Franz Osten might have long been forgotten but his influence on Indian cinema endures.
Pioneers are not always the ones who go against the grain or blaze the trail for others. Some pioneers leave behind an impression that often gets diluted with the passage of time but whose influence continues to endure. Franz Osten was one such trailblazer. One of the world’s first Orientalists, Osten’s contribution as a filmmaker, film historian and most significantly as a bridge between cultures has gone unnoticed for a long time.
In fact, for someone who practically invented the typical Hindi film pattern without which much of the high drama of the 1940s, 1950s and to a great degree even the 1960s, and without whom Hindi cinema would have been much different than what we today know it as, Osten ought to be celebrated or at least acknowledged more.
Besides creating the one-time modern-Hindi cinema that infused realism in Indian movies, Osten was also instrumental in establishing one of the largest studios in Germany, interned by the British at the outbreak of the Second World War. Yet he is rarely recalled.
Born Franz Ostermayr in Munich in 1876, Osten aspired to be a photographer like his father, and in 1907 along with his brother, Peter, he found a travelling cinema called ‘Original Physograph Company.’ Later it was Peter who formed a company that preceded the Bavaria Studios, which is one of the largest film studios in Germany today.
Fate works in strange ways and one of the first ever films that Osten screened was a short documentary called Life in India. In a few years he would meet a young lawyer from India who would collaborate with him to create some of the greatest films seen in India. This unique meeting of cultures began in 1924 when a London-based lawyer, Himanshu Rai, 28, arrived in Munich to look for partners for a series of films on world religions. Rai’s company was called Great Eastern Film Corporation and joined hands with Peter Osten’s company, Münchner Lichtspielkunst AG, which could later be referred to as EMELKA.
Rai along with his collaborators, namely scriptwriter Niranjan Pal and Devika Chaudhury, who would later become immortal by her screen name ‘Devika Rani’, left for India with Osten and his collaborators that included cameraman Josef Wirsching and production designer Karl von Spreti as well as assistant director and interpreter Bertl Schultes. Once in Bombay, Osten began shooting Light of Asia (1925), also known as Prem Sanyas. At the time Light of Asia was made, “Orientals” or films with an oriental setting were quite a rage. Films like Ernst Lubitsch’s Sumurum or One Arabian Night (1920), Fritz Lang’s Das Indische Grabmal (1921) or Joe May’s The Indian Tomb (1921) were globally popular. But what made Light of Asia rise above the tag of just another ‘Oriental’ was the fact that it was actually shot in India.
Light of Asia was a roaring success in Europe. Ironically enough, in the US, the film, which offered a greater realism insofar as Orientals went, was dubbed a failure and some believed that no one would pay to watch a prince become a beggar. The success of the film in Europe though initiated two more such collaborations between Osten and Rai in the form of Shiraz (1928), which was the story of Taj Mahal and Prapancha Pash (A Throw of Dice or Schicksalswürfel, 1929), which was based on the Mahabharata. Film historian and author of the book, Franz Osten and the Bombay Talkies: A Journey from Munich to Malad (2001) Amrit Gangar notes that this was a big step ahead as the latter was a joint co-production with British Instructional Films (BIF) and the distribution of it was controlled by Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA) in Babelsberg, one of the best-equipped studios in Europe.
The success of the film also gave a great boost to the aesthetic rebellion against the British Empire. In his book Age of Entanglement- German and Indian Intellectuals Across Empire, author Kris Manjapra articulates how Osten along with Stella Kramrisch, a specialist in Indian art and Hinduism, who also taught at Shantiniketan, contributed the most in the act of transforming Indian artists to look at their own world as something more than one merely belonging to an indigenous minority within a British context.
By the time Rai and Osten commenced their collaboration in 1926 India had 300 cinema halls beside the numerous traveling cinemas but only 10 per cent of these showed films that were not from Hollywood. Much like Light of Asia, both Shiraz and A Throw of Dice featured Indian screenwriters and actors as well as locations and German technicians, and their success abroad, especially in Germany, was a matter of concern for the Imperial powers.
The Rai-Osten partnership was empowering local talent and cinema and was fast becoming a potent tool to spread nationalism too. The imperial masters via their Cinematograph Committee also questioned Rai for why he financed his films using foreign funds or techniques that were brought from outside the British colonial world. This was not an unwarranted concern. While the three films that Rai-Osten made in the 1920s might have been in the mythological mode, dealing with maharajas and maharanis and set in the ‘eternal expanse of the jungle’, the realism that Osten induced made them more persuasive in arousing sentiments.
Their success, besides attracting extra imperial interests, was also inspirational. Satyajit Ray, for example, found A Throw of Dice replete with “a decided penchant for realism..." But Osten’s greatest contribution to Indian cinema was yet to arrive and like many great things it happened rather accidentally.
The introduction of sound in cinema put an abrupt end to Himanshu Rai and Franz Osten’s partnership. A fourth film was underway but it was shelved as Indians talking in German would have not worked and for a few years, Osten went back to directing films in Germany. Had the talkie not happened perhaps Devika Rani—whose German career was underway at the Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA) under a unit that included Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich—could have become a far greater international star. But that loss led to something that changed Indian cinema forever.
While Osten was directing in Germany, Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani, who by then were married to each other, set up Bombay Talkies in 1934. Once again Rai brought together Osten along with Josef Wirsching and laboratory expert Wilhelm Zolle to India to help set up the production house and also train local talent. By 1936, Osten had directed six films in Hindi and by the time his association with Rai ended, he would have directed 11 more without knowing a word of Hindi. Osten’s filmography included Achhut Kanya (1937), a strong statement on the caste system, which was also the film that established the career of screen legend Ashok Kumar. Osten would go on to direct Ashok Kumar in 8 films even though he had initially felt that Dadamoni did not have the looks needed for an actor.
What made Franz Osten’s Bombay Talkies phase more intriguing was the fact that the filmmaker at the time was a member of the Nazi Party. Although Osten, along with his repertoire that included fellow Germans like Josef Wirsching, Karl von Spreti, and Wilhelm Zolle, technically chose an exile in India during the time the Nazi Party wrecked havoc in Germany, he had nonetheless officially joined the party in 1934 in order to continue working.
Manjapra mentions in Age of Entanglement that the Nazi Party had asked Osten for paperwork to prove his ‘Aryan roots’ in June 1934 in order for his company, Ideal Film, to continue working. Osten though, had stalled submitting them to the government’s Reichsfachschaft Film, the Reich’s film department. Osten saw the opportunity to work for Bombay Talkies in India as an effort to distance himself from the German film market and even Indianize his films “to shed the trademark Indic Orientalism that marked his Weimar work.”
While at Bombay Talkies, Osten’s body of work connected with the audience on multiple levels. These films were essentially social message-oriented, reformist dramas in nature and the ones that stood out besides Achhut Kanya were Jeevan Naiya (1936), Ashok Kumar’s screen debut where the narrative dealt with the ostracism of dancing girls, Izzat (1937), where love blossomed between a young couple (Devika Rani-Ashok Kumar) who belonged to different warring clans, Jeevan Prabhat (1937) that had remarriage at its core and Janmabhoomi (1936), widely considered to the first patriotic movie in Hindi cinema.
Some believe that Osten’s work also included imagery that communicated an identifiable political ideology to its audiences. Film and TV producer Carl-Erdmann Schönfeld points out that Osten had “subversive messages encoded in revolutionary icons like spinning wheels and portraits of some of the protagonists of the Indian independence movement.”
In retrospect, it might be simplistic or even conveniently logical to assume that Osten’s background might have influenced his imagery to be subliminal in a sense but can such a claim be devoid of historian’s fallacy? Amrit Gangar believes that the question whether Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani knew about Osten’s Nazi background or discussed his political leanings will continue to remain unanswered in the absence of any referential material. In that light, does presentism pose a threat to the manner in which one chooses to view Osten’s work between 1934-1939?
In 1939 during the shooting of Kangan (1939) Franz Osten was arrested and jailed by the British. Other Germans arrested during this period were imprisoned for the whole duration of the Second World War but Osten’s age—he was 62 at that time—and his frail health saw him get repatriated to Germany. Although Osten never returned, few of his associates stayed back and some like Josef Wirsching shot seminal films in the history of Indian cinema including Mahal (1949) and Pakeezah (1972). By the end of the War Osten had become the head of the casting department of the Bavaria Studios and also set up a film archive there. When he died just a few weeks short of his eightieth birthday in 1956, Franz Osten was an unknown entity. His death was bareley registered. He was a manager of a health spa at the time of his death and the German papers mentioned it in the passing.
What made the world forget Franz Osten even when he was alive? Perhaps it was his association with the Nazi Party that turned the pioneer into a pariah. Any such association was seen with disdain in the aftermath of the War and in most cases continues to be viewed from the same lens. In 2006, Günther Grass’ literary legacy bore the brunt of his confession of being a member of the Waffen-SS in Second World War where a lifetime of achievements was nearly dismissed for a thing that happened as a teenager when, in Grass’ own words, such a thing had happened to many of his age.
Indian cinema has come a long way from the times of Franz Osten and while he might have been long forgotten his influence endures. Today, television shows have taken over the subjects that Osten would excel at but they are leagues behind the kind of the understanding and realism that Osten bequeathed on the genre.