“Bombay Talkies: An Unseen History of Indian Cinema” edited by Debashree Mukherjee

bombay talkies

Josef Wirsching (1903-1967) was a German cinematographer credited with changing “the future of Indian filmmaking” to quote his grandson Georg Wirsching. His filmography starts with The Light of Asia (1926) and includes many superhits including Pakeezah (1972), one of Hindi cinema’s most loved films. With his graceful filming of Indian heroines and his ability to adapt German Expressionism to Indian melodrama, he was a part of the Indian movement in film making that sought to blend regional aesthetics with the European avant-garde and let nationalism find an expression in modernism. With the publication of Bombay Talkies: An Unseen History of Indian Cinema, edited by Debashree Mukherjee, film buffs and historians of Indian cinema find another reason to hold him in awe. He was not just a cinematographer but also an archivist, someone with a sense of history in the making. 

Wirsching was associated with German studio Emelka Films, which went on to launch Alfred Hitchcock’s career as a film director. In 1924, the upcoming Indian studio Bombay Talkies (well known in Indian film history as a studio that launched superstars in Hindi film cinema such as Ashok Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Meena Kumari and singer Lata Mangeshkar) invited Emelka Films to collaborate on The Light of Asia. Together with director (and fellow German) Franz Osten, Wirsching worked on the next few movies produced by Bombay Talkies that shows the duo found a worthwhile project in India. As Mukherjee puts it,


The content and themes of Bombay Talkies’ films, with their emphasis on progressive reform and the socially marginalized, offered a worthy vision of an inclusive future that was the antithesis of the Nazi project.

bombay talkie

Wirsching’s contribution to Indian cinema has been acknowledged as great for his graceful framing of the heroines as well as for bringing in German Expressionist style to Indian movies. The melodramatic movies of the era had actors emote in a highly stylised way, to which Wirsching’s expressionist style added an excitement:


Wirsching frequently framed characters through arches, doorways and windows; favoured eccentric camera angles; and masterfully moulded light to create accentuated shadows and to sculpt darkness. These Expressionist techniques lent themselves beautifully to Bombay Talkies’ melodramatic screenplays, where socially transgressive emotions found visual expression in song and mis-en-scéne. The crisis of the alienated individual in post-war Europe was thus transferred, via melodramatic Expressionism, to the crisis of the modernizing self in a colonized nation.


Bombay Talkies: An Unseen History of Indian Cinema, Debashree Mukherjee (ed) ( Mapin, May 2023)
Bombay Talkies: An Unseen History of Indian Cinema, Debashree Mukherjee (ed) ( Mapin, May 2023)

While background information adds to the understanding of film history (and Wirsching’s personal history as a German kept in confinement at different camps in India during World War II), the book is based on the material found in his archive: photographs he took on film sets, publicity stills, production shots, candid photos of crew members, personal photos of family and pets, behind-the-scenes shots, and so on, photographs that blur the line between the real and the reel. These are photographs that document the magical time it was for these early days of Indian cinema. The treasure was preserved by his son and grandson and was exhibited in Goa in 2017. The book itself is a very richly designed photo book that holds the readers’ attention:


Looking through these images one can almost palpably feel the camera changing hands from one person to the next, as a vibrant filmmaking community visually emerges around a shared camera.


The photographs shot by Josef Wirsching (he is the autéur of the photographs even though he is present in a lot of the pictures) are populated by all kinds of elements of film making: the crew from the lightman and sound recordist to the film director. Devika Rani, wife of Himansu Rai with whom she owned Bombay Talkies, is the most recurring subject of the photographs. Wirsching shot her in all possible contexts: in one photograph, she stands talking to diretor Osten with her hands tied, probably discussing the character and the moment that is being shot (in which her character’s hands are tied); in another photograph, she can be smoking a cigarette—quite a risqué thing for someone who was projected as an icon of feminine innocence on screen. The juxtaposition of these moments creates a sense of aura around the actors for today’s audiences who may not know much about the scandalous lives film stars back then lived.

Josef Wirsching on set for the filming of the Bombay Talkies production of Achhut Kanya (1936)
Josef Wirsching on set for the filming of the Bombay Talkies production of Achhut Kanya (1936)

The most fascinating image in the book is the image of Josef Wirsching himself in the foreground as he shoots a scene from the 1936 movie Achhut Kanya. Deeper into the photograph are Wirsching’s camera, the crew, the actors against the outdoor background on an indoor set. The way the photographer’s camera frames the film camera and the indoor/outdoor synergy unfolds the film world for the reader likens film making itself as if the page were zooming out of the film world while zooming into the moment of filming. The lights, the fake street and the camera become the heroes of the photograph, exposing the actors for the miniscule proportion they are in when seen in the context of the larger team. Such photographs from the archive provide what one contributor calls “a totalizing, omniscient view of the production of a movie”.


Bombay Talkies is memorable because over 90 percent of the pre-independence films are lost and archival material about the era is very scarce. Looking at the photographs also reminds one of the cosmopolitan history of Indian cinema, or of this studio at least:


This collection is the outcome of the cross-fertilization of cultural influences at Bombay Talkies, a dépaysement, a rendering into exile and (self)-alienation, of media and people, drawing in the histories of photography, print media and cinema, and reneged across continents and cultures. This indeed is a “nation” of photography.


It is a fitting tribute not just to the early history of Hindi cinema but to the gentleman who labored to film it onscreen as well as off-screen.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.