Debashree Mukherjee is on a roll. Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City (Columbia University Press/Penguin), her sprawling book on cinema and the city during the tumultuous years of the transition from silent films to the talkies (1920s-1940s), has just been published. She is also the editor of the forthcoming Beyond the Silver Screen: Josef Wirsching and an Unseen History of Indian Cinema (Mapin). In an interview with, Mukherjee, an Assistant Professor at Columbia University, speaks about her work.

Tell us how ‘Bombay Hustle’ evolved.
The initial germ for the book – at which point I had no idea it was going to be a book – was actually when I was working in Bombay. I had just finished assisting Vishal Bhardwaj on Omkara (2006). I had been doing a parallel research project (with Sarai-CSDS in Delhi) on the ethnography of film production. And as someone who was actually practising in Bombay and really immersed in the life of the freelance struggler, I felt very keenly that this whole city is informed or shaped in some ways by its filmmaking practices and I started thinking about where did these film practices come from and how is that cinema has suffused the city in so many ways.

[Saadat Hasan] Manto was a very initial inspiration. If you have read some of his Bombay stories, they are set very much in a film milieu and it was the most direct first-person account I had ever been able to access for that period. And then I started researching further, looking at old newspapers and trying to dig out more details. Which is when I decided to do this properly and really get the tools and vocabulary to do it and I went back to the academy.

So, over the last few years, the question has basically been: what does it mean to write an account of filmmaking that places a lot of importance on the labour of filmmaking. By labour, I mean both emotional work that film practitioners do as well as, of course, the physical, bodily work. For me, the physical and the emotional are not two separate things. Practice in the city of making film is an embodied thing and both the physical and emotional go together.

The shooting of Nirmala (Franz Osten, 1938). Courtesy Alkazi Foundation/Wirsching Archive.

The book begins with the image of a light boy. That led me to think ‘Bombay Hustle’ is about the anonymous, below-the-line cine-worker. But that is not the case. Your definition of who is a cine-worker is quite broad.
I was trying to do two things: one, write a historically rigorous and evidence-based academic account of what filmmaking looked like during the talkie transition, and, at the same time, keep in view the various kinds of aspirations, desires and labour practices of cine-workers. Intuitively, I realised, what I was doing was arguing that every person that is involved in the production of films is a cine-worker.

So, I don’t have a kind of hierarchy that only a below-the-line worker qualifies to be a cine-worker. The story that I am telling, about how cinema has informed the city, encompasses and embraces all kinds of film practitioners, which is why even financiers are really crucial to the story, as also the fan. In fact, the fan becomes a very important engine that keeps the Bombay film ecology afloat. Without the desire for cinema, you will not have hundreds and thousands of people that continually decide they want to work in film. For me, then, the whole thing comes full circle.

Sticking to the subject of just who is a cine-worker, you write that it is puzzling that none of the left-leaning intellectuals of Bombay cinema turned their gaze towards the cine-worker.
I’m very interested in the cultural left and their work in film, that’s something I have been working on for a long time. It’s not really a big part of the book but I had done an M Phil project on Manto and his films, which really led me to do a lot of reading on the Progressive Writers’ movement and trace a lot of biographies of different people.

Many of the Progressive Writers worked in films for their livelihood. The thing I started to notice was that the leftist cultural practitioners were still trapped in an old-school Marxist idea of the worker as the factory worker. Whenever they talk about the mazdoor, the mazdoor is someone who is working somewhere else, in the textile industry, in the factory. So, there is a real blindspot, according to me. And I have tried to think why this blind spot happens and it becomes very clear that this was a big imaginative challenge for film industry people themselves.

Interestingly, Ismat Chughtai made a film with her husband, Shaheed Latif, Sone Ki Chidiya (1958). It’s a movie about filmmaking, one of the only films that I have ever seen in which there are entire scenes about junior artistes going on strike. But even there if you hear some of the speeches by Balraj Sahni, who is a highly romanticised figure in the film – he plays a writer – he says things like, film has to be an art form, it cannot have all these profit imperatives and so on. So, there is a struggle that a lot of leftist, creative people are having – why is why I mention Premchand in the book – who are really finding it difficult to accept the fact that we can be doing art and at the same time that this art form has a commercial foundation.

What is film – is it an industry, is it an art form, is it all these things? Because a lot of these people were trying to fight a social battle to legitimise their work in films, they decided to privilege art. So, in order to argue that cinema is art, they had to argue that cinema is not industry. And when you say that cinema is art and not industry, you tend to then push aside the industrial aspects of film. What I found is that people like Shanta Apte, actually, it’s only her and KA Abbas, these are the only two people that I have found in the historical records for whom it’s a kind of obvious fact that I can be a film artiste and at the same time I can also be a cine-worker.

The Sagar studio’s cast and crew during the shooting of Zarina (Ezra Mir, 1932. Courtesy Osianama Archive.

A really interesting aspect of the book is the delineation of the links between cinema and cotton in colonial Bombay.
One of the explanations that exists about why Bombay became the pre-eminent film production centre in the subcontinent is that films here were made in Hindustani and that gave them a bigger audience base. And I thought surely there was more to the story. It became very important to think about what are the conditions that allow a cine-ecology to grow and flourish; so the money question became crucial. I started to research about who were the initial producers, what were the initial studios, how were they able to finance themselves. And a very interesting picture started to emerge.

Historically, this has been an acutely under-capitalised industry and there are two big reasons for that. One, because films are inherently very risky investment ventures. Even today, there is no magic formula that will ensure you a profit.

Two, because cinema was a kind of a taboo cultural form from the moment of its emergence. We know how women were really hesitant to join as actresses because there was this taboo attached to cinema being kind of a culturally contagious or socially promiscuous zone. This disallowed certain forms of finance to enter the industry.

But there were films being made, and more and more films being made every year. So, where was all this money coming from? And then some really interesting stories started to emerge. People who had a foot in the local cotton businesses were directly shifting that money into a new speculative investment which was cinema, for which they didn’t know what the returns would be but they did know that sometimes those returns could be exponential. It invited a particular kind of investor, someone who was embracing risk and was aware that this could go both ways.

Then I began to read a lot of film journal accounts and also synopses of films where this idea of gambling and speculation seemed to become a really dominant theme in the early talkie films from Bombay. I started to realise there were definitely ways in which money from a particular kind of speculative trading which the colonial state had started to clamp down on was being moved into a fledgling industry which was not surveilled economically by the state.

It’s also interesting to then ask: so, what are the other ways in which cotton and cinema and their histories are linked? A lot of the first audiences of Bombay’s films were the city’s mill workers, migrants who had moved to the city from the hinterland or other towns and who found a cheap and accessible entertainment form in cinema. And because I am trying to keep in view a kind of spatial history of cinema in the city, we see that the first film theatres dedicated to Indian films came up in neighbourhoods where millworkers were residing. Cotton, then, was crucial not only to the rise of Bombay as a commercial hub in South Asia but was also very important to the consolidation of cinema as an industrial form in the city.

You touched upon the link between cinema and the spatial history of the city. ‘The history of the talkies in Bombay,’ you further write, ‘is a portrait of a city sweeping outward.’
Yes, because I was trying to think about how the cine-ecology changed spatially during the talkie transition, I started looking specifically at film production concerns and some of the nodes of filmmaking. The film production landscape kept moving north. And this was happening as certain suburbs were becoming more prominent, or starting to emerge as residential or commercial sites. So, that’s why I had to go into a suburban history of the city, which, among other things, led me to go down a rabbit-hole in my research into thinking about how electricity and electricity infrastructures also developed in Bombay because you can’t make films without steady electric supply.

Also, it became for me a playful and conceptual way of thinking of the talkies as an era of sound and the need that the talkies had of silence. And which is also an infrastructural question linked to finance and funding. It wasn’t possible for many film production concerns to have really solid sound-proof shooting stages. They just didn’t have the resources to do that. So they just had to find places that were quieter, and this is the story of every film industry anywhere in the world with the talkies.

Film production started to move from, say, industrial areas of the city – like Dadar, for example, in Bombay – to fringe areas in the city which were quieter, which had more space, where you could actually shoot outdoor sequences without too much disturbance. So, that becomes another part of the story of how one can see a parallel history of a city that’s also growing and its cine-ecology that’s also growing with it.

Many of the images used in ‘Bombay Hustle are from the Josef Wirsching archive, which also forms the basis of a forthcoming book that you have edited. How did that project come about?
As part of my research for Bombay Hustle, I wanted to try and track down the families of people who were emerging as important protagonists in the book. Since Bombay Talkies was so important for me, I tried to locate different people and families associated with the studio.

Now, when you start looking at Bombay Talkies, you will find all these Germans working in one of the most famous studios in India, producing some of the classics of that era – Achhut Kanya (1936), for example. Josef Wirsching (1903-1967) was the cinematographer at Bombay Talkies who worked on the first 10-15 films made there. The Wirschings, who settled down in Goa, said they have this huge photo archive of production stills that were taken by and preserved by Josef Wirsching. That just blew my mind.

It’s an astonishing archive of hundreds and hundreds of production stills, a kind of behind-the-scenes glimpse into filmmaking of that period that we have never seen. So, of course, I wanted to do some work with that. Beyond the Silver Screen: Josef Wirsching and an Unseen History of Indian Cinema is a way to contextualise how it is that some Germans ended up working in Bombay, and to also try and frame what is the significance of that German contribution to Indian cinema.

Any other projects in the pipeline?
I’m really interested now in how to think about media exchanges and the way in which films circulated between India and its earliest diasporic audiences. And by those diasporic audiences I mean indentured workers who moved from India to various plantation colonies, be it Fiji, Mauritius or South Africa. Those workers and their children started to demand more and more film distribution from India.

What really triggered this whole interest for me was an archival snippet I came across. There was a letter that a music store owner wrote to Devika Rani, from South Africa, complaining that in the Bombay Talkies’ film Bandhan (1940) the word ‘coolie’ is used very lightly, while Indians in South Africa had been fighting a long battle against its use as a racialised derogatory word. The letter writer pointedly says that “if we made a picture we will not use such a word to offend a nation. Try to study South Africa in your little spare time.”

This brief correspondence between an Indian filmgoer in Durban and a Bombay film producer offers me a wealth of suggestive insight into the unequal experiences of race, caste, and colonialism across Bombay cinema’s earliest global networks.

Bandhan (NR Acharya, 1940). Courtesy National Film Archive of India.