Peter Dietze, was in his thirties when he discovered a photo in his attic, in his home in Melbourne, Australia. On inquiry from his mother he discovered that it was his grandfather Himanshu Rai who was the co-founder of Bombay Talkies, a film studio which played a major role in Indian film industry from 1934 to 1954. He found his Indian ancestry quite interesting and started tracing his roots.
Himanshu Rai (1892-1940) and his movie star wife Devika Rani (1908-1994) had formed this studio and produced some land mark films. Devika Rani was the grand niece of Guru Rabindranath Tagore while Himanshun Rai came from a family of eminent lawyers.
Himanshu Rai had met his first wife, Mary Hainlin, actor and dancer, during 1920s while he was in England and Germany. They had a daughter Nilima, who was raised in Germany and later married Ernest Dietze. In 1952, they both migrated to Australia to escape the war in Germany. However, she hid her ancestry as White only policy was being practiced in Australia. They had three sons, Walter, born in 1949, Peter, born in 1954 and Paul born in 1966.
After Peter discovered the photo of his grandfather he travelled from Melbourne to Munich and finally Mumbai where he managed to meet the legendry actor, Ashok Kumar who not only knew about his grandfather but had worked with him in few of his films.
Over a period of time Peter managed to collect a treasure trove of over 3000 artifacts related to the legendary Hindi Film Studio, Bombay Talkies. These are now held under a Dietze Family Trust and have been loaned to the Australian Centre for Moving Images (ACMI) for this exhibition.
The collection, from 1920 to 1940, traces the history of Indian cinema from the silent movies to movies with sound and makes it one of the most intriguing collections. Bombay Talkies’ initial productions were based on traditional Indian stories and were largely seen in Europe before they started producing movies meant for a wide range of audiences, which appealed to Indian audiences too.
The 1st film they produced was The Light of Asia, in 1925, which was the story of The Buddha. Next came Shiraz in 1923, which was the story behind making of Taj Mahal, next was A Throw of Dice, in 1929, about a gambling prince, the story of The Mahabharta. This was shot in India and had Himanshu Rai in the lead role.
They shot India’s first talkie, Karma in which they both played the lead roles. It was shot both in English and Hindustani language. During the filming they suffered serious lack of finances and the collection on display has many letters addressed to the film’s main financier, Sir Chimanlal Setalvad requesting him for finances. The film was eventually released in 1933 but failed commercially.
However, the publicity it got helped them to get married, return to India and set up Bombay Talkies. In the 20 years, they were in business, they produced 40 films. They can surely be credited with the introduction of songs and dances in their films, which now characterizes the present day Hindi cinema.
Among the various talents they introduced to the Hindi film industry, there are two prominent faces, Ashok Kumar (1911-2001) and Leela Chitnis (1909-2003) both legends in their own right.
A very informative and interesting exhibition, not to be missed if you are in Melbourne.