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Talking Bombay Talkies

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Three Melbourne brothers were amazed to discover that their grandfather was one of the most influential pioneers of Indian cinema.

Curator Fiona Trigg spoke with Peter, Paul and Walter Dietze, grandsons of Bombay Talkies studio founder Himansu Rai.

How did you discover Himansu Rai?

Peter: I was going through some photos when I was in my 30s, believe it or not, and discovered a photo of an Indian gentleman. I said to my mother, "Who's that?" and she said, "That's your grandfather". It was a big surprise as I didn’t even know I had Indian heritage. Ever since then I've been on a mission to promote the legacy of his life.

What did you know about him at that time?

Walter: I knew that he was in silent movies, and that he married Devika Rani after he split up from my grandmother, Mary Hainlin, and they started Bombay Talkies, which was one of the earlier film studios. It was actually the first purpose-built film studio in India.

So you decided to start researching?

Paul: Yeah. At the time, there's no internet to surf or anything like that. There was one book in Ivanhoe Library that had one reference to the Bombay Talkies in it. So Melinda, my partner, and I took off to India in start of '95, and I had absolutely no idea about what was going on over there, whether or not anyone knew anything about this man. I'd had some conversations with some fellow graduate students who had Indian heritage and they knew of Devika Rani. I thought, "Well, obviously these people were pretty famous." The idea was to spend six months in Kolkata, trying to find something of Himansu Rai.

We arrived in Kolkata in February '95. Our Lonely Planet guide book recommended a hotel owned by a woman who knew a lot about Kolkata. We just mentioned Himansu's name and the hotel owner immediately had us in contact with a journalist who knew a woman we might be related to, who turned out to be our second cousin. She looked identical to my mother, and they were born a few days apart. So within two hours of arriving we were in my second cousin's lounge room.

We spent the whole year in India trying to uncover elements of the story.  Unfortunately, Himansu’s wife Devika Rani died less than a year before we arrived.

What can you tell us about Devika Rani?

Paul: Devika was Himansu Rai's second wife and was one of the major early Indian film stars. She starred in about 10 films and then after Himansu Rai passed away in 1940, she continued to produce and star in Bombay Talkies films.

She was the grand-niece of Rabindranath Tagore, who's a Nobel Prize laureate in Literature from India. She went to the UK to study dress making and set design. She was the voice of the first ever BBC World broadcast. She had amazing diction and ironically her voice was widely regarding as classic English. You can hear that Indian accent in there but supposedly she had the perfect Queen's English.

Is this where she met Himansu Rai?

Walter: Yes, she met Himansu Rai in Europe in the 1920s where he was making silent films.

Tell us about the studio Bombay Talkies. What were they trying to do?

Paul: Bombay Talkies was trying to create films that were both suited to a Western audience and an Indian audience.

Peter: These were pioneering efforts. The Light of Asia in 1925 was groundbreaking. For an Indian movie maker to be showing that film at Windsor Castle is extraordinary.

Peter Dietze at the remains of the Bombay Talkies studio

Britain was still ruling India at that time. Why do you think it was important for Himansu Rai to show Indian culture to British society?

Paul: I can't tell how deeply he would've thought about any of that sort of stuff. But he was studying law when he arrived in India and he was initially part of a group involved in the Freedom Movement. He was friends with people like Subhash Chandra Bose, who was a famous Bengali, as well as the young Nehru. But he became disillusioned with the Indian Freedom Movement and the fighting that was going on in the early 1920s and turned to acting and producing films instead.

Peter: There are documents in the archive that support his vision as he was planning to create the Bombay Talkies. There’s correspondence about why he should embark on this mission to put Indian film on an international scale.

Walter: There's some information around that indicates that his first movie, The Light of Asia, was inspired when he went to Oberammergau, the story of the Passion Play and the life of Buddha.

Peter: He wanted to create those culturally significant films.

Are there any really significant films that stand out for you?

Peter: Number one is the first talkie, Karma, which is noted for having the longest kissing scene in a Bollywood film! Which is quite surprising because Himansu Rai was kissing back in 1925 in The Light of Asia, also in Shiraz in 1928, and in Throw of Dice in 1929.

Paul: Himansu Rai envisaged the Bombay Talkies as films for Indian people about Indian issues and Indian stories. Karma was originally recorded in both Hindu and in English, so they did two takes of every scene.  But after Karma they didn't make films in English anymore, they were all in Hindustani because they were aimed at the Indian audience.

I've noticed there were love stories, comedies and dramas but they often had a social issue as part of the plot.

Paul: One of the big legacies of that early work is the singing and dancing. Film historians may see that as the genesis of the Bollywood film format. I guess the fact that there was the social issues that permeated the films was something that would probably distinguish it from the Bollywood films that came after it.

Lastly, the exhibition draws from an enormous archive of material. Could you tell us how you came into possession of this collection?

Paul: After Himansu died, Devika Rani's remarried Svetoslav Roerich. His father Nicholas Roerich is a famous painter with galleries in Russia and New York. 

Peter: I was on a business trip to New York in 2001. It was really off-chance, but I had a spare hour and I decided to drop into the Roerich Gallery. I met with the curator and spoke at length about my story and connection to Roerich.  He said "Peter, I think I've got some things that belong to you." He went away and brought back a box and there was a photograph of Devika Rani on top.

He sent me another box of material of all the files of the Bombay Talkies. It was just remarkable. All the files were meticulously cared for. Then a month or two later, I received another box, and then another. All of sudden, we had seven boxes of material.

Ever since, we've been trying to promote and care for the legacy of Himansu Rai, the Bombay Talkies and Devika Rani. We always wanted to do an exhibition in Melbourne, so it’s wonderful to see it at ACMI.