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Culture

A Bavarian in Bombay

Franz Osten became just what he set out looking for in 1920s India -- the exotic. He also turned into one of the founding fathers of India's film industry.

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India's burgeoning film industry can afford a nod of acknowledgement in the direction of Bavaria.


Indian film buff Himansu Rai had a singular vision when he made his way to Germany in 1924. He wanted to use European expertise to turn around the Indian film business, and he planned to do so by making movies about the world's religions.

European-educated Rai decided to start with Christianity. Inspired by the traditional Passion plays, he headed to Bavaria's Oberammergau, where the life and sufferings of Jesus Christ has been reenacted every decade since the 17th century. Once there he found willing collaborators in the Ostermayr brothers, heads of Emelka Film Company Studios. But by that time Rai had scrapped his original idea of filming the Passion of Christ, and together with Emelka he decided to start with the life of Gautama Buddha.

The Munich film studio was enticed by the promise of the exotic -- in addition to Rai's assurance that he would cover production costs. Director Joe May's successful movie "The Indian Tomb" had already proved in 1921 that German audiences were keen on films with foreign stories and locations. The exotic was "in" in post-World War I Germany.

Rai offered Emelka the opportunity to make a film on location with real Indians instead of the German actors made-up to look like Indians. The studio jumped at the chance and sent director Franz Osten, one of the three Ostermayr brothers, to follow Rai back to his homeland.

30 dazzling elephants

Osten, his German camera crew and 30 elephants laden with gold and jewels worth 450,000 gold marks (around $100,000 today) belonging to the cooperative Maharajah of the city of Jaipur, spent five months filming on some of India's most impressive sites. With the help of baton-wielding policemen, the thousands of extras were kept on the set and calm presided, despite the sweltering heat of the Rajasthan sun in northwestern India.

For Osten, Rai and Emelka, at least, the efforst paid off. "The Light of Asia," starring Himansu Rai as Guatama Buddha, was a hit in Germany, the first in a series of films that Osten and Rai made together. Rai's wife, Devika Rani, the most sought after Indian actress in the 1930s, also acted in Osten's films. Bombay Talkies

Rai and Rani established their own film production company, "Bombay Talkies," in 1934, and enlisted Osten's talents. German cameramen and technicians came from Europe to train Indian colleagues. Bombay Talkies became one of the most influential studios in Indian film history.

Osten, considered a second-rate filmmaker in Germany, made 16 movies for Bombay Talkies within four years. He and Rai peppered the films with social criticism, striking out at corruption, the caste system and forced marriage.

In 1939, in the midst of filming, Osten was arrested by the British colonial rulers and deported. The 64-year-old returned to Munich and never made another film. In Germany, his name is hardly known. In India, however, he left his mark as one of the founders of Bollywood.

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