‘The rats have eaten my set!’ Letters from a German film architect in 1930s India

By Eleanor Halsall

On the 21st of March 1935, a young German stepped off the boat in Bombay. His name was Karl von Spreti and he had been offered a job managing set design at The Bombay Talkies, one of India’s newest film studios. ‘The task that awaits me is huge and I hope I will accomplish it’, he wrote to his parents during the long journey from Munich (9 March 1935). In the early twentieth century, German technicians and large production companies such as Ufa and Emelka, were recognised among the world leaders, even receiving recommendations from MGM’s representative in India, George Mooser. Advising the Indian Cinematograph Committee (an enquiry set up by the British in 1927 to develop filmmaking in India), Mooser recommended [to select] ‘Indians that you think would be most susceptible to training, send them to Germany first and then arrange for the technical men to come back with these Indians, because Indians will absorb a certain amount of technique and the working of the studios there if you have access to Ufa.’ (17 November 1927, ICCE)

Karl von Spreti. With kind permission from Heinrich von Spreti

Indians travelled abroad, mostly to America, France and, occasionally, Britain; but it was to Germany that many of them turned for expertise in filmmaking. Some, such as Krishna Hirlekar, worked in the associated industries of Agfa and Siemens; others, such as Mohan Bhavnani, picked up work with individual cameramen (Halsall, 2021). It was the Bengali lawyer, Himansu Rai, who became the most well-known in Europe, producing The Light of Asia (1925) with Emelka and Shiraz (1928) and A Throw of Dice (1929) with Ufa; all three films were directed by Franz Osten. After working at Ufa’s Babelsberg site and subsequently at London’s Stoll studios for the production of the Hindi/English dual language production, Karma (Freer-Hunt, 1933), Rai and his wife, Devika Rani, returned to India, where they set up their own studio in 1934. 

Himansu Rai on cover of Film-Magazin

From 1928-1930, the Rais had spent many months at Ufa’s Babelsberg site and its model of a modern and comprehensive film production unit appears to have influenced their plans. Devika Rani told the press that they intended to ‘take to Bombay European technical experts, photographers, make-up men, but [to] simultaneously employ our own people to learn how these things are done’ (Times of India, 5 June 1933). Five foreigners were recruited – four Germans and one Briton. Each of them was assigned a managerial role, heading up their individual specialisations. Lead director Franz Osten and cameraman Josef Wirsching had already arrived; Willy Zolle, a German laboratory technician, had been working elsewhere in Bombay, and Len Hartley was a British sound engineer who had recently worked on George Formby’s Off The Dole (1935).  A French make-up artist, Madame Andrée, married to sound engineer Savak Vacha, later completed the European personnel.

The Rais rented premises at Malad, some twenty kilometres north-west of Bombay (now Mumbai), acquiring a plot that included a large bungalow set in a twenty-one acre greenfield site with gardens and an orchard. ‘We drove down a bumpy sandy path, arriving at our destination after some 100 metres’ wrote von Spreti, ‘a guard in khaki uniform stood at the gate, and beckoned us in. We drove through a very beautiful garden and stopped in front of a palatial building that had belonged to a maharajah’ (22 March 1935). Von Spreti was impressed with the beauty and scale of the garden: ‘when I look out of my window I can imagine myself in a botanical garden.’ It was idyllic, but he soon found himself facing quite different challenges to those he had experienced during his training at Emelka’s Geiselgasteig studios outside Munich. ‘There are difficulties presented to first class film production in this country which do not exist in more congenial climates’ stated the Times of India reporting on a visit by the Governor of Bombay to the new film studios of The Bombay Talkies (17 May 1935). Heat, humidity, dust and water are some of the challenges the newspaper described; marauding wildlife, malaria, striking workers and communal unrest were not mentioned.

After completing a foundation diploma in architecture at Munich’s Technical University, von Spreti had worked at Emelka as a trainee film architect under the tutelage of that studio’s long established film architect, Willy Reiber. Now in India, his task was to kit out the new studio, buy in supplies of materials and props, design the sets and organise teams of workers to carry out his instructions, a level of responsibility he would undoubtedly not have achieved as rapidly had he remained at Geiselgasteig. ‘I immediately went to see the studio, which was very nice, but there was not a single piece of furniture, not a single wall, nothing at all. I have to start buying nails and tools, and on 1 April they already want to start filming. Simply impossible!’ (21 March 1935).  

Nevertheless, a few weeks later the Governor of Bombay was able to view ‘a magnificent studio equipped with all the most up to date appliances to expedite the moving of scenery, the mobility of cameras, the lighting of the sets […] beyond this giant thickly padded sound studio is a small projecting theatre in which scenes are shown to the chief executives but a few hours after being shot. Further over are dressing rooms for the artistes and a music room for orchestral rehearsals. There is an up to date laboratory for the development, fixing, drying, cutting and synchronisation of films. No expense has been spared to ensure efficiency, no money has been wasted on lavishness.’ (The Times of India, 17 May 1935). Actor Dilip Kumar later commented that the premises also boasted ‘a library, a dispensary [and] a canteen run by the famous Brandons’ (Screen, 5 October 1984).

Furnishing a studio ready for filming was one thing; managing Malad’s exotic wildlife quite another! Von Spreti had barely settled in before he wrote ‘on Friday afternoon there was a big hunt here as two snakes were killed, one 2 ½ m the other 1.80-2m’ (1 April 1935). More would follow: ‘Yesterday I found out that the snake we caught in the house at the beginning of April […] is more dangerous than the cobra, although it is much smaller. If you are bitten by it, you go crazy in 24 hours and there is nothing that can be done’ (14 June 1935). Snakes were not the only danger: ‘yesterday a worker in the laboratory was bitten by a scorpion and had to go straight to the doctor. On Saturday we had the pleasure of killing six snakes at once’ (19 May 1935). And those destructive rodents? Having made preparations for their first film, Jawani-ki-hawa (Spirit of Youth), von Spreti complained bitterly: ‘The rats, those brutes, ate my film set because they got a taste for the papier maché. Now, as long as I still need this set, I have to leave a night watch in the studio’ (15 July 1935).

My colleague Richard has written about the impact of fog on British studios; in Bombay, von Spreti had to deal with heavy monsoon rains and high humidity. The rains had arrived around the middle of June, after which he used a typewriter for his letters because ‘writing [by hand] on damp paper was unpleasant’ (19 June 1935). The humidity reached into everywhere and everything in the studio: ‘I always keep the studio doors closed and have threatened the workers with dismissal if they leave them open […] but when work is going on, the lamps radiate so much heat that the humidity evaporates’ (19 June 1935). His work at Geiselgasteig had prepared him for rain, however: ‘The outdoor shots that were taken yesterday were greatly interrupted by rain showers, and the Indians are pretty much hanging their heads, as they are not used to having to wait for the weather [to improve] even when filming. We are quite used to this from Munich’ (2 June 1936).

Jawani-ki-hawa cast list

Managing the people element of studio work was another experience altogether. For Jawani-ki-hawa von Spreti was paired with an art director whose creative skills were no compensation for his ignorance of how to design a functional film set. Von Spreti also had to adapt to different cultural norms, among them communal loyalty: ‘Yesterday was quite a stormy day, because the director was thrown out of the laboratory and all the other employees left with him’ (3 May 1935). Naturally, this aspect of collective unity brought serious problems if it happened midway through a shoot. Sometimes he had communal conflicts to contend with: ‘On Saturday a fight broke out in the workshop between two Hindus and one Christian, such that I needed to call a doctor. I dismissed them all immediately’ (23 November 1935). Von Spreti was clearly bemused when a group of Parsi men objected vociferously to the appointment of two of their women by the Studio. ‘Our film [Jawani-ki-hawa] is still not born because the Parsis continue to make trouble. Last night the film was released by the censor, after which the Parsis contacted the governor by telegraph’ (12 September 1935). A cause célèbre at the time, the dispute resulted in the resignation of three of Bombay Talkies’ Parsi board members. The women retained their positions.

The Studio’s workforce grew rapidly and by December 1936 von Spreti told his parents: ‘I have a crazy amount of work and now have 60 workers to supervise’ (10 December 1936). He took health and safety seriously. On the first day of shooting he reported: ‘We almost lost a worker who came into contact with the high voltage’ (1 April 1935). Anxious to avoid accidents, he remonstrated with Rai and Osten who wanted to carry on filming, using people who had been working all night: ‘People are too tired and the danger is too great that one of the lighting workers will fall asleep on the bridge, and if one of them falls off, then we can get terrible inconveniences from the police because of overworking the workers. This worried Rai who asked for my opinion, whereupon I absolutely voted for suspending the work, much to Osten’s fury’ (15 April 1936). In July 1937 von Spreti wrote ‘We have been working from 08:00-12:00 and 15:00-03:00, day and night for the last 3-4 weeks. No free Sunday and the same people without a shift change. No worker [in Germany] would tolerate this and neither would it be allowed’ (17 July 1937).

In 1937 von Spreti supplied three workers for Richard Eichberg’s Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, writing that Eichberg was very satisfied with their work, which he found to be ‘as good as at home’ (undated letter). At the end of December 1937, Karl von Spreti returned to Germany, leaving the department he had established in the care of two of the people he had trained, Y. E. Hate and N. R. Acharya.  Although his early career as a film architect was overshadowed by his post-war work as a politician and diplomat, von Spreti’s personal letters to his family have revived interest in his contribution to the Bombay Talkies. This was, after all, work for which he frequently received praise: ‘Thatched cottages, complete to the last detail, and every feature typical of Indian rural life, dot the grounds to create an astonishingly realistic impression of the Indian countryside. The studio architect, von Spreti, has done his work with remarkable prevision’ (Times of India, 12 June 1936).

References

Anon, Indian Hollywood in Bombay, Times of India, 5 June 1933 (6). 

Anon, Bombay Talkies Studios: Governor’s visit, The Times of India, 17 May 1935 (12).

Anon, The Romance of An Untouchable Girl, The Times of India, 12 June 1936 (7). 

Dilip Kumar, ‘Those were my formative years,’ Screen, 5 October 1984 (6).

Eleanor Halsall, An epistolary history of Indo-German film relations, In: Zedler, 2021. 

Eleanor Halsall, Kosmopoliten, Nationalisten, Visionäre, Filmblatt, 2021-01.

Indian Cinematograph Committee Evidence (ICCE), Vol. 1 (462).

Karl von Spreti’s unpublished letters, 1935-1937.

Jörg Zedler, The Bombay Talkies Limited: Akteure – deutsche Einflüsse – kulturhistorischer Kontext, Spreti-Studien, Band 8 (Munich: Utz Verlag, 2021). 

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