indian cinema heritage foundation

Georg Wirsching’s Memoir of His Grandfather : Josef Wirsching’s Uncanny Relationship With India | Cinematographer | Cinema Memory Project

Image and Narrative contributed by Georg Wirsching, Goa, India

A Grandson Remembers

Josef Wirsching, a German, whose cinematography in Hindi films is considered a tutorial in the art of painting with light, is memorable for bringing German Expressionism to Indian films such as Mahal (1949), and Ziddi (1948). Working and living on in his adopted land for approximately three decades, till his demise, he also built up a treasure trove of photographs, specifically related to German and Indian cinema as well as travel and personal images.

His grandson Georg Wirsching sheds light on the life and times of the quiet genius that was Josef Wirsching, as well as his personal photographic archive which his family manages. 


Georg Wirsching

An eventful journey
My great-grandfather Josef Wirsching (senior) had a set design/construction business and also ran a costume rental business in Munich. He designed and built sets for theatrical and operatic productions in and around Munich and hired out costumes to them as well. My grandfather Josef Wirsching was to become an architect after his schooling and later on takeover the family business when it was time but when my grandfather was gifted a still film camera on his 16th birthday he was so amazed by this new technology that he decided to become a cameraman and devote his life to the newly emerging ‘film’ art form. After much fighting and deliberation with my great-grandfather, he was finally allowed to join Blau-Weiss Films to learn photography theory and filmmaking while simultaneously doing his technical training at the state-run Gewerbe Schule (technical institute/ trade school) after which he joined Emelka films in Munich as an assistant cameraman in 1923 and he soon became a lead cameraman and filmed numerous films for them till 1934. In 1925, he met Himanshu Rai who had approached Emelka films to produce a film about the life of Lord Buddha; Josef along with three other German colleagues (Franz Osten as director, Bertl Schultes as production head and Willie Kiermaier as assistant cameraman) shot the silent film The Light of Asia entirely on location in Jaipur India at the Amber palace/Amer fort. This was where he met the court astrologer of the maharaja of Jaipur who told him,“Welcome back to India” and my grandfather told him that he had never been to India prior to that and that this was his first visit to the country to which the astrologer replied that Josef had already been in India in a previous life. My grandfather didn't give much thought to this but then later in 1927, he was again passing through India while travelling overland from Munich to Rangoon shooting a travelogue titled The Asian Journey, when he met another fortune-teller along the banks of the Indus river who told him that he would live in India after marrying his childhood sweetheart and he would do many great things here in India. Later on, during the same journey in 1928, he met an aghori on the banks of the river Ganges in Benaras who told him that India is his home and his son and grandchildren would be born and also live in India. After finishing The Asian Journey and going back to Germany in July 1928, he married his long-time childhood sweetheart Charlotte Muhlberger in January 1929. 

With the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the early 1930s, severe restrictions were imposed on all manner of creative work in the fields of art, film, media, literature, etc. This Nazi stifling of all manner of creative freedoms in the country had become so bad that they were even forcing studios to make propaganda films. This made Josef very uncomfortable and highly embittered by what was happening to his beloved homeland. At the same time, Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani were working at the UFA Film studios in Berlin where they met and later got married in 1930. Together, they decided to start their own state of the art talkies film studio in India to produce films on par with the quality of films being produced in Europe and the US. This was when Himanshu Rai again approached Emelka film studios for advice on setting up the studio and specifically requested them if Josef Wirsching and Franz Osten could join him in this new venture in India as he (Rai) had already worked with them nearly a decade earlier and had developed a close relationship with them by then. Josef and his wife Charlotte saw this as an opportunity to escape from the ideological madness that had taken over Germany. They came to India in 1934 and Josef became the director of photography for the newly founded Bombay Talkies film studio started by Himashu Rai and Devika Rani in Malad, Bombay and Franz Osten joined as the film director along with Karl Graf von Spretti as the film architect/ set designer, Wilhelm Zolle as the laboratory head and an Englishman- Benjamin Hartley joined the team as the sound engineer. Since 1934, Josef and his wife lived in India till they passed away in 1967. So, you could say that it was destiny that my grandparents had to come, live and do great things in India and their only child and his children were to also be born and live in India as those fortune-tellers foretold nearly a century ago. 

War-time internment
My father Wolfgang Peter Wirsching was the only child of my grandparents and shortly after he was born in February 1939, World War II broke out in September that year. He was interned as a baby with my grandmother in a separate internment camp in Satara for women and children while my grandfather was interned in a camp for men till they were reunited in 1944, hence my father didn't have any memories of my grandfather prior to that. My father told me many stories of the mischief he and the fellow children in the Satara camp got up to before they were re-united with the fathers who came to join the women and children in 1944 but that's a story for another time. After the war my father finished his education at St Peter's boys boarding high school in Panchgani during which time my grandparents were at the Bombay Talkies studios and my father used to visit them during his holidays. After he finished his schooling here in India, my father went to Germany and he finished his automobile engineering course at the Mercedes Benz technical institute in Stuttgart. Following this, he continued working in various automobile establishments in Germany till he returned in 1967 just before my grandparents’ demise. 
 Picture of Wirsching family taken in 2015 before the passing away of Wolfgang Peter Wirsching in 2016.

My father was never really enamoured by the film industry and was more of a practical minded person who liked to fix things and he had a great love for automobiles. It is also to be noted that my grandfather had advised him not to get into the film industry if he was not interested in it.

My grandfather was the only child of Josef Sr and Maria Wirsching, he had an adopted step-sister who never married but Josef did have a couple of cousins who continued to live along with their families in Germany whom we haven't met as yet.

Making India home
My brother and I are the only grandsons and remaining descendents of the late Josef Wirsching (1903-1967) who was the director of photography for the Emelka film studios in Munich, Germany (1923-34), Bombay Talkies film studio in Bombay, India (1934-1939 and 1945-1954), AMA Films Ltd in Bombay, India (1954-1958) and Kamal Pictures/ Mahal film studios in Bombay, India (1958-1967).

He came to India for the first time in 1925 to shoot the supremely successful silent film The Light of Asia, which was produced by Emelka film studios in Germany and the Great Eastern Film Corporation in India. Then, in 1934 he moved to India with his childhood sweetheart Charlottewho he married in 1929.

He, along with three other Germans, became the technical backbone of the Bombay Talkies film studio setup in Bombay in 1934. Then, in 1939, world war II broke out a few months after my father Wolfgang Peter Wirsching was born. As my grandfather was a German national living in British-ruled India, he was immediately interned in the prisoner of war camps firstly at Dehradun then Nashik and finally in Ahmednagar. During the war, his family home in Germany was completely destroyed in an allied forces air bombing raid over Munich in 1944 leaving my grandparents nothing to go back to in Germany when the war ended in 1945. Hence, my grandparents continued to stay in India after the war and Josef rejoined the Bombay Talkies film studios and worked with them until it closed in 1954.

My father went on to do his automobile engineering degree course in Germany between 1956 and 1960 and then continued to work in Germany, while my grandparents were here in India. Then in 1967, my grandmother took seriously ill with cancer so my father immediately returned to India and, within a couple of days of his arrival, my grandmother passed away and two weeks later my grandfather passed away in 1967. My father stayed on in Bombay and met my mother in 1972, who came from a large conservative Catholic family in Kerala.They subsequently fell in love and after much courtship and with my mother's family approval of my father, they finally got married in 1973 and my elder brother and I were born in Bombay in 1975 and 1977 respectively. A year after I was born, we moved to Dubai and lived there until 1987 when we moved back to India.My brother and I were enrolled into a boys boarding school in Panchgani where my father also did his elementary schooling between 1945-1956 and coincidentally so did Freddie Mercury. 
Picture of Georg Wirsching’s grandparents (Josef Wirsching and Charlotte Müllberger), father (Wolfgang Peter Wirsching) and their pet dog Pooky in front of one of the Bombay Talkies studio buildings in 1945/46.

Following in creative footsteps
It was there during the span of nearly three years between 1987-1989,that I learnt that I had a gift for drawing and painting which was clearly passed on to me from my highly creative grandfather. Every day I used to spend my free time in the school's art room just perfecting my skills. By the end of 1989 we moved to Nashik and my brother and I finished our 10th standard there in 1992. I had full aspirations of becoming a doctor and, most importantly, specialising as a surgeon; therefore we moved to Chennai, so as to have better prospects for our university education. I studied pure science in my pre-university to prepare myself for taking up medicine as a profession. However, as fate would have it, during this time I had a bad road accident and seeing myself bleeding I fainted and thus came to the realisation that I would make a terrible doctor if I couldn't stand the sight of my own blood!

With this new understanding, I realised I couldn't become a doctor and so I decided to go back to what I knew well which was my art. By this time I had already come to the realisation that my grandfather was a very good artist as seen in the few paintings that we have of his and that he was also a pretty famous film cameraman so I decided to follow in his creative footsteps and I contemplated either taking up art or architecture as a profession. At that point of time in the early 1990s, a new degree course had just started in Chennai where I had already finished my pre-university in 1994. This was a BSc degree in Visual Communications which was suggested to me by my principal in my pre-university school. Since I was not destined to be a surgeon I applied for this course which was being offered at the Loyola College in Chennai.This course offered everything I was interested in which was art, graphic design, photography, psychology, media studies, television production, marketing, advertising, etc. So, over the span of my three-year course between 1994-1997, I had the opportunity of working with various disciplines in visual arts and media and over the years that followed from 1997 onwards I did a lot of work as a professional freelance artist and have sold numerous commissioned paintings and held a few exhibitions of my own creative works as well. I also handled a lot of professional event photography assignments, advertising, commercial art and graphic design projects, set design and execution for stage and television productions. I have essentially been a freelance artist since 1996 till now and I've also been teaching art privately since 2006 and academically at the Cambridge level since 2017. And since 2009 I have been archiving and working on my grandfather’s photographic collection.

A treasure waiting to be discovered 
My parents sold the last piece of property that we owned in Coimbatore where my parents lived from 1995-2006 and we finally came to Goa in 2006 to settle down for good after travelling around India for nearly two decades. It was only in 2008, when I moved into my own studio/apartment in Goa, that I decided to open up my grandfather’s photographic collection which my father had meticulously preserved since my grandparents’ demise in 1967.This material was stored in an air-tight waterproof steel box which my father packed away in 1967 and occasionally opened up to check on the condition of the material and show some of the lobby card prints of the cinematic photographs to my brother and me. In 2008, after opening up the steel box, we actually realised the extent of the photographic material it contained and that's when I decided to personally archive and catalogue the entire material for which we had to invest in state of the art computers and scanners, etc. to scan and restore the negatives and photographs that were there.

There are roughly 6,500 negatives in different sizes and formats, 1,100 of which are specifically related to German and Indian cinema. Another 700 or so are related to an overland travelogue journey which was undertaken from Munich to Rangoon to catalogue a large part of Asia and the remainder of which are related to ethnographic images, location recces and personal photographs from the daily life of my grandparents including places visited by my grandfather during his travels around India and Europe.

There are also approximately 3,200 photographic prints of which nearly 1,500 are related to his cinematic work in the German and Indian film industry. The negative and print images that comprise the cinematic collection show different aspects of filmmaking right from publicity photographs to behind-the-scenes photographs of the cast and crew and also candid images of how life was on and off the film set of the actors, staff and crew of the studios where my grandfather worked.

Enduring legacy
My grandfather was an avid photographer.Even when he was not filming on the studio sets he was always photographing everything around him and he always meticulously preserved the negatives and prints that he personally developed and catalogued them with brief notations of what the images were and where they were taken. During the last few years of his life from 1965 when the filming of Pakeezah came to a standstill, he started cataloguing all of this material and safely packed it away in a steel box before he passed away in 1967.

My father continued to preserve all of this photographic material in pretty much the same condition my grandfather left it in that steel box since 1967.

Challenges of a private archivist
In 2007, we were invited to visit a leading film archive in Mumbai to do an appraisal to find out what some of the photographic publicity photographs and other photographic material we have in our collection were actually worth. Unfortunately, the head of that organisation tried to desperately con us into selling everything to them for a pittance.That was when I told my father that we should not fall for the scam this organisation was trying to pull on us and that we should personally archive and catalogue this entire collection as only then would we have a better idea of what we were dealing with and how we could best proceed with what we wanted to do with it. 

During the course of inventorying, cataloguing, scanning and digitally archiving the film negatives and photographs and through discussions I had with filmmakers and people who were in the industry did we realise the vast expanse of the material we had in the collection and hence, the archive was born and it became a digitised archive which we have been working with since 2009. Even when the late P K Nair, who was the ex-head of the National Film Archives of India visited us in 2010, he was completely awestruck at the scope of the material in our archive and he personally stated that we are the only ones who have this wealth of immaculately preserved photographic evidence of the birth of the Indian film industry, showing how films were made right from the silent era of the 1920s to the start of the talkies era in the 1930s leading up to the introduction of colour film in Indian filmmaking in the 1960s.

The main challenges that we faced—and still do face as a private archive—is specifically with regards to funding.When we started this archival journey in 2009 we were not financially supported in any way by any private or public institute or establishment and hence, we had to personally invest our savings into acquiring all the equipment required to do the initial archival work which I personally undertook. It is only after we finished inventorying and scanning most of the archive were we able to slowly introduce it to the public and we were able to monetise the collection and start generating some income from it through the sale of limited usage licences for print and online publications wishing to use our images in their articles, books, exhibitions and publications, etc. and also recently through the sale of high resolution, exhibition quality collector's edition prints.This is how we are able to continue with our archival and preservation work for the collection and for the projects that we have had over the years starting with our exhibitions through the aegis of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts and the Serendipity Arts Festival leading up to our recently published book Bombay Talkies: An Unseen History of Indian Cinema released through the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts and published by Mapin books.

An impressive approach 
What I find most impressive about my grandfather's work in the cinematic industry is not only his amazing sense of lighting and ability to beautifully compose image frames right from his earliest work in the 1920s which he was doing at Emelka film studios in Germany but the fact that he was continuously innovating and perfecting newly emerging techniques like shooting on miniature sets and using special effects with lighting and editing and also using mechanised props along with perfecting trick photography which he used in the films he shot in Germany and here in India. 

Another standout yet seldom known fact which is equally impressive is that Josef had become so technically proficient in the usage and designs of the cameras and photographic equipment he was working with that he was able to identify deficiencies in their design and was even able to suggest design modifications in camera equipment which he put forward to August Arnold and Robert Richter of Arnold & Richter Cine Technik in the 1930s while they were developing the ARRI-flex film camera which was being invented by Erich Kastner at that time before he left Germany in 1934.

All but forgotten 
Unfortunately, my grandfather was a very quiet person and only concentrated on the creative aspect of the work he was doing and he strived to stay as far away from the public eye as possible even though he was personally responsible for creating some of the most well remembered iconic films that gave rise to the Indian talkies film industry in the 1930s and later helped usher in the birth of colour film in the 1960s. He even personally trained many technicians right from the 1930s who later went on to become extremely successful actors, producers, directors and cinematographers in India and Pakistan. Especially since he was a German national, the Indian film industry felt he did not have to be honoured in any way. Therefore, he never received any awards for his work in Indian cinema in his time even though his exceptional camerawork was all that was talked about in film reviews of all the movies he cinematographed since the Indian film industry was too busy glorifying only Indian actors and technicians and chose to selectively ignore the "German influence" on the birth of Indian cinema. Hence, over time, Josef Wirsching and the team of German film technicians who started Bombay Talkies were slowly forgotten about by the Indian film industry. 

Challenges, preparedness & dealing with 'Malad's exotic wildlife' 
Right from his start in the film industry in the early 1920s, when Josef joined Emelka films, he was continuously updating himself and learning how to best use the latest technology and equipment that emerged at the time and was continuously using these newly emerging film practices in the productions he was involved in. So, he was always at ease when shooting either in a fully equipped studio or even on outdoor locations with the barest of essential equipment at hand, all the while achieving perfection in the quality of work and imagery he was filming. Hence, he was able to advise Arnold and Richter on the creation of the ARRI-flex camera. Thus, having such a vast and up to date knowledge of the new equipments that were coming out and the techniques that were evolving, he was continuously using these new filmmaking techniques in the well equipped studios that he worked in.

With regards to 'Malad's exotic wildlife'; my grandparents were always animal lovers and we have always had all manner of pets in our family through the generations. Josef even had the opportunity of working with and filming many exotic creatures in the films he shot so he was very comfortable while dealing with everything from bunny rabbits, cats and dogs to all manner of exotic birds including pigeons, peacocks, bul-buls, falcons, etc. as well as cows, bullocks, monkeys, horses, donkeys, snakes, crocodiles, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, elephants and even bats that show up in the numerous films produced by the studio in their Malad campus.

Transitioning from black &white to colour cinema
Josef had already been experimenting with the newly invented Kodak Eastman colour film technology that was emerging in the 1950s in the US and Europe and when it was commercially available in India he was one of the first few film practitioners in the country to wholly  welcome this new era in filmmaking. In the beginning of 1960 he, along with Kamal Amrohi, decided to make a complete film using this new medium and it was to be completely shot with the latest cinemascope cameras and lenses as well. Since his knowledge of black & white film was incomparable and by then he had already done whatever he could possibly do cinematically with black & white; this new colour film technology provided a refreshingly welcome challenge for him to master as it promised to be the next big thing in filmmaking. He continuously kept testing and experimenting with the different colour film stocks available with regards to ASA, exposure, lighting, colour temperatures, developing times and concentrations of the various chemicals used in creating colour film positive film footage. All the while, he would send samples of the exposed/ developed film rushes for laboratory peer review to the film manufacturers asking them if there was anything that he needed to change to improve the final print quality. Upon the manufacturers seeing the consistent exceptional quality of lighting and colour temperature that Josef was continuously achieving and maintained throughout the film, the laboratory heads at the film manufacturers offices wrote back to Josef and even visited him later on in Bombay telling him that once he finished the film (Pakeezah) he could literally stroll into Hollywood and quote his price and the studios there would be falling over themselves in a bid to get him to work for them based on the phenomenal quality of work he was producing especially with this new emergent film process. Sadly, this didn't happen as Josef died of a broken heart in June 1967 exactly two weeks after his wife Charlotte passed away in May 1967 from years of suffering with cancer.  A week after Josef's demise, a delegation from a prominent film studio from the US landed up at Josef's doorstep in Bombay to sign a contract with him but by then my father had to sadly tell them that Josef had just passed away the previous week.

The last few scenes that were remaining to be shot for Pakeezah were filmed by a large team of assistant cameramen who clearly could not replicate the consistent look that Josef had maintained throughout filming nearly 85%-90% of the film between 1960 and 1965. Only after Meena Kumari returned to filming in the late 1960s, after suffering from serious depression, and Josef's demise, was the film finally completed and released in 1972.

It is also a known fact that the colour scenes in Mughal-E-Azam (1960) which were supposedly filmed by Josef's earlier assistant cameraman at Bombay Talkies- R D Mathur, who was the main cameraman for that film, were actually covertly shot by Josef while clandestinely assisting Mathur as Mathur was not well versed  with  filming in colour at that time.

A knack for finding locations, making stars and doing cameos
During his entire working life with the numerous studios he worked at, Josef always had his trusted Leica III C still film camera in hand and he was always photographing anything that he found interesting both on set and off set. If he was not using it, the camera always had film in it and an assistant was always tasked to take behind-the-scenes production still photographs.Whenever shooting wrapped up for the films Josef worked on, he, along with most of his colleagues, would immediately set out travelling around the place just generally sightseeing, picnicking and winding down from the few months of hectic filming which they had just finished. This way, Josef used to inadvertently create a storehouse of possible locations where scenes could be shot. So, if a script demanded a specific location for a movie scene, Josef immediately knew where it was available. So, essentially he used these trips to recce for locations to film in and he maintained this recce log as contact prints of the hundreds of images he shot of the neighbouring countryside and the locales in and around Bombay.

Onscreen special appearances
In Bombay Talkies, at one time, they had more than 400 people on the roster as staff, crew and regular actors apart from the main stars. So whenever there was a need for people to populate a frame/scene it was always people and staff from the studio that were used as extras for those scenes and that's how many stars got their first break in film. If a scene required an elderly, bald, bespectacled, portly, male foreigner to be in a frame, my grandfather would happily step in as long as he didn't have to speak since he didn't know Hindi! As an example, he and my grandmother are seen as a distinguished foreign couple seated at a bar in a song sequence with Helen in the film Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (1960) and he also shows up as a bearded maulvi in a marriage procession scene in Pakeezah; these are two well-known examples of him in cameo appearances in his own films which is also reminiscent of the style of a famous contemporary of his, namely Alfred Hitchcock.

It is to be noted that Ashok Kumar (previously known as Kumudlal Ganguli) was initially Josef's assistant.  He started off in Bombay Talkies because he was the brother-in-law of Sashadhar Mukherjee who was already a leading production head. Ashok tried out working in all the different departments in the studios and finally settled down in the camera department wanting to learn from Josef everything about becoming a cameraman. As fate would have it, the leading man of Bombay Talkies- Najmul Hussain was unceremoniously dismissed from the studio after doing two films because he eloped with Devika Rani to Calcutta during production of the studio's third film Jeevan Naiya thus forcing the studio to look for a new leading man and reshoot the entire film when she agreed to come back to the studios after much convincing by Sashadhar. This was when Sashadhar suggested his brother in law Kumudlal for the part. After Josef shot a screen test of him which turned out great, everyone was in agreement that Kumudlal should become the next leading man for the studio and his name was changed to Ashok Kumar. It is also to be noted that Josef was singularly responsible in making Devika Rani, Meena Kumari, Madhubala and others into the screen icons that they became purely through his exceptional lighting and camera work which made them look even more beautiful and desirable on screen than they actually did in real life.  
Curating a legacy
We have curated a large collection of nearly 400+ of the best images from the more than 2000+photographic negatives and prints of images specially relating to Josef Wirsching's work in Indian cinema from the 1920s through to the 1960s and we have made all of these 400+ images available to anyone who wishes to use them in their curatorial work/publications. We charge a nominal fee for limited usage licensing. 

We also provide extremely high resolution, digitally restored and re-mastered, exhibition quality, archival grade collector's edition prints available in different sizes printed on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Ultra Smooth Paper and Canson Infinity Platine Fibrerag Paper. 

If anyone wishes to acquire these original never-seen-before copyright protected images from our personal family archive, they could get in contact with us directly on our website or they could email me at and I would be more than happy to show them these images for them to make a selection to acquire and use in a digital format or acquire to retain as authenticated prints in their own physical collections.

This would greatly help us in our continued efforts in preserving this invaluable historical archive for future generations.

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