Bombay, the city that gave birth to the Indian motion picture, was yet to become known as Bollywood in the 1940s. Its cinema was moving towards a post-colonial golden era, away from a war-torn world and its chilling cataclysms. Yet only two decades earlier, Adolf Hitler had written his venomous Mein Kampf, postulating the superiority of the Aryan “race”. He also used the book to espouse his anti-Semitic programme, advocating the removal of Jews from Germany. Hitler and the Nazis gained power in Germany in 1933.
So began one of the greatest intellectual exoduses in history as thousands of scientists, writers, artists, scholars, filmmakers and actors—Jews and others—fled Germany for the USA and elsewhere. Some also came to India.
Franz Ostermayr (Osten), a film director from Munich, came to Mumbai and made Malad his home, along with a few other Germans— all from Munich as well. Osten had collaborated with Himanshu Rai on an Orientalist silent film, Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia or Die Leuchte Asiens, 1925). This unique Indo- German co-production began in 1924 when Rai, a young Indian lawyer of 28, then based in London, went to Munich in search of partners for a series of films on world religions. Rai’s Great Eastern Film Corporation and Franz’s brother Peter’s film company, Münchner Lichtspielkunst AG (later known as Emelka), struck a deal.
Osten and Rai boarded a ship to India on 26 February 1925, along with cameramen Josef Wirsching and Willi Kiermeier, production designer Karl von Spreti and assistant director and interpreter Bertl Schultes. They landed at Bombay harbour on 18 March 1925. Having made pre-production arrangements for The Light of Asia, they returned to Germany and came back three months later to shoot the film in actual Indian locations.
Though the technical crew was foreign, the cast, décor, costumes and production staff were Indian. The film opens on actuality shots of Bombay with a group of European tourists taking in the sights of the city. The German premiere of The Light of Asia, held in Munich on 22 October 1925, opened to an enthusiastic and distinguished audience. For Rai, the film’s success in Europe opened up two more co-productions: Shiraz (1928) and Prapancha Pash (A Throw of Dice or Schicksalswürfel, 1929). The latter was a joint co-production with British Instructional Films (BIF), with its distribution end controlled by Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA) in Babelsberg, which had one of the best equipped studios in Europe. UFA had a significant impact on film history dating back to 1917; however, between 1933 and 1937 it was dominated by the Nazis.
Shortly after the release of A Throw of Dice, Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai got married. She became a trainee in the Erich Pommer unit at UFA. Fritz Lang, Emil Jannings, Josef von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich, GW Pabst and Max Reinhardt were also part of this unit. Though Devika Rani considered Pabst to be her guru, she learnt acting under Reinhardt. This was also the period of transition from “silent” to “talkies”, during which UFA underwent a complete reorganisation. As a result, many staff members had to leave the studios. Since no further Indo-German co-productions seemed feasible, Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani’s German career ended abruptly.
Back in India, the young couple formed Bombay Talkies Limited in 1934.
Director Franz Osten and his regular team— including other German technicians such as laboratory expert Wilhelm Zolle—were brought together to supervise production and train local talent. Some of them settled close to the studios in Malad with their families. By 1936, Osten already had six feature films in Hindi to his directorial credit.
Recent research published in The Concise Cinegraph: Encyclopaedia of German Cinema (2009) has revealed that Osten had been a member of the foreign section of the Nazi Party since 1936. However, in his book Age of Entanglement: German and Indian Intellectuals across Empire, Kris Manjapra writes that Osten had a peculiar relationship with the Nazis. He had already joined the party in 1934 under special circumstances and left for India that very year: “Beginning in 1934, Osten, along with the exceptionally gifted Josef Wirsching, the young set designer, Karl von Spreti, and the film technician, Wilhelm Zolle, left Nazi Germany for chosen exile in Bombay. Osten was informed in a letter of June 1934 that his company, Ideal Film, would not be allowed to operate because the required paperwork proving Osten’s ‘Aryan roots’ had not been submitted. Osten stalled in providing his information to the Nazi government’s Reichsfachschaft Film [the Reich’s film department]. He eventually joined the Nazi Party in 1934, but had subsequently sought to create increasing distance from the German film market . . . Osten began an effort to Indianize his films and to shed the trademark Indic Orientalism that marked his Weimar work.” The question arises as to whether Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani knew about Osten’s Nazi background, whether they had discussed his political beliefs and leanings. But such questions remain unanswered in the absence of any referential diaries or memoirs.
While at Bombay Talkies, Osten’s directorial output of 16 feature films between 1935 and 1939 was prolific by any standard, though he knew not a word of Hindi. When the Second World War broke out, the British government in India jailed Osten while he was shooting Kangan (The Bangle). Other Germans were interned for the whole duration of the war, but Osten was released and repatriated to Germany due to old age and ill health. He returned to Germany physically exhausted, and therefore unable to direct more films.
He took on administrative jobs. First with Bavaria Film AG, and in 1946, at the age of 70, in a totally different field: as a manager of a health resort in Bad Aibling. When he died in 1956, most German newspapers carried a small obituary, but by that time his name had almost been forgotten in Germany.
Josef Wirsching, Osten’s cameraman at Bombay Talkies, deserves a special mention,since he shot some seminal films in the history of Indian cinema: Achhut Kanya (1936), Janmabhoomi (1936), Jeevan Naiya (1936), Izzat (1937), Prem Kahani (1937), Savitri (1937), Jeevan Prabhat (1937), Durga (1939), Kangan (1939, along with RD Parineeja), Ziddi (1948), Mahal (1949), Sangram (1951), Baadbaan (1954) and Pakeezah (1972).
His is also a fascinating story. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, he was already living in British India and was interned, first in Ahmednagar, then Dehra Dun, and finally in Satara. Along with a few other internees, he started a small toy factory known as SAT Toys. He was ultimately released from internment in 1947, after which he returned to his alma mater, Bombay Talkies, which by now had changed its ownership but still retained some of its erstwhile glory.
Shortly before Bombay Talkies closed down in 1954, Wirsching joined AMA Ltd and made documentaries for the Indian government. In 1959 he joined Kamal Amrohi as a DOP in his newly opened production company, Kamal Pictures, also known as Mahal Films. Wirsching had already worked with Amrohi at Bombay Talkies, including on the latter’s directorial debut, the unforgettable Mahal, which stands apart for Wirsching’s black-and-white camerawork, which strongly recalls German Expressionism.
Kamal Pictures’ first production, directed by Kishore Sahu and shot by Wirsching, was Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai. It was a box-office hit. Soon, Amrohi decided to launch Pakeezah with the same leads—Meena Kumari and Raaj Kumar. Pakeezah was Amrohi’s most cherished project since 1958, but the film only went into production in 1964 and was finally released in 1972. Around 1966, its filming had to be put on hold due to Meena Kumari’s crippling depression and alcoholism. Georg, Wirsching’s Goa-based grandson and head of the Wirsching Foundation that maintains Josef’s unique photographic collection, told me: “Meena Kumari would confess all of her personal stories to Charlotte, my grandmother, who was a confidant of sorts for many of the stars who worked with my grandfather.”
Josef Wirsching died of a massive cardiac arrest on 11 June 1967, less than two weeks after his wife died of cancer. In 1968, the well-known actor Nargis was finally able to convince Meena Kumari to finish the filming of Pakeezah, for which Amrohi had to get as many as a dozen different cameramen, including VK Murthy, to try and replicate Wirsching’s vision.
Though he couldn’t complete Pakeezah, Wirsching carried forward his expressionistic virtuosity in that film, this time in Cinema Scope and in colour. In the film credits, his name appears as “director of photography”. Wirsching’s lensing philosophy, as I call it, was certainly a gift to Indian filmmaking.
My next story begins mid-sea, with a German ship from Indonesia being torpedoed by the Royal Indian Navy (RIN). German documentary filmmaker Paul Zils, who was in Bali making his film Lambon until Germany marched into Holland (in 1940), was on board. He was rescued by the RIN and entered India as a prisoner of war. For the first four years, he saw India only from behind barbed wires in an internment camp. Among his fellow internees were Lama Anagarika Govinda, a German Buddhist scholar and painter, and Alfred Würfel, who, years later, became the cultural counsellor at the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany, pre- unification) in New Delhi. Zils’ is a slightly different narrative.
He too had worked for many years at UFA before the war. Disillusioned with the tide of events in Germany and the increasing Nazification of UFA, he went to the USA and worked as co-director on some major productions. Another reason why Zils left Germany could have been his homosexuality. In Nazi Germany, ho- mosexuals weren’t just “abnormal”, but “evil”. While researching a book I was writing on Paul Zils, I had asked Dev Anand—who had acted in his two feature films Hindustan Hamara (Our India, 1950) and Zalzala (1952)—about Zils’ gayness and his suspected sympathies with Nazi ideology. Though Dev Anand had never discussed politics with him, he didn’t think Zils had that kind of mind-set. I asked actor-director Zul Vellani the same question. He found it difficult to believe that Zils could have Nazi leanings, because he so passionately loved India and her people, so much so that he even became an Indian citizen. He was also close to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. But as Vellani said, Zils made no secret of his homosexuality.
It was in early 1946 that Zils was released from the internment camp. He had made up his mind to stay in India and make films. He immediately went to the British authorities who had kept him prisoner and convinced them of his filmmaking abilities. Unlike Osten, Zils’ command of the English language was impressive. He got the External Publicity Division of Information Films of India (IFI) to take him on its staff. At this time, the IFI, created by the British for war propaganda, was about to fold up. Zils went on to create his own production unit in partnership with Fali Bilimoria, a filmmaker based in Bombay.
During his stay in India, Zils made over 70 documentary films on numerous subjects and with different agencies, including the Films Division, Khadi and Village Industries Commission, and Family Planning Association of India. Hindustan Hamara was originally conceived as an experiment in documentary filmmaking. Zils himself described it as India’s first cooperative venture, with the all-star cast (including Prithviraj Kapoor, Sombhu Mitra, Tripti Mitra, Kishore Sahu, Dev Anand, P Jairaj, Surendra, KN Singh, Durga Khote, Nalini Jaywant, Yashodhara Katju) taking only a nominal remuneration and dividing 50 per cent of the profits equally among themselves.
Shantikumar N Morarji, a director at the Scindia Steam Navigation Company, was Zils’ friend. With the company’s support, Zils directed India’s Struggle for National Shipping, a significant documentary film, during 1946– 1947. I was fortunate to have discovered and restored the nitrate negatives of this precious film, which could also be called India’s first corporate film. Zils also adapted Rabindranath Tagore’s novel Char Adhyay (1934) into Zalzala (1952), starring Kishore Sahu, Geeta Bali, Dev Anand, among others.
Zils was a founder member of the Indian Documentary Producers’ Association (IDPA) and the Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI), which are still around. He passed away in Munich in 1979.
The fourth instalment in this story of exile is of an unusual music composer, conductor, ethnomusicologist, educator and author of two important works on Indian classical music: Walter Kaufmann. Like Osten and Zils, Kaufmann too had worked at UFA before moving to India. As the director of European music at All India Radio, he composed its signature tune in 1936, which continues to play across India at dawn after almost 80 years.
Both he and Franz Osten immigrated to India in 1934. Unlike Osten, Kaufmann was Jewish and had to flee the Nazi terror in Germany. He came to India to study its music. His father was against his leaving for India; he wanted his son to return to Karlsbad, his birthplace. But Kaufmann’s decision to stay in Bombay probably saved his life and that of his wife, who arrived in the city on 24 February 1934, intending to teach French at a school. He did not originally plan to stay in India for long and had a return ticket for Prague, but he sold it since he needed the money.
Kaufmann realised that studying Indian music would take much longer than he had expected. Besides his love for Indian music, the fact that it was comparatively easier to get a visa for India had induced him to immigrate to Bombay. In addition, Kaufmann’s friend Wilhelm (Willy) Haas, a Jewish scriptwriter working with producer-director Mohan Bhavnani, had assured Kaufmann that he would provide him lodging for a few days. Haas, one of Germany’s most astute film and literary critics, had immigrated to Bombay via France and Trieste and later joined the British secret service in India. On becoming a British citizen in 1946, Haas returned to Europe.
During his stay in Bombay, Kaufmann founded the Bombay Chamber Music Society and conducted more than 600 concerts in Bombay. His Nocturne for Orchestra has an interesting Bombay connection. Its premiere leaflet stated: “This composition represents nocturnal Bombay, perhaps somewhere at the outskirts of the city. It is a quiet place, in which the Oriental night is interrupted by quick dance passages. The Nocturne is arranged in the form of a theme and variations, the whole work being based on six notes.”
Walter Kaufmann left behind a massive body of work in India: notated compositions and sound recordings; publications, including books, articles and reviews; and investigations into the country’s classical and folk music. He also composed background scores for prominent Hindi films such as Mohan Bhavnani’s Prem Nagar (City of Love, 1940), whose songs were composed by the well-known music director Naushad; and Ek Din Ka Sultan (1945), produced by Sohrab Modi’s Minerva Movietone. It was released at the West End (today’s Naaz Cinema on Lamington Road). For the Wadia Brothers’ production Toofani Tarzan (1937), he composed “special background music”, while Master Mohammed composed the songs and Gyan Chander wrote the lyrics. The film, publicised as “India’s first jungle adventure film”, was remade as the Zimbo series in the 1950s.
Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA) in Babelsberg
Kaufmann was described thus in the Mail-Star, a newspaper published in Halifax, Canada: “In 1934 he succumbed to the ‘lure of the East’, having been ‘intensely interested’ in Oriental music for years. He settled down in Bombay, where he lived for over twelve years, moving only after doctors repeatedly ordered him to do so.” Much later, in a letter dated 9 March 1951 to the classical pianist Edith Kraus, Kaufmann mentioned his illnesses (tropical flu, malaria, dysentery, etc) in India, and understandably, his longing for his native country.
Having spent more than a decade in Bombay, he moved to England in 1946. His engagement with Indian culture influenced his life and work even after he left the country. Kaufmann finally settled in the USA, dying in 1984 in Bloomington, Indiana.
While living in Bombay, Josef Wirsching lived in a bungalow called Rang Mahal in Bandra West. Walter Kaufmann stayed at Rewa House, a two-storeyed bungalow off Warden Road (now Bhulabhai Desai Road) that belonged to the Maharaja of Rewa. Paul Zils resided at Soona Mahal on Marine Drive, not too far from Kaufmann. The area around Soona Mahal, where Willy Haas had also stayed, was known as the European quarter. The restaurant Talk of the Town was an adda, a meeting place for many European and local intellectuals and artists. While Bombay Talkies studio in Malad has almost been destroyed, Rewa House and Soona Mahal still stand, whispering tales of exile and entanglement as thousands of passers-by walk past, oblivious of their history.
Amrit Gangar is a Mumbai-based writer, curator and film historian. His books include Franz Osten and the Bombay Talkies: A Journey from Munich to Malad; Paul Zils and the Indian Documentary; and The Music that Still Rings at Dawn, Every Dawn: Walter Kaufmann in India 1914–1946 (Goethe Institut, Mumbai, 2001, 2003 and 2013).