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Bombay Talkies

An Unseen History of Indian Cinema

Debashree Mukherjee
Foreword by Georg Wirsching With contributions by Sudhir Mahadevan, Priya Jaikumar, Rachel Dwyer, Debashree Mukherjee, Kaushik Bhaumik, Virchand Dharamsey and Eleanor Halsall.

Following Hitler’s rise to power in interwar Germany, the biggest German film studios of the day found themselves being taken over by the Nazi Party for propaganda purposes.

Published in Feb. 2023

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Following Hitler’s rise to power in interwar Germany, the biggest German film studios of the day found themselves being taken over by the Nazi Party for propaganda purposes. Published in Feb. 2023


Ever since cinema became a popular medium of mass entertainment audiences have been intensely curious about life and work on a film set. How are films made, we have wondered, hoping that first-hand knowledge of a film set will explain and subdue the hold that cinema has on us. This book presents rare behind-the-scenes photographs from the personal archive of the cinematographer Josef Wirsching, a pioneer of Indian cinema. Most of these photographs were taken in the 1930s and ‘40s when Wirsching was employed at the legendary film studio, Bombay Talkies Ltd. Shot across film sets and outdoor locations they convey a world of meaning that was never intended to be projected on the silver screen.

Bombay Talkies was founded in 1934 by the husband and wife team of Himansu Rai and Devika Rani, who had previously worked in Germany. After the Nazis’ rise to power, the largest German film studios of the day were taken over for propaganda purposes, restricting the creative freedoms of filmmakers. At the same time, new sound technologies made it possible to make Indian films in Indian languages for Indian audiences. Himansu Rai and Devika Rani decided to start their own film studio in Bombay and invited their German colleagues to join them in this new artistic enterprise. Some of the biggest hits of Bombay Talkies were made by a multilingual and transnational collective including Franz Osten (director), Josef Wirsching (cinematographer), Devika Rani (actress), Niranjan Pal (writer), and Ashok Kumar (actor). The studio played a foundational role in defining India’s commercial film form, producing some of the most iconic musical films of the era.

The essays in this volume help us understand the historical and imaginative value of the photographs in the Wirsching archive. We are confronted with the fact that it is impossible to demand a superficial authenticity from the past. What is Indian about Indian cinema? How do we navigate the gap between the star image and off-screen lives of beloved actresses such as Madhubala and Meena Kumari? Can we fix a medium that moves between architecture, photography, and embodiment? As this book suggests, the past continues to surprise us as new sources emerge, showing us that history, and cinema itself, is a vital ongoing project.

Debashree Mukherjee is Associate Professor of film and media in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University in New York.

Sudhir Mahadevan is Associate Professor of Film Studies in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Priya Jaikumar is Professor of Cinematic Arts in the Division of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California.

Rachel Dwyer is Professor Emerita of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London, and Professorial Research Associate at the SOAS South Asia Institute (SSAI).

Kaushik Bhaumik is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Virchand Dharamsey is an eminent researcher and scholar of early Indian cinema and author of the filmography of Indian silent cinema published in Suresh Chabria (ed.) Light of Asia: Indian Silent Cinema, 1912-1934.

Eleanor Halsall is a film historian whose current research focuses on German film studios as part of the STUDIOTEC project.

• Foreword
• Introduction
What Photography Can Tell Us About Cinema’s Past
• How Photography Gives an Account of Itself
The Wirsching Collection as a Nation of Photography
• The Knot: A Scholar and an Angel Unravel Izzat (1937)
• A German Eye on Indian Beauty
Josef Wirsching’s Portrayal of the Female Star in Hindi Film
• Between the Studio and the World
Built Sets and Outdoor Locations in the Films of Bombay Talkies
• Re-visioning Bombay Talkies: Restoring Parallaxes to an Image:
A Conversation with Virchand Dharamsey
• Josef Wirsching and The Kreuzer Emden
The Entangled Politics of the Interwar Period

• Josef Wirsching’s Filmography
• Works Cited
• Index
ISBN 9789385360787
Pages 192
Number of photographs 120
Size 9.65 x 11.50" (245 x 292 mm), hc
Date of Publishing FORTHCOMING
Language(s) English
Co-publisher(s) In association with The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi
Rights Available World rights