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06 September 2012

Seeta Devi and Himansu Rai in Die Leuchte Asiens

The German-Indian production Prem Sanyas or Die Leuchte Asiens (1925, Franz Osten and Himansu Rai) is a fascinating hybrid between exoticism and authenticity. It made stars of the two young leads, Seeta Devi and Himansu Rai. Rai would become one of the pioneers of the Indian cinema.

Seeta Devi and Himansu Rai in Prem Sanyas (or Die Leuchte Asiens, 1925).
German postcard with Dutch imprint by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 36/11. Photo: Emelka Konzern. Still from Prem Sanyas/Die Leuchte Asiens/The Light of Asia, (1925, Franz Osten, Himansu Rai).

Seeta Devi
The translation of the text on the back of this Dutch postcard reads: Seeta Devis (sic) plays in the new Indian film by Emelka: ‘Boeddha, De roeping van een koningszoon’, the role of Princess Gopa. Like all the other actors in the film she is not a professional, but was especially for this part discovered by director Franz Osten. When Osten heard that she would be the perfect type he was looking for, he traveled for 56 hours by train through burning hot India. And he made this beautiful, only 16 year old Indian girl a film star. In fact the birthname of Seeta Devi (1912) is Renee Smith and she was only 13 at the time. This film, officially called Prem Sanyas or Die Leuchte Asiens/The Light of Asia (1925), was her camera debut. Prem Sanyas was a German production, which was co-directed by Franz Osten and by the other actor on the postcard, Himansu Rai. Seeta Devi would act in ten more films.

Seeta Devi and Himansu Rai in Prem Sanyas (or Die Leuchte Asiens, 1925).
German postcard with Dutch imprint by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 36/8. Photo: Emelka Konzern. Still from Prem Sanyas or Die Leuchte Asiens/The Light of Asia, (1925, Franz Osten, Himansu Rai).

Bombay Talkies
Himansu Rai (1895 - 1940) was born into a wealthy Bengali family. While training as a lawyer in London in the early 1920's, he began to act in plays. In London he met his later wife Devika Rani who designed film sets and would continue to work with him. In 1933, he joined forces with IBP of England and wholly produced Karma/Fate (1933, J.L. Freer-Hunt), a bilingual in English and Hindi. But the Nazi seizure of power in Germany caused Rai to abandon international co-productions and so he decided to concentrate on the domestic film market in India. In 1934, he formed Bombay Talkies Ltd. and built a studio. Under his painstaking supervision, it purchased the most modern equipment from Germany. Franz Osten and a handful of technicians came down from England and Germany to work with him. By 1935, a stream of Hindi productions had begun to emerge from the studio. The advent of World War II meant that the studio's German technicians as well as director Osten were interned by the British, which crippled the studio. Overwork and mental strain eventually took its toll on Rai, who suffered a nervous breakdown which he never recovered from. Himansu Rai died in 1940.

Prem Sanyas / Die Leuchte Asiens
German postcard with Dutch imprint by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 36/7. Photo: Emelka Konzern. Still from Prem Sanyas or Die Leuchte Asiens/The Light of Asia, (1925, Franz Osten, Himansu Rai).

Unforgettable Architectural Beauty
The translation of the Dutch text on the back of this postcard reads: Gotama’s Palace in the garden of wonders. One of the scenes, playing in the old historic India that gives the Emelka film ‘Boeddha, de roeping van een koningszoon' such a special charm. Thanks to the cooperation of the Indian royalty it was possible for Franz Osten to film all the scenes on historic locations. He used all the buildings with their unforgettable architectural beauty, and their wealth of sculptures and reliefs, splendidly. That’s how a film was produced that will be unsurpassable. ‘Boeddha’ will be shown from Friday 26 March in Theater Tuschinski. Now in 2008 Theater Tuschinski in Amsterdam is still the main movie palace in The Netherlands. These special postcards for the release of Prem Sanyas indicate that this German-Indian film must have been a big, commercial production at the time. Prem Sanyas or Die Leuchte Asiens was an adaptation of an Orientalist epic (1861) by British author Edwin Arnold. It opens with documentary shots of tourists in Bombay watching street performers. Then a white-bearded old man sitting under the bodhi tree tells the tourists the story of Gautama (Himansu Rai), son of King Suddodhana and Queen Maya, who left his consort Gopa (Seeta Devi) and became a wandering teacher credited with founding Buddhism. The religious epic, with its idealized figures, takes up the narrative in flashback and ends with Gopa kneeling before Gautama asking to become his disciple. The film exhibits a strange but fascinating hybrid between exoticism and authenticity.

Himansu Rai
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 1189/1, 1927-1928. Photo: Atelier Sahm, München (Munich) / Emelka.

10,000 Extras, 1,000 Horses, and 50 Elephants
The climax of German film pioneer Franz Osten's richly cinematic sojourn in India was Prapancha Pash/Schicksalswürfel/A Throw of Dice (1929, Franz Osten) which he made again with a mixed Indian and European cast and crew. In this "fairy tale for adults" (BBC) inspired by the ancient Sanskrit epic poem The Mahabharata, royal cousins and rulers of adjoining kingdoms King Sohat (producer/star Himansu Rai) and King Rajit (Charu Roy) share a reckless passion for gambling and the perilous jungle tiger hunt. Sohan plots to kill Ranjit and make his kingdom his own. Sohan's plot fails though and Ranjit is only wounded during his hunting 'accident' and is saved by a local healer. While staying in this village, Ranjit meets the beautiful Sunita (Seeta Devi) and decides to make her his wife. Her father refuses due to Ranjit's famed gambling habit but when Sohan gets wind of the lovers' planned elopement, he comes up with another evil plot. The result is a lavish silent super-production comprising 10,000 extras, 1,000 horses, and 50 elephants provided by the royal houses of Jaipur, Udaipur and Mysore.


DVD Trailer of the silent Indian film Prapancha Pash/A Throw of Dice (1929, Franz Osten) with Himanshu Rai and Seeta Devi. Source: Kino International (YouTube).


Clip of Prapancha Pash/A Throw of Dice (1929, Franz Osten) featuring Himanshu Rai as the evil king watching a dance performance in his quarters. Music by Nitin Sawhney. Source: Genelia01 (YouTube).

Sources: IMDb and postcards.

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