German cinematographer Josef Wirsching shows the legacy he left behind in Indian cinema

Dec 17, 2017, 12:00 IST | Benita Fernando

The first exhibition of photographs by famed German cinematographer Josef Wirsching shows the legacy he left behind in Indian cinema

In all the years that the Wirsching family travelled across India, they carried with them a trunk that would one day reveal the invaluable material it safeguarded. This was the 1980s and 1990s, when the Bombay-born automobile engineer and salesman Wolfgang Peter Wirsching, his wife Rosamma, and sons Josef and Georg, moved across cities. "Wherever we went, this box went with us. We could have left it behind at our house in Bombay, but we didn't. Our father would open it from time to time, to make sure that its contents were well-preserved," says Georg, now 40.

A young Josef Wirsching, circa 1924
A young Josef Wirsching, circa 1924

In 2006, after the family chose to make Goa their home, Georg and Josef's interest in this itinerant trunk grew. From it, they unearthed negatives, photographs, prints and lobby cards, nearly 6,000 of these, belonging to the early years of Indian cinema and vignettes of travels through Asia. The trunk contained no less than evidence of the magic and the craft of an emergent cinematic tradition in latecolonial India. There was the original diva of Bollywood, Devika Rani. There was the iconic actor, Ashok Kumar. There was the pioneering director and writer, Himanshu Rai. And, then, there was Josef Wirsching, the German who amassed this collection.

Born in Munich, Wirsching is notable for his indispensable contribution to mainstream filmmaking in India as cinematographer and camera technician. We know him as the lensman behind some large-scale and nuanced productions, such as The Light of Asia (1925) and Pakeezah (1972). "Our grandfather was documenting behind-the-scenes at movie studios and locations even while he was a cinematographer," says Georg, whose brother Josef was named after the talented man.

Actors Devika Rani and Najam-ul-Hussain in Jawani Ki Hawa (1935), a production by Bombay Talkies, directed by Franz Osten. Josef Wirsching was the cinematographer for this film, a still from which was used in this lobby card. Pics/Wirsching Archive
Actors Devika Rani and Najam-ul-Hussain in Jawani Ki Hawa (1935), a production by Bombay Talkies, directed by Franz Osten. Josef Wirsching was the cinematographer for this film, a still from which was used in this lobby card. Pics/Wirsching Archive

Historic moments
Josef Wirsching is the subject of a newly-opened exhibition at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Panjim, Goa. The exhibition, titled A Cinematic Imagination: Josef Wirsching and the Bombay Talkies, is curated by Rahaab Allana and Debashree Mukherjee. It broadly spans the period from 1925 to 1967, but focuses mainly on the years from 1934 to 1939. This was when Wirsching made about 17 Hindi-Urdu feature films for Bombay Talkies, the movie studio set up by Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani. The exhibition showcases 131 works, a mere fragment, if you think about it, from the colossal Wirsching Archive, and most have been reproduced from original 35 mm archival negatives.

In a candid photo, Himanshu Rai, Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar share a meal during the filming of Izzat. Rai and Devika Rani set up Bombay Talkies in 1934
In a candid photo, Himanshu Rai, Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar share a meal during the filming of Izzat. Rai and Devika Rani set up Bombay Talkies in 1934

"Our main aim was to highlight Wirsching's pioneering contribution to Indian cinematography and situate him within a network of travelling artists and art movements," says Mukherjee, a film historian and assistant professor of South Asian film and visual cultures at Columbia University, New York. "In 1925, the compact Leica 35 mm film camera was launched, and it revolutionised photography. Photographers could move about with the camera, and shoot high motion, or in high grain. It was but natural that Wirsching made use of it, thus showing his mastery over both the moving and the still image," says Allana, curator at the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts in New Delhi.

Director Franz Osten (left), one of the noted Germans who worked extensively in Indian cinema, with Wirsching, during the filming of Izzat (1937)
Director Franz Osten (left), one of the noted Germans who worked extensively in Indian cinema, with Wirsching, during the filming of Izzat (1937)

The German-Indian connect
Both curators draw our attention to the German contribution to Indian cinema that the early and mid-20th century were witness to. But, before that, Mukherjee briefly sums up the birth of German Expressionism. Stumbling out of the shadows of a bitter defeat in World War I, German artists felt the need for a new aesthetic language to deal with their collective experience of isolation and trauma. In silent film classics such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Metropolis (1927), German Expressionism relied on dramatic low-key lighting and surreal set design as a means to highlight psychology.

The stunning Devika Rani on a break from shooting; on the left is actor Kamta Prasad
The stunning Devika Rani on a break from shooting; on the left is actor Kamta Prasad

Having previously worked with Emelka Film Studios, Munich, with whom he shot The Light of Asia, Wirsching joined Bombay Talkies in 1935. "Bombay cinema from the 1930s to 1950s reveals a strong influence of German Expressionism and Wirsching played a pioneering role in popularising this form," says Mukherjee. Wirsching's signature is seen in his framing, such as arches and doorways, and his eccentric camera angles.

Indoor artificial rain drizzles on the set of Bhabhi, directed by Osten. In the midst of the crew, Wirsching can be spotted by the camera
Indoor artificial rain drizzles on the set of Bhabhi, directed by Osten. In the midst of the crew, Wirsching can be spotted by the camera

The cultural climate of Germany influenced Wirsching, who could effortlessly switch between expressionism, naturalism, realism and surrealism. "The exhibition captures a time of innovation, as also eccentricity, while dealing with alienation in a post-war society," says Allana. Overall, for film historians, the Wirsching Archive could prove to be a rare treasure, says Mukherjee, as it provides vital information about the techniques, such as the use of sprinklers for artificial indoor rain or sync-sound recording, of pre-Independence Indian cinema. "Bombay Talkies defies popular myths about the supposedly incompetent and chaotic nature of early film production in India. Instead, we see solid professionalism as well as a spirit of real collaborative bonhomie. The easy coexistence of Indian and German technicians, Eastern and Western themes and design motifs, make any rigid definitions about what comprises 'Indian cinema' quite redundant."

Georg Wirsching
Georg Wirsching

Refuge in art
There is a story waiting to be told, says Allana, of the exiles from Nazi Germany who found refuge in India's artistic enterprises, and this exhibition could be a starting point. With Hitler's dramatic rise to power, there was an eastward movement of Jews and other minority communities, which is lesser-known than the westward migration. Mukherjee says that Wirsching's decision to move to Bombay in the 1930s seemed mainly motivated by the fact that the biggest film studios in Germany were being taken over by the Nazi party. Non-Jewish filmmakers were being compelled to join the party and make propaganda films. "This coercive atmosphere, where the central government directly intervened in creative decisions and financing, made artistic production very difficult for many independent-thinking filmmakers," she says.

With the outbreak of World War II, Wirsching was dispatched to internment camps. After his release, he continued in the Bombay film industry, and went on to film Pakeezah, which was completed after his death in 1967.

Debashree Mukherjee
Debashree Mukherjee

Personal ties
For Georg, a visual artist and teacher based out of a village called Nachinola near Aldona, Goa, the exhibition comes at a significant time. It has been 50 years since his grandfather passed away, and these photographs will be shown to the public for the first time. Since the last decade, he has been building a detailed inventory of the Wirsching Archive, making annotations of the films that the photographs document. While most photographs have been shot by Wirsching, there are those in which he features as well, possibly by having passed the camera along to crew members. "I didn't know exactly how great my grandfather was until I attended film festivals, and people marvelled when I spoke to them about the collection," he says.

The archive also contains a number of photographs that were shot by Wirsching during a year-long travel of Europe and Asia that he undertook between 1927 and 1928, along with his childhood sweetheart and future wife, Charlotte. Here, in this passionate ethnographic study of India, Rangoon, Persia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, among other countries, Georg says that you can see a man who was obviously in love with the camera.

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