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How Himanshu Rai's film started an epic journey for German cinematographer Josef Wirsching


In a conversation with Cinestaan.com, Georg Wirsching describes how his grandfather, cinematographer Josef Wirsching began his documentary of Asia following Himanshu Rai's  iconic The Light of Asia (1926).

Image courtesy: The Wirsching Archive

Shriram Iyengar

In a time when collaborations with international studios is commonplace, it is hard to imagine the challenge faced by Himanshu Rai when he approached Germany's Emelka Film Company for help with his project, The Light of Asia (1926). A story on the life of Buddha, the film was based on Edwin Arnold's poem and marked the first Indo-German collaboration in cinema. It would also mark the arrival of the first German technicians, director Franz Osten, cinematographer Josef Wirsching, set designer Karl Von Spreti, and laboratory technician Wilhelm Zolle to India. Speaking to Cinestaan.com, Georg Wirsching, grandson of Josef, described his grandfather's journey sparked by Himanshu Rai's film. 

The man from Munich: Josef Wirsching's remarkable journey from Munich to Bombay Talkies

Georg, who is currently involved in The Wirsching Archive, described how The Light of Asia, or Prem Sanyas as it would later be called, sparked the beginning of an epic journey for his grandfather across two continents. He said, "It was essentially based on the success of Light of Asia, which was shot in 1925. And 1926 was when the movie was being sold, after the screening for the King and Queen of England. They had given great reviews for it, and the movie did amazingly well in Europe. There was a small problem with the rights because Himanshu Rai had the rights to screening of the movie in India, while Emelka had secured the rights for Europe. But in India, the movie did not do all that well." Miffed at the injustice, Rai turned to another German studio, UFA, for his next film project, A Throw of Dice. 

The film had the same problems any film with historical perspectives deals with today. Indian audiences found it overly sentimental and complained that it lacked authenticity. Georg says, "Everybody said 'Oh, this is based on the life of Buddha, but that is not the real location'. But in Europe it was received amazingly, so Himanshu Rai had a little bit of a problem on his hands. That's when he made two other movies, A Throw of Dice or Prapancha Pash (1930), and Karma (1933) with UFA." 

It was during this break, that Josef embarked on a journey of epic proportions. The success of The Light of Asia sparked a sudden interest in Asia for the German studio, Emelka Films. Soon, Josef was put in charge of documenting life in Asia in a documentary film. Georg says, "The film (The Light of Asia) was shot only in one part of Asia, but the studio wanted to shoot the whole of Asia. This is when granddad began the journey. My grandfather, grandmother, an official cameraman, and two drivers drove all the way from Germany to Italy, from Italy they took a steamer to Alexandria, to Egypt, Lebanon, Iran Iraq, Afghanistan, through India, Delhi to Benares to Calcutta and, finally, Rangoon. They were given two Mercedes cars to get them through the journey." 

A temple in India. Photo: Wirsching Archive

It was not a simple journey. The crew had to walk the final leg of the journey to Rangoon because the roads were blocked out. The massive journey took a year to complete, and resulted in hundreds of hours of documentary footage. Georg reveals, "For the entire film, Thomas Cook was hired as a travel agent. Back then, they were called Cook & Sons. Everywhere along the journey, wherever there was a Cook & Sons stop, the crew could send telegrams and receive mail. Film stock would often be directly mailed to the Cook & Sons establishment on the next point. Any footage that was shot was then sent back to Emelka from these points. It was a huge project, he shot a few hundred hours or so of documentary footage. Which was again taken to the studio, in Emelka, it was cut down to maybe 10-15 minutes of documentary film, which can be then used in theatres in the mid-1920s Germany." 

The Ghat: The Wirsching Archive

Sadly, any reels or documentation of this epic journey is lost. The breakout of the Second World War, and the fall of Germany, resulted in the loss of valuable footage. Georg, an archiver, says, "Now, the thing is Emelka had all of the footage until the start of the World War, but after the World War, the footage has since disappeared. We met with a German filmmaker, who once worked for Emelka, many years ago. He had done a little bit of digging around but found out that these films are missing. The only film, from that period, is what granddad shot for his personal references and memories." 

A traveller all his life, Josef would often take off between films to shoot locations, people and cultures. Georg, a curator of The Wirsching Archive, has sought to restore and digitise the images in his grandfather's possession. But the process is financially straining. Georg says, "Basically, right now we are just stuck for funds. We need to funnel a lot of money to balance the archiving. I have spoken to a lot of people, and they all say 'It is an excellent idea.' but when it comes to funds, they never agree...Many of them tell me 'Give it to us, we will do it. Donate it to us, and we will do it.' The thing is, first of all the NFAI, I am terrified of it. After PK Nair left at the end of the 1990s, in 2000s, there was a fire  caused by a short circuit. Several movies from the early ages were burnt. If you haven't maintained the stuff you already have, and they want to take on more. They won't curate and preserve it right. So, I am not sure of it." 

Josef spent close to 40 years in India, working on iconic films like Achhut Kanya (1936), Mahal (1949), Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (1960) and Pakeezah (1972). His work would influence several generations of filmmakers, but there is no comparison to the journey of more than a thousand miles that he undertook to document life in Asia. If only someone had kept that film safe!