In March 1926, while India was still under colonial rule, an Indian silent feature achieved a rare feat: it screened for nine months at London’s Philharmonic Hall, with the run extended for three more days at the last minute because of overwhelming demand. The film was Prem Sanyas, or The Light of Asia, a grand, spectacular telling of the story of the Buddha—his birth as a prince, his sheltered upbringing away from all traces of suffering, his marriage to the beautiful princess Gopa, and his eventual renunciation of royal life in search of enlightenment. For British viewers used to studio-shot Hollywood and European films about Asia that employed white actors in brownface, Prem Sanyas seemed to offer a rare, authentic glimpse of the East even as it told a mythological tale. Filmed in India with a much-touted all-Indian cast, it was an Oriental fantasy grounded in the promise of the “real.”
Yet the film was not as straightforwardly Indian as its advertisements claimed, and its purported authenticity was a careful, commercial construct that threw into stark relief the evolving contours of both the nation and its cinema in the 1920s. Prem Sanyas was the first of many collaborations between the Indian actor-producer Himanshu Rai and the German director Franz Osten. A wealthy Bengali from Bombay, Rai had moved to London to study law, and in the early 1920s, formed a theater troupe called the Indian Players Company with the playwright Niranjan Pal. Inspired both by the growing nationalist or swadeshi movement in India, which rejected British imports in favor of domestic products, and an enterprising vision of cinema as an “International Art,” Rai aspired to make an Indian film that would find success abroad. Pal provided a script that was prime for this project: an adaptation of Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia, an epic poem about the life of the Buddha.
In Germany, where Rai headed to find collaborators, the film tapped into a growing fascination with India and Asian spirituality. Poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore had been welcomed with overwhelming interest during his visit to Germany in 1921, reputed writers like Hermann Hesse and Bertolt Brecht were drawing on Buddhism in their work, and films like The Yogi (Paul Wegener, 1916) and The Indian Tomb (Joe May, 1921) had proved big hits at the box office. Rai succeeded in brokering a deal with Emelka Film Company in Munich, which agreed to provide equipment, laboratory services, a camera crew, and a director; Rai was to procure the locations, actors, and capital. It was a bona fide international coproduction, a rare occurrence in 1920s India.
Rai was a canny businessman with a keen understanding of Indian films as commodities not unlike “steel or wood,” for which “a demand should be created in the International market.” With Prem Sanyas, Rai and Osten fashioned a vision of India that played into the ethnographic zeal and exoticist appetite of the West. The film opens with documentary scenes of Indian temples, mosques, bazaars, and streets, and alternates shots of cars and oxen carts, while the intertitles describe the country as a romantic land of “many wonders and many contrasts.” A group of tourists lead us into the film’s fiction, setting it up explicitly as a tale told to the West. As the foreigners arrive at the banyan tree in Gaya under which the Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment, a sage begins to narrate the story we soon see unfolding on the screen.
This tension between nonfiction and fiction—ethnography and artistry—shapes Prem Sanyas, reflective of the production’s dual aims of nationalist image-making and cinematic excellence. The film was shot on a number of real, historic locations in Calcutta, Udaipur, Jaipur, Agra, and Benares, and, as Rai liked to emphasize in his writings and promotional materials, it featured an all-native cast, from the starring roles to the nonprofessional extras he claimed were playing themselves. “This unique film was produced entirely in India without the aid of studio sets, artificial lights, faked-up properties or make-ups,” the opening titles declared. Yet the film was also a showcase for the craft of German technicians and the opulence of Indian royalty.
While Arnold’s poem, written as a response to Western materialism, covers the Buddha’s early life as Prince Siddhartha and his later travels as an ascetic in equal measure, Prem Sanyas relegates the developments after Siddhartha’s renunciation to less than a third of the film’s ninety-seven-minute run time. Instead, the film revels in the glamour and grandeur of the palaces, jewels, and elephants made available to the production by the Maharajah of Jaipur, who, per the opening titles, “placed the whole of the resources of his State for the making of the picture.” Filmed by Josef Wirsching and Willi Kiermeier with an Expressionist flair for symmetry, shadows, and depth, some of the most striking scenes are of the contests that Siddhartha (played by Rai in a fine, dignified turn) participates in to win Gopa’s hand in marriage. In sumptuous wide shots, we see the prince and Gopa’s other suitors try to lance a leaf on horseback and compete in games of blindfolded archery as an audience of hundreds watches on.
At a time when film acting still carried a social stigma in upper-class circles, Rai sought to give it a veneer of respectability. In contrast to the contemporary Indian director Baburao Painter, whose silent films—intended mainly for local audiences, unlike Rai’s international ambitions—drew on the traditional arts and starred male wrestlers and female courtesans, Rai sought to cast well-educated and well-to-do actors from “good families.” The opening titles for Prem Sanyas paint a picture of saintly sacrifice and idealism that parallels the narrative of the film. Each of the film’s principal actors, it says, “gave up his or her career as Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer and Professor to bring about a renaissance of the Dramatic Art of lndia.” (A 1928 New York Times review goes as far as to identify the cast as “high-born Hindus.”) What the titles don’t reveal are the limits imposed by this insistence on respectability, particularly on female roles. Rai reportedly had such great difficulty in finding a suitable actress to play Gopa that he settled on a thirteen-year-old Anglo-Indian actress, Renee Smith, who is credited in the film (and in several subsequent Rai-Osten collaborations) with a stage name drawn from Indian mythology, “Seeta Devi.”
Devi’s anomalous casting in this supposedly all-Indian production exemplifies the play of exoticism and realism in Prem Sanyas. When Siddhartha, having returned to his palace after a disillusioning tour of the kingdom, gazes at the sleeping Gopa, her image transforms into that of a poor, aged, dark-skinned woman he had encountered on the streets, compelling him to renounce his royal life. The difference in the skin tones of the two women is stark, particularly in black-and-white, and it recasts the film’s contrast between artistry and authenticity in racial terms. The domain of the royals, played by fair-skinned, noble-blooded Indians, becomes that of fantasy and cinematic craft; the domain of nonprofessional actors, real locations, and abject suffering becomes the site of ethnography. (Skin color provoked anxieties about authenticity and Indianness elsewhere in the film’s making, too: Pal wrote that Osten clashed with him over Pal’s choice of a light-skinned infant for the baby Siddhartha, who Osten worried might be mistaken for German.)
The diverging reception of Prem Sanyas in India, Britain, and Europe speaks to its cosmopolitan concoction of influences and ambitions. In Germany, the film was hailed as “a new achievement of the German film industry” and “a glory of German cinematic art,” and it went on to screen in Berlin, Brussels, Budapest, Genoa, Venice, and Vienna. In Britain, Prem Sanyas was praised as a naturalistic marvel that “reproduced the Eastern atmosphere with absolute fidelity.” And in India, the film earned critical acclaim but did poorly at the box office, with trade press calling the film “foreign” despite Indian marketing materials that minimized or elided Osten’s involvement and emphasized the Indianness of the production. Indian capital was no longer available for Rai and Osten’s subsequent silent features, but German and British funds flowed in: Shiraz (1928), a grand, romantic fable about the construction of the Taj Mahal, was produced by Emelka, and A Throw of Dice (1929), adapted from an episode in the Mahabharata, by Ufa. Both were pre-sold to British Instructional Films. Yet Prem Sanyas went on to become foundational to the history of Indian cinema, too. In 1936, on the strength of the success and experience gained from his silent films, Rai and his wife, the actress-producer Devika Rani, founded Bombay Talkies, one of Hindi cinema’s most influential movie studios.
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Club Foot Hindustani featuring Pandit Krishna Bhatt