From the silent era to the flowering of Bollywood in the 1970s, India and Germany had a fascinating cross-cultural connection and mutual influence. Indian Expressionism offers an intriguing look at this fusion of two great cinematic traditions.
India has long captured the imagination of the West. For more than two hundred years, European and American writers, artists and filmmakers have used India's peoples, history, and traditions as backdrops for tales of imperialist adventure, Orientalist fantasy, and journeys of spiritual self-discovery. In the overwhelming majority of these works, "India" is a passive entity, a timeless, unchanging storehouse of images to be viewed, interpreted and/or appropriated by the West. Yet not only does this remove India from history and the processes of historical change, it overlooks the many fascinating ways in which the country's art and culture has intersected with, influenced and been influenced by that of the West.
In this programme, we explore one of the richest and strangest cross-cultural pollinations in film history: that between the cinemas of India and Germany, beginning in the silent era and extending to the flowering of mainstream Hindi (Bollywood) and Marathi cinema in the 1970s. From the imaginary India of German silent fantasy films, to the pronounced German influence on the Indian film industry in the twenties and thirties to full-fledged Indo-German co-productions, Indian Expressionism offers an intriguing look at this unique fusion of two great cinematic traditions.
The 1920s were the golden age of German cinema, when the powerful UFA studio tried to establish itself as a major competitor to Hollywood with its epic-scale super-productions aimed at foreign markets. Orientalist spectacle was a natural source for these silent blockbusters, and UFA scored one of its great successes with Joe May's 1921 two-part epic The Indian Tomb, which was scripted by Thea von Harbou and her then husband, the great director Fritz Lang. Shot in Germany, with German actors playing both the European and Indian roles, this tale of a fiendish maharajah who commissions the building of a majestic tomb in which he plans to bury his unfaithful queen alive is steeped in Oriental exotica, erotica and sadism — it's a true Gollywood (German/Bollywood masala film) action-adventure that cheerfully disregards the truth of Indian life for the purposes of spectacle.
Unlike the Hollywood studios, which rarely ventured beyond their backlots to create their visions of faraway lands, European studios were in much closer proximity to the exotic East — and by partnering with indigenous production companies, they could exploit financial and creative resources that their American rivals were unable to tap. This situation proved to be a two-way street, as Indian filmmakers could take advantage of German talent and expertise to help consolidate their own prolific film industry. Indian theatrical impresario Himansu Rai— who in 1934 would found Bombay Talkies, one of the country's most important pre-independence studios — rode this wave when he embarked on the 1925 Indo-German co-production Light of Asia, a collaboration between Delhi's Great Eastern Film, Munich's Emelka Film, and Rai's acclaimed theatre troupe the Indian Players. Rai imported German director Franz Osten and a German crew to shoot the film on location in India (remarkable, considering that India was still a British colony and this was only a few years after the end of WWI), and he himself played the leading role. (Some have even credited Rai as the unofficial co-director of the film.)
A dignified and realistic rendering of the life of Prince Siddhartha — later and better known as Buddha — Light of Asia proved to be a box-office bonanza in Europe, leading Rai to make two more co-productions with UFA and strengthening the ties between the Indian and German film industries. When the talkie revolution erupted in Europe, Rai went to UFA to study sound technology, at the time that Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel — the international sensation that launched Marlene Dietrich to stardom — was in production. The aesthetics of German cinema as embodied in this landmark film — meticulously lit mise en scène and consciously heightened, expressionistic performances — would soon be absorbed into the house style of Bombay Talkies, marking a new phase in Indian cinema. As late as 1949, Kamal Amrohi's Mahal, a gloriously photographed ghost story produced by Bombay Talkies, clearly reflected the influence of German Expressionism, especially The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — not surprising, as it was shot by German cinematographer Josef Wirsching, who first came to India to shoot Light of Asia and stayed on to work with Bombay Talkies, along with that film's director Franz Osten, who would direct fourteen films in Hindi.
V. Shantaram, a brilliant Indian director, social reformer, technical pioneer and studio mogul, also travelled to Germany to process and print his (and India's) first colour film, the 1933 Sairandhri, and was greatly impressed by German cinema. 1934's Amrit Manthan, which he made on his return, reflects that influence in both Shantaram's choice of subject (an action-packed tale of palace intrigue) and his effective use of Expressionist visual techniques to heighten suspense. In 1972, Shantaram would again pay homage to that early influence when he directed Pinjra, a Marathi tamasha dance version of The Blue Angel which, when compared to the original, makes for a fascinating study in cross-cultural adaptation.
Despite this process of give-and-take across a number of decades, the Orientalized image of India still remained a fixture in the Western mind, as evidenced by the most entertaining and mind-boggling film in our programme: Fritz Lang's 1959 diptych The Indian Tomb and The Tiger of Eschnapur, a remake of the May film that Lang had co-written over three decades earlier. Returning to Germany after more than twenty years in Hollywood, Lang was given a large budget and an all-Western cast and shot the two films on location in India. Exploding with saturated colours, high adventure and outrageous erotica (culminating in Debra Paget's near-naked temple dance), Lang's superbly crafted but utterly reactionary Indian adventure is a feast of unintentionally hilarious, racist mumbo-jumbo — and this at a time when Mehboob Khan's Academy Award®–nominated Mother India and Shantaram's Silver Bear–winning Two Eyes, Twelve Hands were bringing Indian cinema to international attention, and when some of Lang's fellow Europeans were offering a more empathetic and realistic vision of the country(e.g., Jean Renoir's The River and Roberto Rossellini's India: Matri Bhumi). For Lang, the Indians were still the bad guys and the Europeans were still our saviours — a viewpoint that obviously still held plentiful cultural currency, as the two-part epic was among the most successful of postwar German films.
Even so, Lang's film is more the exception than the rule. The technical brilliance, aesthetic impact and social conscience of the films made by Bombay Talkies' Indo-German team through the thirties and forties left an enduring legacy, and produced a generation of accomplished Indian directors, stars, writers, technicians and musicians who would have an enormous influence on the shape of Bollywood cinema to come.
Meenakshi Shedde is a Mumbai-based film curator. She is India Consultant to the Berlin and Dubai Film Festivals and has served as India/Asia Curator/Consultant to numerous festivals worldwide.
Thanks to Prashant Pathrabe and Kiran Dhiwar at the National Film Archive of India, Pune; Virchand Dharamsey; Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek; Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv.