“Prince Siddhartha styled on earth — Lord Buddha — In Earth and Heavens and Hells Incomparable, All-honored, Wisest, Best, most Pitiful; The Teacher of Nirvana and the Law. Thus came he to be born again for men”
— Preface, The Light of Asia by Sir Edwin Arnold
Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia) tells the story of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the man who became the Buddha. Created by producer and actor Himansu Rai, director Franz Osten, and cinematographer Josef Wirsching, this 1925 production was the first Indian film to be distributed internationally. The driving force behind the film was Himansu Rai’s creative vision; and the story of the making of this lyrical and beautifully photographed film is as dramatic a saga as the film itself.
Rai was born into a wealthy Bengali family in 1892. He studied Law at the University of Calcutta and in London, where he eventually earned his degree. While preparing for a legal career, Rai also pursued his artistic interests, acting in plays in London, forming his own theater group, and studying under the knighted poet Rabindranath Tagore, recipient of the 1913 Nobel Prize for literature. Tagore’s grand-niece was Devika Rani, who would play a significant role in Rai’s personal and professional life.
Rai’s inspiration for Prem Sanyas came when he attended a renowned theater festival in Germany. Every ten years, residents of the Bavarian village of Oberammergau perform a six-hour play depicting the story of Christ. Rai had the idea to create the Indian counterpart. At the festival he met director Franz Osten and his brother, producer Peter Ostermayr (Osten changed his name to avoid confusion, as both brothers were active in German film). At the time, India boasted 300 movie theaters, plus many traveling cinemas. Ninety percent of the films on screens were American imports — Indian films were rarely shown. Rai set out to change that, arriving in Delhi with a carefully planned proposal to launch a joint film venture in collaboration with the Ostermayr brothers and the Emelka Film Company of Munich. Obtaining financial backing from a retired judge and the judge’s businessman brother, Rai set up the Great Eastern Film Corporation to produce Prem Sanyas. Rai would play the leading role, with 14-year-old Seeta Devi in the female lead. Indian playwright Niranjan Pal wrote the screenplay, based on Edwin Arnold’s 1879 epic poem The Light of Asia, which first introduced the story of Bhudda to western audiences — an audience that Rai wanted to attract as well.
On March 18, 1925, the team of Rai, Osten, and Wirsching arrived in Bombay. They rushed into production in order to finish filming before the monsoon season began. On many shooting days, the temperature reached 131 degrees Fahrenheit. While directing one complicated scene, Osten collapsed from heat stroke, as did many other crew members throughout the filming. BiIly-club-wielding policemen, provided by the British-controlled government, helped keep the thousands of extras on the set and prevented them from seeking shade during takes.
Osten and his German camera crew spent five months filming on some of India’s most impressive sites. The budget for Prem Sanyas was ten times that of the average Indian film. For one sequence, the filmmakers used 30 elephants laden with gold and jewels, which belonged to the Maharajah of Jaipur. Even so, Rai himself was the production’s greatest asset. According to assistant director Bert Schulte:
“I do not know how we would have managed without this magnificent actor …. He rehearsed untiringly with actors and extras, managed to get the necessary permission for shooting at historical sites and with his reputation and appearance made it possible for certain strict bans to be lifted and all obstacles to be overcome … the most valuable accessories from the treasure chest of rajas, which so far had never been shown in a film, were at our disposal.”
At least one scene was frighteningly authentic. As Osten recounts in his diary:
“The priests and beggars were played by people who occupied these positions in real life. The next day, I needed a man who dies in the film. I explained this to my assistant director who said he knew of a suitable man …. A man held a lantern up to a man who was breathing only with great difficulty. Horrified, I stepped aside and told him that I could not employ him for my film, but the man said through an interpreter that he would certainly die tomorrow during the shooting and the film would become very true to life. Then the interpreter said ‘He is one of the happy people who leave this world so easily.’ The man died two days after shooting the scene.”
Prem Sanyas proved a hit in Germany and London. Indian audiences, however, accustomed to fast-paced melodrama, rejected the film with its stately pace and poetic style. It was the first in a series of films Osten and Rai made together, including Shiraz (1928), a tale about the love story behind the building of the Taj Mahal.
In 1929, Rai married Devika Rani, who became the most sought after Indian actress in the 1930s. She acted in Osten’s films and was known as “the Indian Garbo” for her mysterious screen persona. In 1934, Rai and Rani established their own film production company, Bombay Talkies, which became one of the most influential studios in Indian cinema history. The couple enlisted Osten’s talents, bringing German cameramen and technicians to train Indian colleagues. The studio emulated Hollywood by handling its own distribution and theater management. With the coming of sound, Rai traveled to Berlin to observe sound recording techniques and brought many technicians with him upon his return to Bombay. The ensuing films were notable for natural acting, technical competence, and colloquial speech.
Osten, considered a second-rate filmmaker in Germany, made 16 movies for Bombay Talkies within four years. He and Rai peppered their films with social criticism, striking out at corruption, the caste system, and forced marriage. In 1936, while living and working in India, Osten joined the Nazi Party. In 1939, while in the midst of filming, he was arrested by the British and interned along with other Germans in the film crew. In 1940, the 64-year old returned to Munich and never made another film. Following the loss of Osten and his German technicians, and with the onset of war, Rai himself suffered a nervous breakdown. He died in 1940, leaving management of the studio in Rani’s hands. In Germany, Osten’s name is hardly known. In India, he and Rai left their marks as two of the founders of Indian Cinema.
As a result of fires at Calcutta’s two largest film vaults in the 1940s, only two percent of almost 1,300 films shot in India between 1913 and 1934 survive. Restored by the National Film Archive of India, Prem Sanyas remains a rare and shining example of India’s silent film legacy.
Presented at SFSFF 2005 with live music by Ben Kunin (sarode), Debopriyo Sarkar (tabla), and Peter van Gelder (sitar)