Light of Asia – 1925
‘Light of Asia’ was jointly produced by the Emelka Film Company of Munich and the Great Eastern Corporation, Lahore in 1925. But the man who was originally obsessed with the idea and later realized it (both commercially and artistically) was Himanshu Rai, then an amateur actor in London.
He not only co-directed it with Franz Osten but also played one of the two principal roles (that of Siddhartha), the other being Siddhartha’s wife played by Sita Devi.
This silent film, when shown in Europe, got rave reviews extolling ‘its gentle, lyrical situations.’ The audience took to it avidly. The Emelka Company could not have asked for more. In India, however, it was a different story. Someone who saw it the day it was released in Bombay commented that the film was treated as ‘foreign.’ The audience was sparse: One man was so outraged at the film’s total lack of ‘drama’ and ‘entertainment’ that in sheer disgust he flung his chair at the screen and walked out. The Great Eastern Corporation could barely recover from the shock. They did not recover even a part of their total investment of Rs. 90,000 (quite a large sum when most films cost only a quarter of it).
Like Edwin Arnold’s poem, the film opens with Queen Maya’s dream in which a white elephant bearing a white lotus in its trunk smites her and enters her body. Next day, the queen relates her dream to the king who, being without an heir is worried and distressed. The king sends for the learned Brahmins all of whom agree that the queen will bear him a famous son. Thus is born Siddhartha.
He grows up in luxurious surroundings, unaware of pain and unhappiness. What rouses his compassion is an incident in which his cousin Devadatta shoots an arrow at a flock of passing birds and brings one down writhing with pain. Siddhartha is repelled at the thought of this “mutual murder, from the worm to man.” Takes place a swayamwara in which he marries the beautiful Yashodhara.
But much as he loves his bride, the young prince soon wearies of his luxurious surroundings. During a visit to the town, he encounters an old feeble beggar and then a funeral procession. That does it. The prince returns to the palace a shaken man, his mind firmly set upon solving the mystery of age, pain and death.
That night he casts a last, loving look at his wife and leaves the palace accompanied by his charioteer Channa. Reaching his destination, Siddhartha takes off his royal robes and gives them to the charioteer. We see him meditating and wandering in the forests. In the final sequence Gautama is seen under the Bodhi tree attaining Enlightenment. The film ends with Buddha preaching his sermon to a crowd of herdsmen and peasants.
Looking at ‘Light of Asia’ in 2013, almost nine decades after it was made, I was entranced by the unaffected grace of the players, the subtlety and sophistication of its technique and treatment. The film had none of that slushy melodrama and soppy sentimentality which would have kept the man in Lamington Road glued to his chair instead of flinging it at the screen. It even eschewed ‘expressionism’ which encouraged directors to stylize decor and acting and with which the German filmmakers were overtly obsessed at the time. ‘Light of Asia,’ in fact, in its approach, treatment and Milieu was ideally Indian which most Indian films were not, then as now.
What impressed me most about this film was the economy of its expression, its naturalness and a total lack of self-consciousness. One is never made aware of the fact that one is watching the story of a man who brought about an ethical revolution in the world, unlike Pasolini’s ‘The Gospel According to St. Matthew’ (Life of the Christ). In ‘Light of Asia,’ there is no holy aura around Siddhartha, not even after his Enlightenment. Nor are there any statuesque poses struck by Siddhartha or any of the royal personages; Sita devi plays Siddhartha’s wife with such simplicity that the effect is enchanting.
As to the economy of its expression, two scenes particularly stand out in my memory. One in which Siddhartha after his marriage, now a little weary of life inside the palace drives through the city streets. The king had ordained that no ugly or painful sight should meet his gaze and all is prim and proper. But suddenly, as if from nowhere, an emaciated old man springs up, begging for alms. Frail and exhausted, he can hardly walk. Siddhartha rushes forward and supports the man in his arms. This is the prince’s first encounter with pain and misery. There is clear surprise that such things exist and compassion on his face.
As he looks up, he sees a funeral. The sight of misery, old age and death, which changes the whole course of Siddhartha’s life and forms the crucial, dramatic point in the story, is resolved in two or three shots. In fact, the funeral is shown in one long shot, as if the man (Siddhartha) who looks at it for the first time is not certain of the phenomenon of death. And yet, the impact is there.
At the end of the sequence, we see fairly big close-up of Siddhartha, full of confusion and compassion, set against a cracked wall. The symbolic use of the cracked wall as backdrop, is effective, yet quite casual.
Again, in the concluding sequence of the film, we see Buddha, after his Enlightenment, preaching the sermon to a group of herdsmen and peasants. In a long shot, we see Buddha, hands raised upwards, dressed in ascetic’s rags, talking to the crowd. We only see his face briefly, only the movements of his hands and the curious crowd (none of those make-believe habitual close shots of men and women). In contrast, in Pasolini’s film that I mentioned earlier, Christ preaching and converting men and women to the new faith had been shown in an almost endless series of shots, thus dissipating its total impact.
Much of this film holds its own against time, a film belonging to a period which gave us ‘Battleship Potemkin’, Mother’, ‘Joan of Arc’ and ‘Greed.’ I cannot help reflecting that if our filmmakers had followed the trail blazed by ‘Light of Asia,’ the shape of Indian cinema would have been decidedly different – perhaps, even more distinctive.
The team which would go on to shape a Bombay Talkies a decade later came together for the first time – in Light of Asia, first of the trilogy – Actor Producer Himanshu Rai, Screenwriter Niranjan Pal, Cinematographer Josef Wirsching and Director Franz Osten. The classic was restored in 2001.