Franz Osten (23 December 1876 – 2 December 1956) was a German filmmaker who along with Himansu Rai was among the first retainers of Bombay Talkies. Osten partnered with Rai on a number of India's earliest blockbuster films like Achhut Kanya and Jeevan Naiya.
He was born as Franz Ostermayr in Munich on 23 December 1876. He trained to be a photographer like his father and gave acting a try. In 1907, he founded a travelling cinema called the "Original Physograph Company" together with his brother Peter Ostermayr, who later established the predecessor to Bavaria Film Studios, today one of Germany's largest film studios. Amongst other films, he showed Life in India, a short documentary film about the Munich carnival. The run was not very successful: three days after the opening, the projector exploded in flames. Osten decided to make films and in 1911 directed his first feature, Erna Valeska. His career was abruptly interrupted by the beginning of World War I. He worked first as a correspondent, then became a soldier. After the war Osten made peasant dramas like The War of the Oxen and Chain of Guilt for EMELKA in Munich.
Franz Osten's silent films tell varieties of Indian stories. The Light of Asia (1925) dealt with the life of Buddha. Shiraz (1928) dramatises the events that led to the construction of the Taj Mahal. A Throw of Dice (1929) was based on myths and legends drawn from Indian epic Mahabarata. These movies contributed to increasing the understanding of eastern religions and offered a feast for the senses by showing elephants in festive decoration amid thousands of extras. His huge sets were ideal for escaping from reality; dark-skinned women aroused desire, associating sexuality with primitiveness.
Since early 2000s, there has been a revived interest in silent films in general and the trilogy of Osten are in focus. Shiraz was shown at the Castro Theatre at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2002, Prem Sanyas at the same festival in 2005, and A Throw of Dice in 2008. Prapancha Pash was re-released in 2006.
Director (Indian Films)
- Prem Sanyas (1925) / Die Leuchte Asiens (German title) / The Light of Asia (English Title)
- Shiraz (1928) / Das Grabmal einer großen Liebe (German title)
- Prapancha Pash (1929) / Schicksalswürfel (German title) / A Throw of Dice (English Title)
- Jawani Ki Hawa (1935)
- Achhut Kanya (1936) / Die Unberührbare (German title) / Untouchable Girl (English title)
- Janmabhoomi (1936)
- Jeevan Naiya (1936)
- Mamta and Miya Aur Biwi" (1936)
- Izzat (1937)
- Jeevan Prabhat (1937)
- Prem Kahani (1937)
- Savitri (1937)
- Bhabhi (1938)
- Nirmala (1938)
- Vachan (1938)
- Durga (1939)
- Kangan (1939)
The Light of Asia
The Light of Asia was a unique collaboration which managed to satisfy the tastes of both German and Indian audiences began in 1924. The 28-year-old Indian solicitor Himansu Rai came to Munich in search of partners for series of films on world religions. He had studied law in Calcutta and London where as a student of Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore he had also directed a theatre group that promised to revive Indian acting and theatre traditions. He had heard that the passion plays of Oberammergau were a showcase for German culture and now wanted to create the Indian equivalent.
The Germans were to provide equipment, camera crew and the director, Franz Osten; Rai would provide the script, the actors, locations and all the capital necessary. On 26 February 1925, Osten and Rai, together with their cameramen, Willi Kiermeier and Josef Wirsching, and comedian Bertl Schultes as interpreter, boarded a ship for India. On 18 March they arrived in Bombay. There Osten began to shoot his first Indian film, Prem Sanyas – Die Leuchte Asiens-The Light of Asia, the first German–Indian co-production. The film tells the story of Prince Gautama Buddha, who according to an omen will "follow the sad and lowly path of self denial and pious pain" if he ever faces old age, sickness or death. To prevent this, the King keeps him imprisoned behind the high walls of his palace. One day Gautama leaves his golden cage and is confronted with human misery. At night a revelation comes to him in a dream. A mysterious voice bids him to choose between the carefree life with his beloved wife Gopa and a life in pursuit of eternal truth. In the early morning hours Gautama leaves the court of the King. Attacking common religious practices of sacrifice and self-humiliation, he soon builds up a sizeable following. A young woman kneels before him asking to be received amongst his followers. The woman is Gopa.
In India the film was rejected for lack of credibility. The cost of 171,423 Rupees was ten times that of an average Indian film. Even after amendments in the contract with EMELKA, the film lost Rs 50,000. In the United States the film lacked success as "motion picture audiences in America do not care to pay an admission fee to see a prince become a beggar. But The Light of Asia was celebrated in Germany: "A foreign world where legend and reality are not yet torn apart ... – this amazing Indian world emerges in front of our eyes"; "A Document of German skill and the German sense of duty". Another German critic[who?] noted: "Every now and then we see a film and know, that it was not just made for the money, but because of a spiritual principle, a bit of idealism". The fairy-tale look "as from A Thousand and one Nights" was admired as much as the "documentary" quality of the images. Himansu Rai, who apart from managing the production also acted the lead role, was said to have "divine properties". In 1926 The Light of Asia was shown to King George V and the press reported a positive reaction by the Royal Family.