. Bombay Talkies has had a wide influence: in terms of its popular, and institutionally recognized products; its training of film professionals who went on to work in various capacities in the Bombay film industry; and its direct influence on the style and logic of the mainstream song and dance film format. At its zenith, Bombay Talkies had about 400 employees on its rolls.
With a state-of-the-art studio in Malad, a joint stock company with an authorized capital of Rs. 25 lakhs, and a Board of Directors comprising some of the most eminent businessmen and politicians in Bombay, the studio was destined for success (3). However, with the outbreak of the Second World War, the studio’s German employees had to return to Germany or were interned in camps for enemy aliens in Satara and Deolali. The studio continued functioning with the help of the ably-trained Indian assistants and new recruits. But another tragedy shook up the studio in 1940 when Himansu Rai prematurely passed away at the age of 48. The Board of Directors appointed Devika Rani as the Controller of Productions and this did not go down well with sections of the staff. In 1943 a core group of technicians, headed by Sashadhar Mukerji whose unit had recently produced a series of successive hits such as Kangan
, broke away from Bombay Talkies and started Filmistan Ltd. The men included S. Mukerji (producer), Gyan Mukherjee (director), Ashok Kumar (actor), Savak Vacha (sound engineer), Dattaram Pai (editor) and Rai Bahadur Chuni Lal (producer/financier). Devika Rani married the Russian artist Svetoslav Roerich in 1945 and left Bombay Talkies for good. Thereafter the studio changed many hands. Around 1946-47, its administration was taken over by Savak Vacha and Ashok Kumar who had left Filmistan and tried to revive the glory days of their alma mater
Any historian of Indian cinema must confront head-on the problem of the absent archive. Of all the films made in the Indian subcontinent between 1920 and 1950, less than 5% are preserved at the National Film Archives of India (NFAI). Interestingly, the films of Osten-Rai are among the most privileged in the archive in terms of representation. The reasons for this range from BT’s self-consciously social-reformist content and alliance with bourgeois nationalism, to it’s careful cultivation of a ‘respectable’ workforce. Scores of other talkie studios were set up in Bombay between the two world wars, many of which were highly successful and some of which have survived till today. But little evidence can be found in the official archive for the immense productivity of a studio like Ranjit Film Company, the fantasy adventures of Eastern Arts, Majestic Movietone and Everest Pictures, or the smart urban socials of Mohan Bhavnani and Sagar Film Company. Thus, not only does the archival visibility of Bombay Talkies allow me to attempt a text-based study (impossible for numerous other films), it also highlights archival tensions and competing filmic modes through their very absence.
Since my immediate dissertation interests are not in formal analysis, much of my research over the last six years has been in paper archives. This includes studio papers, government reports, autobiographies, censorship records, production stills, film journals, and publicity materials. These materials, too, have not been easy to access. The National Film Archive of India has a substantial collection of film journals and publicity materials like song booklets and posters. However, studio papers are almost impossible to track down. Unlike in the case of Hollywood or England where studios maintained meticulous records or donated their papers to public institutions, the Indian film industry and the government have both been rather indifferent to the archival question.
Even as film historians turn towards a variety of alternative sources of information and counter archives of cinema, there remains an urgent need to locate and tap some rather direct repositories of industrial and institutional traces. In her recently completed dissertation, Ranita Chatterjee has tracked and opened up the studio records of Aurora Film Corporation (1906-present). In summer 2010 I myself had the unique privilege of visiting another such private archive in Melbourne, Australia – belonging to the founders of Bombay Talkies Pvt. Ltd. – Himansu Rai and Devika Rani. [More information on the provenance of those materials can be found in the accompanying interview transcripts.] There are several other large and small private collections that can and must be pursued. There are practitioners who can still be interviewed and oral histories that need to be recorded. However, this is work that needs funding, institutional support, and collective research for it entails a systematic tracking of individuals and private collections that are dispersed across the globe.The Form
Film scholars and commentators across the world are increasingly discussing new modes of academic presentation for this new age of hyperlinks, film streaming, instant downloads, and video embedding. The traditional essay form is no longer adequate for media scholars who want their work to reflect the ways in which they themselves approach images. Which is why the indiancine.ma Film History project is such an exciting experiment for us to collectively track, monitor, and contribute to.
The way I have approached the annotations is to open out the body of the films to multiple extra-diegetic references and histories. Given my research interest in work, practice, and histories of practitioners, I have attempted to use the indiancine.ma platform as a way to privilege analyses of craft and build biographies of little-known practitioners. I have tried to embed formal analyses of the three films within a matrix of extra-filmic materials related to them, with the hope of initiating a polyphonous conversation across media genres.
The close analysis made possible by the ‘Editor’ mode made it a real pleasure to examine mise-en-scene elements from cinematography to costume and make-up, to set design. I now believe that a technological platform like this, which is quite intuitive and user-friendly, creates it’s own unique, and rigorous, mode of scholarship and enquiry. The concentrated attention to the image, and the ability to endlessly revisit select clips alters one’s relation to the practice of viewing itself. Further, the annotation function, the very founding logic of the Pad.ma initiative, allows multiple users to take diverse interpretive flights, and a range of ideas accrete and cohere on a fixed image. I have tried to keep the dialogue on Bombay Talkies, its early crew and cinematic conventions open across the three films.
Such early films are and were available in multiple lengths and versions, and today some scenes or reels might be missing. There is unlikely to be a ‘definitive’ version of any of these films. With such an unstable set of texts it is only appropriate that multiple readings, linkages, and histories be attempted. The indiancine.ma experience opens up a reflection on and enacts the possibilities offered by new modes of access to images and knowledge. The online digital archive allows new ways of connecting ideas, literally linking multiple media, and hence offers up a new episteme, a new approach to historiography. By following the concrete clues and unstable images we could imagine a film history of the future – a multi-sited, tangentially proliferating process of mapping that can move back and forth across space and time.
(1) Two other long-term friends and collaborators who accompanied the couple on this mission were Rai Bahadur Chunilal (father of Madan Mohan) and Niranjan Pal.
(2) Amita Malik, ‘Padma Shri Devika Rani: An Interview with the First Lady of the Indian Screen,’ Filmfare, March 14, 1958, 37.
(3) Amrit Gangar, Franz Osten and the Bombay Talkies: A Journey From Munich to Malad
(Bombay: Max Mueller Bhavan, 2001), 3.
Debashree Mukherjee is a doctoral candidate at NYU and her dissertation is currently titled “Cinema City: A History of Film Production in Late Colonial Bombay (1931-1948)”. Positioned at the intersection of film historiography, cultural studies, and archival ethnography, the dissertation tracks circuits of labor and material practice in the early Bombay talkie industry. She holds an M.Phil degree in Cinema Studies from the School of Arts & Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and an M.A. in Mass Communication from Jamia Millia Islamia. She presents here, some of her research work undertaken as part of the http://pad.ma / http://indiancine.ma film histories fellowship.
- Debashree's interview with Peter Dietze, grandson of Himanshu Rai with rare images from his from his Melbourne collection. In her own words, 'the only extant and accessible collection of studio papers from any Indian talkie studio of this time'.
- The rare Bombay Talkies films with scene and clip level annotations by Debashree: