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Living in Light and Shadow

German cinematographer Josef Wirsching shot some of the landmark silent and talkie movies of India. An ambitious crowd-funding project aims to re-introduce his work in the public domain.

Written by Alaka Sahani | Mumbai |
Updated: October 11, 2015 8:00:18 am

THE FIRST film that Bombay Talkies (BT) — the first Indian public limited film company — made was Jawani Ki Hawa (1935). Not much is known about the romantic thriller except that its lead actors Devika Rani and Najmul Hussain sparked a huge scandal by eloping to Calcutta. However, a generous glimpse of the film and its making are available on the recently-launched These photos — a panel of 24 stunning monochromatic images shot by the film’s German cinematographer Josef Wirsching — have been handpicked from the private collection of Wirsching. As the director of photography of BT, he had moved to India with his wife Charlotte when producer-actor Himanshu Rai and others set up the studio in suburban Bombay in 1934.

Bombay Talkies, Jawani ki HAwa, Devika Rani, Najmul Hussain, Josef Wirsching, Achhut Kannya, Ashok Kumar, Entertainment news Josef Wirsching servicing and recalibrating his cameras.

Wirsching passed away in 1967, but he left behind nearly 4,000 negatives and 2,000 prints that included contact sheets, large publicity prints, all kept neatly packed in an airtight steel trunk. Till 2009, this collection was maintained by his son Wolfgang Peter Wirsching, who carried the trunk with him as he shifted from Bombay to Dubai to Coimbatore and now to Goa. “Even though my father was an acclaimed cinematographer, he was equally passionate about still photography and travel. He believed in documenting the work that was happening around him, apart from Indian life and landscape,” says Peter. In 2009, Georg Wirsching, Josef’s grandson, decided to sift through the material in the trunk and invested in equipment to create a digital inventory of the material. Recently, nearly a hundred images from Wirsching’s collection have been put up on the family’s new website to raise Rs 30 lakh through a crowdfunding campaign. Through this initiative, Georg intends to raise money to publish a 250-page picture book, titled “Bollywood’s German Origins” and hold an exhibition of his grandfather’s photos by December 2016. “We have selected nearly 200 images for the book which will also have three detailed essays. Limited edition art prints and postcard sets of Wirsching’s photos will also be available to collectors,” Georg says.

Apart from showcasing Wirsching’s work, the website gives a generous view of the early era of talkies and the methods of filmmaking through 17 neatly-arranged panels. There are photos from the films Savitri, Jeevan Prabhat and Nirmala — all made in 1937 — and 1938 films such as Vachhan and Nav Jeevan that Wirsching filmed. Interestingly, there is also a panel of photos from Kishore Sahu’s Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (1960), in which Wirsching and his wife made an appearance in a club number by Helen, Itni badi mehfil.

These images spell out why Wirsching was widely credited with ushering in German Expressionism — a dark and brooding style of filmmaking that peaked in the ’20s and ’30s — in Indian films, most famously in the supernatural suspense thriller Mahal (1950). The dynamic use of shadow and light became Wirsching’s signature style, who shot 16 films for BT before the WWII broke out. After the war, the first film he shot for the studio was Ziddi (1948), which gave Dev Anand his big break. He shot four more films before BT shut down in 1954. He joined the documentary and ad-film division of AMA Limited that year and five years later, he moved to Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal Films where he worked on another career-best, Pakeezah (1972) — working in colour for the first time.

Film archivist and restorer Shivendra Singh Dungarpur says, “The evolution of camera techniques in India started with Wirsching. While his contemporaries were influenced by Hollywood, the Munich-born cinematographer brought in German Expressionism to Indian films and developed a new idiom.”

Bombay Talkies, Jawani ki HAwa, Devika Rani, Najmul Hussain, Josef Wirsching, Achhut Kannya, Ashok Kumar, Entertainment news A still from Bombay Talkies’ first film Jawani Ki Hawa, featuring Devika Rani and Najmul Hussain.

While film historians and movie lovers might have been familiar with Wirsching’s work in movies, his still photography has largely remained hidden from public domain. “When I compare his photography with his films, I believe he was a far better photographer. In his photographs, he beautifully captures Devika Rani, a reigning star in the ’30s and ’40s, while playing with contrasts in black and white,” says Dungarpur.

Wirsching was equally brilliant with colour. Even though he did not live to finish the shoot of Pakeezah (1972) — he died on June 11, 1967, a fortnight after he lost his wife to cancer — he had set the template for it. “Ahead of the shoot, he had carried out extensive trials with the colour film, before zeroing in on the optimum methods required for the filming to follow,” says Peter. Many of these test prints of Kodak Eastman colour film shot entirely with cinemascope lenses are part of his collection. “I have never seen colour so beautifully and gracefully explored on screen. Kamal Amrohi (Pakeezah’s writer and director) did not have an eye for the camera, it’s Wirsching who realised his vision,” says Dungarpur.

Yet, what is available with the Wirsching family is a small part of the original collection. “My grandfather had plans of living in Munich after retirement. So, he used to keep sending his photographs, negatives and other documents to his family home there. His home and all his records were completely destroyed in an air-bombing raid in 1944 during World War II,” says Georg. Another setback for him came in 1939 when, as a German national living in British India, he was interned for the period of the WWII. In spite of this, Wirsching did not consider returning to Germany. The soft-spoken cinematographer loved exploring India and once he wrapped up a shoot, he would go on picnic trips photographing places around Bombay. This often helped him suggest suitable places for future shoots. “When they had to shoot the train scene for Pakeezah, it was his idea to take Meena Kumari near Kasara Ghat railway tracks, where nearly two decades earlier he had shot scenes of Achhut Kannya (1936),” says Peter.

Bombay Talkies, Jawani ki HAwa, Devika Rani, Najmul Hussain, Josef Wirsching, Achhut Kannya, Ashok Kumar, Entertainment news A still from Achhut Kannya featuring Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar.

With the two-month long crowd-funding campaign ( open until November 15 this year, the Wirsching family is hopeful of bringing the work of this great cinematographer back into public reckoning. The website also invites those with information or any anecdotes about the images to come forward. Recently, US-based Tahira Hussain Naqvi contacted Georg after he posted the photograph of Devika Rani with Anwar, her on-screen husband in Achhut Kannya, on the website. Naqvi identified the actor as her father-in-law Najam Naqvi, who used the screen name Anwar and became a successful director after moving to Pakistan at the time of the Partition. The Wirschings are hopeful that many more such stories will come up in the days to come.

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