Franz Osten’s ‘The Light of Asia’ (1926): A German-Indian film of Prince Buddha, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 15, No.4, 1995.

"The Maharaja is a very progressive man but he will be even more progressive when he lends me his 50 elephants for my shooting " Franz Osten, Mysore, February 26, 1929

The Germans forgot him, the British interned him, and the Indian Cinema audience loved him. Despite the fact that he was celebrated all over Europe before W.W.II Franz Osten is hardly ever mentioned in film history books. Osten was a pioneer in the development of cinema. He took feature film production out of the studios into the world, and gave his films an authentic quality by combining documentary techniques with narratives drawn from the myths and legends of ancient India. 70 years before Bertolucci’s ‘Little Buddha’ Osten gave his Western audiences insight into Indian culture.

Germany in the early '20s : The political climate was still determined by the events of 1919 and, in particular, the Treaty of Versailles, which has put Germany into political and cultural isolation. This led to recession, unemployment, endless queues outside Salvation Army kitchens, political radicalisation, racism. People were impoverished, not only socially and politically, but also intellectually. In the trenches of Verdun and the Somme many people lost faith in the culture of the West. Some were subsequently escaping into the defiance of Dadaism, others into the relaxing sterility of the Abstract or the comforting depth of their own soul. German writer Hermann Hesse, for example, published his Western equivalent to Buddhism, "Siddhartha", Brecht showed his interest in Buddhism in his "Book of Transformations". Many intellectuals in the West shared the longing for far away countries. Lawrence in Arabia, Gaugin in the South Pacific, Antonin Artaud and Robert Flaherty with films like "Moana" or "Nanook of the North” represent this longing. With the effect of repression there was a large audience that was hungry to see exotic stories about travelling authors, painters and film-makers. If you can't afford to travel you have to dream about it.

Franz Osten’s silent films tell Indian stories about the life of Buddha (The Light of Asia, 1925), dramatise the events that led to the construction of the Taj Mahal (Shiraz, 1928), and draw from the great collection of Indian myths and legends, the Mahabarata (Throw of Dice, 1929). Osten contributed to increasing the understanding of different religions and offered a feast for the senses by showing elephants in festive decoration amid thousands of extras. His huge sets were real, but still ideal for escaping from reality, dark skinned women were offered for one to project one's sexual longings onto, associating sexuality with primitivity.

A unique collaboration, which managed to satisfy the tastes of both German Indian audiences started in 1924; the 28 year old Indian solicitor Himansu Rai came to Munich in search of partners for series of films on the world religions. So far he had been studying law in Calcutta and London, where as a scholar of Nobel Prize winner Rabrindranath Tagore he had been running a theatre group that set itself the aim of reviving old Indian acting and theatre traditions. He had heard that the Passion Plays of Oberammergau were the focus as well as the showcase of German culture and now wanted to create the Indian equivalent.

In Europe as well as in the United States so-called “Orientals”, films with an oriental setting and subject matter, became more and more fashionable. Lubitsch’s ‘Sumurun’ (1920), Joe May’s ‘Tiger of Eshnapur’ and ‘The Indian Tomb’ (both 1921) matched this desire for exotic tales. Just as nowadays, one then associated India with gold and spices, teeming streets and temples. The Orient promises spiritual pleasures as well as earthly ones. But whilst May made his films in his studio just outside Berlin using German extras made up with shoe polish, Rai and Osten took the deliberate decision to show the real India. “ No film can be truly artistic, or, I believe, really popular unless the out-of-date fakes of background and camerawork are ruthlessly abandoned.”

Rai hoped that the West will warrant him technical assistance and distribution deals for his film projects. As he was looking to make an Indian counterpart to the Passion Plays of Oberammergau he finds in Osten the necessary qualities. The generally sweet taste of the Indian cinema audience finds in Osten a director whose style still influences Indian film-making today.

Franz Ostermayr, who later calls himself Franz Osten, was born in Munich in 1876. Franz trained to be a photographer like his father and gave acting a try. In 1907, he founded a travelling cinema called the "Original Physograph Company" together with his brother Peter Ostermayr, who later established the film company preceding the Bavaria Studios - today one of Germany’s largest film studios. Amongst other films he screened the early blockbuster "Life in India", a short documentary about the Munich carnival. Unfortunately the project wasn’t very successful : three days after the opening, showing the disaster movie ‘The Great Fire of London’, the projector exploded in flames. Osten decided to make films and in 1919 he directed his first feature, "Erna Valeska". His career was abruptly interrupted by the beginning of WW1. He worked first as a correspondent, then became a soldier. After the war Osten made peasant dramas like "The War of the Oxen" and "Chain of Guilt" for EMELKA Munich.

At the same time India was going through a process of transformation. 1919 was the year of Gandhi' s first Satyagraha - Campaign. Many Indian artists were therefore interested in liberating themselves from English colonial power in order to make the broad audience more aware of the roots of their own culture. Gandhi's fight for independence encouraged Indian artists to strengthen their own identity and detach it from Imperial influences. The need for sovereignty led Himansu Rai to employ Europeans like Franz Osten in order to create connections with other countries that were independent of Great Britain and to train Indian technicians, artists and producers to Western standards.

In India itself there were already 300 cinemas halls by 1926 plus countless travelling cinemas, but 90% of the films shown were imported from Hollywood , almost exclusively from Universal Studios. Indian material was barely to be seen on the screens. Himansu Rai wanted to change this. The cinematic counterpart to the Passion Plays of Oberammergau had to be a story that can be shown on the big screens of the metropolis, as well as the stretched sheets of the provincial travelling cinemas that were trying to bring to their audience the identity of a great cultural nation that everyday life in the colony was lacking.

Rai managed to convince the conservative Munich film industry, which was already said to be “carefully, sometimes too carefully avoiding any experiment” into contributing to his enterprise. Rai and the EMELKA agreed to make a film on the life of Buddha, and, whilst the Germans had to provide equipment, camera crew and the director Franz Osten, Rai had to contribute the script, the actors, locations and all the cash necessary. On February 26th 1925 Osten and Rai, together with their cameramen, Willi Kiermeier and Josef Wirsching, and a comedian called Bertl Schultes boarded a ship for India.

On March 18th they arrived in Bombay. There Osten began to shoot his first Indian film, "Prem Sanyas"- "The Light of Asia", the first German-Indian co-production. The film tells the story of Prince Gautama Buddha, who according to the prediction will "follow the sad and lowly path of self denial and pious pain" if he ever faces old age, sickness or death. To prevent this happening the King keeps him imprisoned behind the high walls of his palace. But one day Gautama leaves his golden cage and is confronted with human misery. One night a revelation comes to him in a dream. A mysterious voice bids him to choose between the carefree life with his beloved wife Gopa and a life in pursuit of eternal truth. In the early morning hours Gautama leaves the court of the King. Preaching against common religious practices of sacrifice and self-humiliation, he soon builds up a sizeable following. One day a young woman kneels before him asking to be received amongst his followers. The woman is Gopa.

One episode, told by assistant director Bertl Schultes, illustrates some of the problems Osten and his colleagues came across when shooting "Light of Asia" :

"No single day was to be lost , as film had to be shot before the beginning of the Monsoon season....On most shooting days the temperature reached 55 degrees centigrade. ... After many rehearsals we were just ready for a take employing 6 horses. When [Osten] was just about to give the signal to start shooting, he saw another Indian opening an umbrella. He ran towards him but suffered a heat stroke on the way back. We carried him into a tent. Luckily a doctor was there, so was plenty of ice, and he recovered consciousness. I finished the take, the camera man made another. I also got a dizzy spell and, though being massaged with ice, could not get up for 2 hours. Meanwhile, Osten was back on his feet and continued working, his head covered with ice...

Buddha’s “fight between love and denial” combined a script written by the Indian playwright Narinjan Pal based on Erwin Arnold’s poem “The Light of Asia”, read and appraised by Gandhi and Tagore with images of state elephants decorated with real gold and jewels, wise Yogis who were being filmed for the first time ever, and real lepers. The pictures of "life and death" in India gained a special quality through the authenticity of Osten's films : the priests and the beggars were played by people who played these roles in real life. One episode that Osten notes in his diary illustrates his striving for authenticity :

"The next day I needed a man who ... dies in the film. I explained this my assistant director. ...He knew a suitable man, exactly what we were looking for ... But the man could not get up, so we had to go and see him ... The car stopped, he called a man with a lantern, ... He waved at me and held the lantern in the face of a man who was breathing only with great difficulty. Horrified I stepped aside and told him that could not employ him for my film. But he promised me, " this man will certainly die tomorrow during the shooting- and the film will become very true to life". After that he spoke a few words in Hindi with the ill man, who also showed me through gestures that he was definitely going to die the next day. Happy people who leave this world so easily!"

The extra died two days after shooting the scene.

In India the film was rejected for lack of credibility. The cost of 171 423 Rupees made it ten times as expensive as the average Indian film. Even after amendments in the contract with EMELKA, Rs. 50,000 have never been recovered. In the US the film lacked success as “motion picture audiences in America do not care to pay an admission fee to see a prince become a beggar.” But “The Light of Asia” was celebrated all over Europe: "A foreign world where legend and reality are not yet torn apart ... - this amazing Indian world emerges in front of our eyes" , "A Document of German skill and the German sense of duty," praised the press. “Every now and then we see a film and know, that it was not just made for the money, but because of a spiritual principle, a bit of idealism.” The fairy tale look “like from ‘A Thousand and one Nights’ ” was admired next to tributes for the documentary quality of the images. Himansu Rai, who apart from managing the production also acted the lead role, was said to have “divine properties” . In 1926 "Light of Asia” was shown to King George V and the press reports the positive reaction of the Royal Family.

After a few crime stories like "The Most Cunning Woman of Berlin" and "The Lady in Black", Osten shot the social drama "The Villa by the Zoo", with Hans Albers in Berlin. In 1928 he went to India for a second time and shot "Throw of the Dice" and "Shiraz", the story of the Taj Mahal: Shiraz falls in love with his step-sister Selima, but when she gets sold to the court of the King the Prince also falls in love with her. Following an intrigue, it turns out that she is of royal descent. Prince Khurram marries her and after her death commissions a monument to commemorate her. The architect is Shiraz, the monument is the Taj Mahal. “From a far away land arrives this song of a great love, and for a few hours - or just minutes - we can lose our belief in the progress of mankind and watch this erotic primitivity in a mixture of superior lust (Herrengelüste) and fairy tale purity,” cheered the German press. "Shiraz" was celebrated not only in Germany but also this time in India. The "Illustrated Weekly of India" wrote of "Shiraz"; "Excellent.....Here is a sphere which opens a whole world to Indian talent ..."

"Throw of the Dice” was based on a tale from the Mahabarata. Shot in the town of Ajmer, a place of pilgrimage for both Muslim and Hindu, the film is in a deeper sense about the recognition that "all the splendour and pomp of this existence is nothing but soulless tinsel." The press wrote: “Those Indians aren’t acting, they really are.” “Osten filmed the wonderland of India like nobody before.” Indian film director Satyajit Rai found in it, "a decided penchant for realism....."

The introduction of sound thwarted plans for a fourth Indian silent film by Franz Osten and Himansu Rai. The project was not shot with sound as “it would look bad if Indians would talked in German.” Afterwards Osten shot Bavarian peasant dramas, "Heimatfilme", with titles like "Under the Spell of the Mountains", "Prince Seppl", "Judas from Tyrol" with Fritz Rasp, who had gathered experience in representing evil when he acted in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1926). In 1934 Himansu Rai takes Osten back to India where he shoots 17 more Hindi films - without understanding a word of the language. They are mostly based on stories about a love tragically separated by the traditional caste system. Using popular drama, these films also include subversive messages encoded in revolutionary icons like spinning wheels and portraits of some of the protagonists of the Indian independence movement. Whilst these symbols were not recognised by the British censors, they communicated an identifiable political ideology to its audiences. Amongst them are classics of Hindi Socials like "Achut Kanya", shot in 1937, an outspoken attack on the caste system. This film was screened at Goebbel's Ministry for Propaganda in Berlin and was reported to have been well received by the Nazi leaders. In 1939 Osten was interned by the British Colonial Government and his last film "Kangan” had to be finished by his Indian assistants. Due to his advanced age he was released in 1940 and returned to Germany. Shortly afterwards that year Himansu Rai died unexpectedly. His successors were dispersed by rivalry. By the mid 1950s “the commercial cinema had completely lost out on the earlier promises of popular art.”

Osten deeply influenced the Indian cinema. Nimai Gosh, one of the founders of Indian realistic cinema, still relates to Osten's realism. Though, today Hindi film and television are hardly known for their realism. On the contrary : the Indian myths and legends that Osten put onto the screen for the first time have now been made into tacky soap operas with special effects. Back in Munich Osten became head of the casting department of Bavaria Studios and set up a film archive there. After the War he became managing director of the Bavarian spa Bad Aibling, where he died, completely unknown, at the age of 80.