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The German Connection

Actors and technicians reported to work at 9 am daily, even if they had no scenes to shoot. One afternoon in the 1940s, actor Dilip Kumar sn...


January 15, 2006

LONG before Himanshu Rai pioneered the Bombay Talkies era, he was a young barrister who boarded a ship to Europe in the ’20s to practise law. Little did he know that an introduction to the German film house Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA) would inspire a new phase in Indian cinema.

The evolution of the UFA is indelibly bound to the history of German cinema. The collection of publicity posters that are part of Max Mueller Bhavan’s travelling exhibition, reflect the social and cinematic changes from its foundation in 1917 through to the takeover by the Nazis in 1933. (It’s rumoured that one of the Bombay Talkies films, Achhut Kanya (1936), was screened at Joseph Goebbel’s Ministry of Propaganda in Berlin.) Currently, the UFA Film and TV Produktion unit is one of the many companies under the CLT-UFA banner. They produce films in association with Warner Brothers and Paramount.

In the ’20s, Europe was captivated by Oriental films. In collaboration with writer Niranjan Pal, Rai conceptualised Light of Asia (1925), the first international co-production between the Lahore-based Great Indian Film Corporation and Germany’s Emelka Film Company. Rai played the lead role of Gautam Buddha. The film’s director Franz Osten later saw Bombay Talkies through 16 films.

With the introduction of film acoustics, Rai accumulated experience while working on UFA’s first sound film, Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel in 1929, the same year he married actor Devika Rani. The duo returned to India to set up Bombay Talkies in 1934.

The newly-weds set up the institution with their overseas learnings. Everyone was en rapport with all aspects of film-making. ‘‘The studio screened UFA newsreels till WWII, when UFA fell into Nazi control,’’ says historian and film critic Amrit Gangar.

Actors and technicians reported to work at 9 am daily, even if they had no scenes to shoot. One afternoon in the 1940s, actor Dilip Kumar sneaked off to watch a film at a nearby theatre. Unfortunately, he was spotted by Rani and fined Rs 50 for truancy.

Their cinema was largely inspired by German Expressionism in the use of light and shadow. Rai imported a host of technicians—film architect Carl Von Sprett and cameraman Josef Wirsching, among many others.

Few learnt to speak the local language. But as part of his research on the period, author Rafique Baghdadi tracked down RD Pareenja, an assistant, who picked up German in order to translate the script of Achhut Kanya for the foreigners. ‘‘He repeatedly emphasised studio discipline. Bombay Talkies had the most modern equipment,’’ says Baghdadi, whose father Abdul Rehman was also a technical assistant at the studio.

Modelled on UFA, the studio was the first successful attempt at film corporatisation and its shares were sold in the market. In that atmosphere of Indo-German exchange, some of the brightest stars of the silver screen, including Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar and Kishore Kumar, were launched.

During WWII, most of the Germans were detained at Deolali near Nashik, while Osten returned home. Wirsching continued and shot the Dev Anand-Kamini Kaushal starrer Ziddi (1948). ‘‘We were on the sets when Bombay Talkies caught fire. The first thing Wirsching did was grab his camera to start shooting the mishap,’’ remembers Kaushal.

By the 1940s, Bombay Talkies had lost its edge; Rai had passed away and a section had split to form Filmistan. A few years later, Rani married the Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich and went into self-exile in Bangalore. But the legacy did not completely perish as is evident in Mahal (1949), starring Ashok Kumar and Madhubala. ‘‘Its aesthetics were like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari,’’ adds Gangar. Bimal Roy’s Maa (1952) is also said to bear Expressionist touches.

But the German influence wasn’t restricted to the erstwhile Bombay Talkies compound. In 1934, musician Walter Kaufmann moved to India and began composing the background score for Mohan Bhavnani’s The Mill and The Awakening.

In 1939, a Jewish scriptwriter named Willy Haas fled to Mumbai to escape the Gestapo. He joined Kaufmann and later scripted the hit film Prem Nagar. The music director for the production was Naushad Ali. ‘‘Walter was my background composer and we recorded all eight songs in one night,’’ says Naushad in an interview with German researcher Christoph von Ungern-Sternberg, who wrote his PhD thesis on Haas. Some believe Kaufmann created the All India Radio’s signature tune.

Another German who contributed in a different genre was documentary film-maker Paul Zils, founder of the Indian Documentary Producer’s Association. His attempt at a feature film was Zalzala (1952), starring Dev Anand. ‘‘Zils planned in advance and shot according to the script, never improvising,’’ says Anand.

Years later, in 1972, V Shantaram adapted Sternberg’s The Blue Angel into Pinjra, a bilingual film in Tamasha style. It was also during her stint on the sets of this Sternberg production that Rani once served as a make-up assistant to Marlene Dietrich.

(The UFA exhibition is showing in Mumbai and travels to Delhi in February and Kolkata in March)

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