Prem Sanyas (1925) aka The Light of Asia
Director: Franz Osten & Himansu Rai
Country: India / Germany
Runtime: 75 min
As the film critic Amrit Gangar writes, the story of Prem Sanyas, Osten’s first silent film shot in India from 1925, begins with Himansu Rai (1892–1940), the film’s star and co producer. [...]
The story of Prem Sanyas and the beginning of Osten’s long-term involvement with Indian cinema is also the story of how various theater traditions, popular or art film registers, and differing artistic and political agendas came together: Bavarian theater and Bengali theater, Christian passion plays and Hindu mythology, and German Heimatfilm and Indian nation-building film. In 1922, during his time in London, Himansu Rai had acted in a play titled The Goddess by the London-based author Niranjan Pal (1889–1959). Rai became close to Pal, with whom he shared a Bengali background. Pal was to write all the scripts for Osten’s silent movies as well as to produce, direct, or write many other films, especially for Bombay Talkies. Pal wrote an adaptation of the 1879 epic poem Light of Asia by Sir Edwin Arnold (1832–1904) about the life of Buddha.
Arnold, a British journalist and educator, spent several years in India as a colonial officer and published several translations and adaptations of Hindu scriptures, such as the Bhagavad Gita. Arnold’s Light of Asia frames much of Buddha’s life with Christian and Graeco-Roman iconography; that is, Buddha’s birth is celebrated by four angels representing the cardinal points of the compass, or ethereal devas sing to Buddha like sirens. Connecting Buddhism with what he describes as Brahminical noblesse, Arnold directs his poem against the spirit of abstraction and nothingness that seemed to have overtaken the West. Despite the poem’s championing of a nobility inflected by caste, religion, and race, Mahatma Gandhi later declared that Arnold’s piece had impacted him profoundly in its depiction of worldly renunciation. Pal’s adaptation, as evidenced in Osten’s film, was indebted to a more realist aesthetic and toned down some of the supernatural elements of Arnold’s poem. But it retained Arnold’s vision of nobility and his representation of Buddha as a Jesus-like figure. [...]
Given this background, Prem Sanyas was poised to find a German audience. While the Great Eastern Film Company retained the rights for the Indian market and received enough money to cover shooting costs, Emelka was to get the European rights in return for processing and editing the film in Munich and for sending equipment and a film team to India (Barnouw/Krishnaswamy, 95). At this point Franz Osten became involved in the project as the film’s director. In February 1925, three months after Pal and Rai had started pre-production in Bombay, Osten embarked on his first of many trips to India as an ambassador of “German cinematic art,” with the declared project to make an “authentic Indian film” or — ignoring the rich history of Indian cinema up to that point — “the first specifically Indian film”.