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The German connection

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PAYING HOMAGE: Shantaram remade von Sternberg's 'The Blue Angel' into 'Pinjra' (1972) (left)

Few cinephiles know that early Indian cinema was deeply influenced by German Expressionism. A special package of films at the Toronto festival showcases this piece of cinematic history.

Afew years after the First War of Independence, German Indologist Max Mueller spoke of a reawakening of national pride among Indians. This was 1869, the year Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born. Working well into his translation of The Rigveda, Max Mueller was in fact romanticising about a new Indian literature, which, he said would be "impregnated with western ideas, yet retaining its native spirit and character".

Half a century later, a bigger mass medium would unwittingly take Max Mueller's ideas to heart. The medium was cinema, which brought together filmmakers from India and Germany to create something spectacular. During November, an important piece of this cinematic history was mounted on the screens at the Toronto International Film Festival's (TIFF) permanent yearround venue, the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

"There are rich and fascinating cinematic links between the German and Indian cinemas over a century, " says film critic Meenakshi Shedde, who curated 'Indian Expressionism' for TIFF Bell Lightbox. Packing acclaimed works like V Shantaram's 1934 epic Amrit Manthan and Kamal Amrohi's 1949 love story Mahal into the seven-film schedule, the Toronto focus on India and Germany underlines an era of filmmaking that the current industry has a lot to learn from.

Light of Asia (Prem Sanyas/Die leuchte asiens), a 1925 India-Germany co-production and the brainchild of Indian impresario Himansu Rai, the founder of Bombay Talkies, the biggest studio in pre-Independence era, is one example. The film, which is about Prince Gautama's journey to Buddhism, was theatrically released in Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Brussels, Budapest;and following a royal command performance for the King and Queen of England, it ran in London for months. Directed by Munich-based filmmaker Franz Osten, produced by Rai and adapted by his screenwriter Niranjan Pal (from a poem of the same title by British poet Edwin Arnold), Light of Asia followed the 1921 German Oriental fantasy The Indian Tomb (Das indische Grabmal).

The Indian Tomb made in two parts - The Mission of the Yogi (Die Sendung des Yoghi) and The Tiger of Eschnapur (Der Tiger von Eschnapur ) - by Joe May is full of scheming maharajahs, ferocious tigers and magnificent palaces. The film, about an Indian maharaja who hires a European architect to build a living tomb for his unfaithful lover, was remade twice - by Richard Eichberg (1938) and by Fritz Lang (1959).

The Toronto event brings out the huge influence German expressionism had on Indian filmmakers like Rai, Shantaram and Amrohi. "Characterised by an exaggerated, distorted, unrealistic style emphasising inner emotions, and expressed in performances, cinematography and set design, German expressionism made a virtue of intelligent lighting and shadow play. It went beyond romance and comedy to tackle dark themes, including insanity and betrayal, " explains Shedde, who is India consultant to the Berlin and Dubai film festivals. This aesthetic style contested Hollywood's big-budget productions with lowbudget panache back then.

"Germany was the most innovative and exciting place making films then, " says Noah Cowan, Artistic Director of TIFF Bell Lightbox. "Giants of cinema such as Fritz Lang and F W Murnau were making their early masterpieces and Indian filmmakers had an inside track to their technicians and inspirations. At the same time, in a pale echo, German filmmakers fell in love with India as a privileged 'other', making it the place of dreams and fantasies for Europeans suffering the privations of the Great Depression, " he adds.
When the talkies arrived in the early 1930s, Rai went to Germany to study sound technology. It was the time German filmmaker Josef von Sternberg was shooting The Blue Angel, which catapulted Marlene Dietrich to international stardom. Rai brought his Light of Asia director Osten to the Bombay Talkies, along with his cinematographer Josef Wirsching and technical crew. Osten went on to direct 14 films in Hindi, including the 1936 film Achhut Kanya (with Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani) and the 1939 Kangan (Ashok Kumar and Leela Chitnis).

If Rai showed the way for high-quality film production in India, Shantaram, his contemporary, shifted filmmaking to a new realm. Shantaram went to Germany in 1933 to print India's first colour film, Sairandhri. Right after his German trip, Shantaram made a dramatic U-turn in his cinematic style and content. He turned from religious subjects - Gopal Krishna (1929) and Ayodhyecha Raja (1932) - to social issues - Amrit Manthan. The latter is the first he made on his return and is about a Hindu king who wants to ban animal sacrifice. He used German expressionistic aesthetics with moody lighting and dramatic shadow play amid grandiose sets - and even expressionistic use of music with Western instruments like the piano and violin.

Shantaram also remade von Sternberg's The Blue Angel as Pinjra (1972), a Marathi tamasha dance version of the original, featuring Shreeram Lagoo and Sandhya, while retaining the core story of an upright teacher falling in love with a nightclub singer. Kamal Amrohi's debut film, Mahal (1949), made much before he directed Pakeezah (1972), is considered one of the most outstanding examples of German expressionism in Indian cinema. Starring Ashok Kumar and Madhubala and featuring the soulful song "Aayega, aayega..." the film shows the influence of German expressionist Robert Wiene's famous The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) on Amrohi.

CROSSOVER CLASSICS


Light of Asia (Prem Sanyas/Die leuchte asiens) by Franz Osten, India/Germany (1925) The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel) by Josef von Sternberg, Germany (1930) Pinjra (Cage) by V Shantaram (1972) The Indian Tomb (Das indische Grabmal) Part One: The Mission of the Yogi (Die Sendung des Yoghi), Part Two: The Tiger of Eschnapur (Der Tiger von Eschnapur) by Joe May, Germany (1921) The Tiger of Eschnapur/The Indian Tomb (Der Tiger von Eschnapur/Das indische Grabmal) by Fritz Lang, Germany (1959) Amrit Manthan (The Churning of the Oceans) by V Shantaram (1934) Mahal (Palace) by Kamal Amrohi (1949)

Toronto International Film Festival's Bell Lightbox, November 14-21

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