Wirsching: Bombay Talkies B-Side


In this episode of High Theory, we continue our conversation with Debashree Mukherjee about the pioneering film studio Bombay Talkies, founded in 1934 in the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) by Himansu Rai and Devika Rani. Here, she focuses on cinematographer Josef Wirsching, whose rare behind-the-scenes photographs of life and work at the studio appear in her new book Bombay Talkies: An Unseen History of Indian Cinema. Wirsching fled fascism in Europe, and brought the influence of German Expressionism to Indian cinema, and was responsible for the cinematic stylings of groundbreaking films like Achhyut Kanya (1936), Mahal (1949), and Pakeezah (1972). His experiences teach us about the stifling effects of fascism on art and the peculiarity of national cinema as an analytic category. The diverse global origins and training of the cast and crew his photographs document offer new ways of writing the history of labor in Indian Cinema.

If you want to learn more about Debashree’s research, and her new book, listen back to our earlier episode called “Bombay Talkies.”

Debashree Mukherjee is Associate Professor of film and media in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) at Columbia University. Her first book, Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City (2020), approaches film history as an ecology of material practices and practitioners. Her second book project, Camera Obscura: Media at the Dawn of Planetary Extraction, develops a media history of oceanic migrations and plantation capitalism. Debashree edits the peer-reviewed journal BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies and in a previous life she worked in Mumbai’s film and TV industries as an assistant director, writer, and cameraperson.

Image: Sourced from Bombay Talkies: An Unseen History of Indian Cinema with permission.

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