Home > How To Lounge > Movies & TV > An exhibition that chronicles the cinematic history of Mumbai

An exhibition that chronicles the cinematic history of Mumbai

An ongoing show at the CSMVS features rare original photographs and digital reprints of early Indian cinema from the Josef Wirsching Archive in Mumbai

Devika Rani and others in an iconic tableau composition, 'Jawani ki Hawa', 1935, Bombay Talkies, d. Franz Osten, courtesy: JW Archive

By Riddhi Doshi

LAST PUBLISHED 17.04.2024  |  10:00 AM IST

In a black-and-white still of a party scene from the 1936-movie Jeevan Naiya, men in coats and women in saris can be seen strolling on a beautiful lawn, lit with rows of ferry lights. In the background, one can see an oddly familiar semi-circular structure. The footnote of the photograph mentions that the shoot took place within the production house Bombay Talkies’ studio in Mumbai. “But where in Mumbai was the studio located?" I wonder while scanning more images from the exhibition, A Cinematic Imagination: Josef Wirsching & The Bombay Talkies.

Just then I overhear a young viewer telling his friend about having visited the site of the studio recently. I ask him its location. “In Malad," he replies. I am surprised, for I had assumed that a film studio, founded in 1933, would be in central Mumbai, Dadar or Chembur, where Indian filmmakers of the time such as Dadasaheb Phalke and V Shantaram had their studios. Also, the popular history of Mumbai hardly ever mentions sprawling estates in its northern suburbs. “I have lived in the suburbs all my life, but didn’t know that it was home to the Bombay Talkies studio until I started working on this exhibition," says Tamara Rasquinha of the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF).

The exhibition, which is a collaboration between the JNAF, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya and the Alkazi Foundation of the Arts, was earlier shown in Goa and Delhi in 2017 and 2019 respectively, though in different versions. For the Mumbai show, curators Rahaab Allana and Debashree Mukherjee have put together a sampling of rare original photographs and digital reprints of early Indian cinema from the Josef Wirsching Archive in Mumbai. The selection comprises behind-the-scenes photographs of cast and crew, production stills, and publicity images, which were primarily shot on 35mm with a Leica camera between the 1930s-40s. “This exhibition tells a story of a world across worlds, a story of cultural convergence that brought together Berlin and Calcutta, Munich and Mumbai," says Mukherjee. It gives today’s viewers access to the creative communities that were vital to filmmaking in late colonial India.

Also read: The talented Mr Ripleys

The Bombay Talkies was an enterprise of director and actor Himanshu Rai and his wife Devika Rani, also an actor, along with Niranjan Pal, German director Franz Osten and cinematographer Josef Wirsching. It was founded in 1934 when Indian artists desired to forge an aesthetic language that could be simultaneously nationalist as well as modern. Frustrated with European academic canons and colonialist stereotypes, they turned to local artistic genealogies and avant-garde movements outside the British Empire. Germany, with its long history of Indological enquiry, became an ally in this endeavour, explains Mukherjee.

In the 1920s, Rabindranath Tagore visited Germany, and in turn, Austrian art historian, Stella Kramrisch, joined Santiniketan and organised the landmark Bauhaus exhibition in Calcutta (1922). This two-way cultural exchange was keenly felt in the world of cinema as well; the success of “Oriental" films such as Sumurun (1920), The Tiger of Eschnapur (1921) and The Indian Tomb (1921) was met with the ambition of Indian filmmakers, who approached German studios for technical training. In the 1920s, nationalist filmmakers such as Dadasaheb Phalke, V Shantaram and Himansu Rai reworked these influences, drawing inspiration from the German Oberammergau Passion Plays, Bengal School portraiture, Heimatfilm (homeland in German) rural stories, art deco industrial design, and Hindustani classical musical conventions.

Saroj Borkar and the child artiste Gulbadan sing a lullaby in the opening sequence of 'Nirmala' (1938), a story about a young woman’s deep desire to become a mother. Courtesy: JW Archive/The Alkazi Collection of Photography

The Bombay Talkies often portrayed the struggle of the tribals, the plight of women, the emerging urban India, and indigenous art and craft in its movies such as Jawani Ki Hawa (1935), Jeevan Naiya, Achhut Kanya (1936), Basant (1942), and Jwar Bhata (1944).

Also read: 4 events for a stimulating week


view all

Josef’s onscreen work reflects his efforts to infuse Hindi cinema with the psychological depth and stylistic ethos of German Expressionism. “His behind-the-scene photographs, however, gesture towards another meaning of the ‘cinematic’—a term commonly used to describe moments in reality that seem elevated beyond the every day," says Mukherjee. In these images, we see objects, environments, and interactions among the cast and crew members, framed by a vision that captures the beauty and drama behind the laborious work of film production.

There is an entire section dedicated to the studio’s first film, Jawani Ki Hawa—a thriller about young lovers separated by class and caste. Most of the film is set inside a moving train, and elaborate sets for the interiors were created on the studio’s sound stages. In the months before the release of the film, sections of the city’s Parsi population vehemently objected to the fact that the film featured two “respectable" middle-class Parsi ladies—one as a singer and actress, the other as the music composer. After efforts to ban the film failed, pickets were held outside the Imperial Theatre and at least three persons were arrested. Khorshed and Manek Homji eventually stayed on as salaried employees of the studio but assumed the screen names of Saraswati Devi (one of India’s first music directors) and Chandraprabha. Their photographs feature in this section as well.

There are also several pictures of Devika Rani, showing a modern, ambitious actress, as opposed to her demure on-screen presence. Then there are pictures of Rai, Osten and other men deep in conversation, and that of Wirsching, who took offered a rare peek into the formative years of Indian cinema and of the Bombay of old through his photos. He made the city his home until 1967 when he died of a cardiac arrest.

A Cinematic Imagination: Josef Wirsching & The Bombay Talkies can be viewed at the Jehangir Nicholson gallery, CSMVS, Mumbai, till 18 April, from 10 am to 6 pm daily.

Riddhi Doshi is a Mumbai-based art, culture and travel writer.