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A history of Indian cinema

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The story of Bombay Talkies

Peter Dietze, a Melbourne-based company director, was in his thirties when he was intrigued to discover that he had Indian heritage, and that his grandfather, Himansu Rai, was the co-founder of the Bombay Talkies film studio, a major force in Indian Cinema from 1934 to 1954.

Himansu and his wife, actress Devika Rani, were a visionary, creative couple who sacrificed everything to make entertaining films that reflected contemporary India back to their audience. Bombay Talkies produced dramas and comedies that often touched on issues such as the caste system or the role of women in society. Song and dance were important elements in many of their films; a foretaste of the exuberant, emotional and celebratory style that is a mainstay of contemporary Bollywood cinema.

Himansu spent much of the 1920s in England and Germany, where he met his first wife, the dancer and actress Mary Hainlin. Their daughter Nilima, Peter’s mother, grew up in Germany and migrated to Australia as a young woman in 1952. Peter’s research into his grandfather’s life and work led him on a journey of discovery from Melbourne to India, London, Munich, Berlin and New York, where he unearthed a fascinating and rare archive of scripts, photos, letters and business documents that once belonged to Himansu and Devika. Peter and his brothers formed the Dietze Family Trust, and they generously share their archive and their family’s story in this exhibition.

THE INDIAN PLAYERS

“We aspire to bring about a better understanding between Britain and India…”

Himansu Rai studied law in Calcutta (now Kolkuta), then went to London intending to become a barrister. It was away from family expectations however that he pursued his lifelong love of the theatre. In 1922, he dropped the law altogether when he secured the lead role in The Goddess, by Niranjan Pal, a writer also based in London. The play was a success, and marked the beginning of a creative partnership between Rai and Pal that lasted for the next 15 years.

The Goddess featured an all-Indian cast who went by the name of The Indian Players, and Himansu managed the group as they toured the play through Britain. He and Pal dreamed of producing further work that would present an authentic Indian voice to counter the many sensationalist novels and films with ‘exotic’ Indian settings and plots, often written by people who had never been there, which were popular in the UK at the time.

Himansu successfully raised money in Bombay (now Mumbai) to produce a film called The Light of Asia, from a script written by Pal. The two went to Munich in 1924 to close a production deal with Emelka Studios, who had offered to provide a crew and equipment if Himansu and Niranjan could supply funds and the Indian cast and locations. It was during this time that Himansu met and married Mary Hainlin.

Image courtesy ACMI by Charlie Kinross

EPIC SILENT FILMS

“A Riot of Oriental Splendour…”

Himansu Rai and Niranjan Pal made three spectacular silent films based on classic Indian stories. The Light of Asia (1925) recounts the life of The Buddha, Shiraz (1928) tells the love story behind the Taj Mahal, while A Throw of Dice (1929) is a tale of gambling princes, taken from the Sanskrit epic, The Mahabharata.

All three films were shot in India, with Himansu Rai taking the lead role, and local Maharajas opening their palaces and temples to allow the filmmakers access to unique and beautiful locations. Elephants, precious jewels, and thousands of extras were also provided.

Director Franz Osten and cameraman Joseph Wirsching led a German production team, who shared their expertise with the less experienced Indian crew. The negatives were taken back to Germany to be processed and edited, and the films were distributed widely in Europe, although they proved less popular with Indian audiences.

In 1928, Himansu met Devika Rani, a beautiful and sophisticated young Indian woman who had spent much of her childhood in England. Devika was working as a fabric designer, and Himansu asked her to help on the production of A Throw of Dice. They married in 1929, and lived in Germany during the editing of the film. Devika studied acting at UFA studios in Berlin, where she observed such luminaries at work as directors G.W. Pabst, Fritz Lang, Joseph von Sternberg and rising star Marlene Dietrich. The rise of Hitler and National Socialism decimated the German film industry soon after, with many great Jewish directors fleeing to Hollywood.

The Light of Asia (1925). German promotional film still signed by Himansu Rai

KARMA

“ The Thrilling Indian drama of love and intrigue...”

Karma was Devika’s first appearance in a film and Himansu’s last. The real-life couple played rulers of neighbouring states who fall in love, and must negotiate traditional versus progressive values, not to mention tiger hunts and near fatal snake bites. Karma was the first ‘talkie’ or sound film to be shot in both English and Hindustani versions. It took two years to complete, with exteriors being shot in India, and interiors in the Stoll Studios in London, where the film was also edited. In the midst of the Great Depression, Himansu struggled desperately to raise money to complete the film, and then to find a distributor. The Indian businessmen who had put up funds were frustrated at the time it was taking to see a return on their investments. The Dietze family archive contains several impassioned letters from Himansu to Sir Chimanlal Setalvad, the chairman of the company setup to make the film, requesting further funds.

Karma was eventually released in 1933, and was widely covered by the press, who were fascinated by Devika Rani and full of praise for her beauty and her pronounciation – which was not really surprising considering she had attended school in England! The film however had a clumsy script and lacked the visual eloquence of the silent films Himansu had produced. Karma failed to find a wide audience, but the wave of positive publicity assisted Himansu and Devika in their next venture, their return to Bombay and the launch of Bombay Talkies.

Karma (1933) was produced in both English and Hindustani versions, and starred both Himansu Rai and Devika Rani

BOMBAY TALKIES LTD.

“Regarded as the best in the East”

Returning to Bombay in 1934, Himansu Rai and Devika Rani established Bombay Talkies Ltd, with financial backing from Bombay’s most prominent businessmen. The studio was located in Malad, a remote suburb of Bombay, and was furnished with the latest equipment and facilities. Rai was joined by Franz Osten and Joseph Wirsching, who had worked on the silent films, and the writer Niranjan Pal. The studio had a reputation for treating its staff well; everyone ate together in the canteen for instance, regardless of caste, and they setup a training program for university graduates to learn filmmaking skills.

Devika’s delicate beauty and warm screen presence saw her become a true superstar of Indian film, although it was not all smooth sailing. While working on Jeevan Naiya (Life Boat) in 1936, Devika and the male lead Najmul Hassan ran off together to Calcutta. Himansu persuaded her to return, but sacked the actor. Needing a replacement at short notice he elevated a lab technician, Ashok Kumar to the lead role. A star was born and Ashok Kumar became an iconic screen figure, whose career continued into the 1990s.

Tragically, Himansu died in 1940 at the age of 48. Devika continued to run Bombay Talkies for another five years, until her marriage to painter Svetoslav Roerich, which saw her leave the film world for good. The Dietze family archive contains no material post 1945, but the studio continued under various directors until its closure in 1954.