Fabio Mansion in Goa’s Moira hamlet is another inconspicuous, modest house down the road. No sign announces the bit of cinema history lying behind its walls—unknown, unacknowledged and uncelebrated. I’m at the house of Wolfgang Peter Wirsching, son of Joseph Wirsching, among the earliest cinematographers of Indian cinema. A German, Wirsching Sr arrived in India in 1925, for the Indo-European collaboration, The Light of Asia, directed by another non-native, Franz Osten. Wirsching went on to make India his home and worked in more than 20 films of the leading film studio of the time—Bombay Talkies—and later with Kamal Amrohi on Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi and Pakeezah.
Death overtook him in 1967 while he was still shooting Pakeezah. But locked in an obscure steel trunk, he left behind a rare, inestimable legacy—a magnificent treasure of pictures he took on and off film sets. Some 2,000 priceless images associated with the movies he was working in, besides many film synopsis booklets, original film reviews from publications of the time, a few personal letters of appreciation from people in the industry and some personal hand-written letters from Devika Rani.
The memorabilia sketch out a whole history for us: of a studio in its heyday and decline, of Wirsching’s personal travails when the British sent him to the Ahmednagar, Dehradun and Satara internment camps during World War II. Most importantly, Wirsching Sr’s efforts allow us a glimpse into the filmmaking of those early years—the technology, set designs, camera set-ups, even the continuity guys! But finest of all are the stunning photographs of the earliest of our screen goddesses, Devika Rani—smoking, swinging, playing with the camera, or just smiling into it. In an exclusive for Outlook readers, the Wirschings share a few of these never-seen-before images.
Photograph credit: From the personal photographic collection of the late Josef Wirsching, copyright owned by Wolfgand Peter Wirsching. The collection is maintained by grandson Georg Wirsching (Georgwirsching@yahoo.com)