The Light of Asia (Prem Sanyas) (1925)

Oh, what a treasure this film is! It brought the light and beauty of 1920s India into my cold snowy winter, and cheered me considerably. I can only hope that it will someday soon be available in gorgeous professionally embellished dvd form like its sibling A Throw of Dice. The movie itself is more a series of staged vignettes than what we now consider a motion picture, although there is plenty of pageantry: shambling elephants, prancing horses, trotting camels, and crowds of people. And if the story is a bit over-simplified (adapted from Edwin Arnold’s 1897 epic poem by the same name about the life of Prince Gautama, the Buddha) it doesn’t really matter to me. This is a rare glimpse of history indeed, and a visual and creative feast.

Also, just as a warning: I am going to talk about the story all the way through to the end, which I don’t really consider spoilers since everyone knows the story of the Buddha (or can, if they look it up online). Nothing suspenseful here!

The film opens with a travelogue of exotic India: the Jamma Masjid in Delhi, Benares, Calcutta, Bombay, snake charmers, and scenes with firangi tourists (flapper dresses and cloches! topis!) shopping and watching a poor bear “dance” for them (the Buddha would not approve).

We tourists still gawk like this in India, although I at least am not nearly as stylish.

Sightseeing takes us to the ancient Buddhist temple at Gaya (Bodh Gaya), in modern day Bihar, where the Buddha attained enlightment after meditating under a bodhi tree for forty days and forty nights.

An old sage there offers to tell the curious foreigners the story of Prince Gautama…

Centuries before the birth of Christ, King Suddodhana (Sarada Ukil) and Queen Maya (Rani Bala) have not produced an heir for their kingdom of Magadh. At the behest of his subjects, the King follows tradition and sends out a sacred elephant to choose an adoptive heir, leading to some hilarious scenes of very unhappy children being groomed—literally in some cases—for selection:

Were I the elephant, I’d have picked the happy little guy at the top here smiling serenely as his compadres flail and scream:

but the elephant returns home empty-handed; he knows (although everyone else, including Maya, is surprised) that Queen Maya is finally about to be blessed with her own miracle, a son.

She dies shortly afterwards, and Gautama (Himansu Rai) is brought up by his doting father alongside his “cousin and rival” Devadutta (Profulla Roy). The Prince’s compassionate nature is brought to the fore on his first hunting expedition as a young man. A hunting cheetah (I think: cheating! sorry) chases down a deer and kills it, and sensitive Gautama is horrified.

He cradles the deer’s head in his hands, and then looks at Devadutta in anger.

I am totally with Gautama on this one.

Also: early continuity issue? we cut back to the hunting cheetah, except it’s not a cheetah any more. I guess one cat is as good as another?

Devadutta (“to further annoy Gautama,” the intertitles solemnly inform us) shoots down a swan flying overhead, which survives but with a broken wing. Gautama rescues it and, when Devadutta demands his prey, refuses to give it to him. They take their quarrel to the king and his wise advisors—who are wise indeed.

These are words to live by!

The King dreams that night of an empty throne beneath a canopy (I love the special effects here):

and, disturbed, sends for a “dream reader”.

You’ll notice that there are drastic color changes now and then, a result of the practice during the silent era of “tinting” certain scenes to lend them extra atmosphere. It’s a wonderful idea, but the restoration here includes these rather gaudy tints—I can’t help but wonder if they would have been more subtle originally than they are now (credits give a Czech company credit for the tinting, and Tom tells me it is a very reputable company indeed, but I find it a bit jarring). Blue is used for night scenes, and bright green for garden and jungle scenes, and lurid yellow for yet others.

Anyway, the dream reader tells Suddodhana that Prince Gautama is fated to wander the earth lonely and poor rather than live out his life in luxury as a king. Suddodhana asks what he can do to change this awful fate, and the sage suggests that he keep Gautama distracted with the pleasures of life, hiding the ugly side of it from him. Gautama is unmoved by the lovely dancing ladies of the court, so the King decides to get him married to the daughter of his neighbor King Dandapani, Princess Gopa (Seeta Devi), whose beauty is legendary.

It is love at first sight for both Gopa and Gautama, but Gautama must by tradition win a competition against all the other would-be suitors for Gopa’s hand. This tournament is really good fun to watch, a spectacle filled with ceremony and lots of action.

The Maharajah of Jaipur made everything in his entire kingdom available to the production team during the making of this film. He provided the animals, the vehicles, antique clothing and his own palace for their use. The credits at the beginning of the film note this, as well as the fact that everything was filmed on location—there were no “sets” put up at all.

Gopa need not have worried (and maybe she didn’t, though I would have): Gautama defeats them all, including Devadutta, and he and Gopa are married at this rather spectacular temple (does anybody know where it is?).

They settle down in a lovely palace set in the middle of a lake to keep Gautama shielded from anything ugly (dead flowers on a plant, the aged, the sick). He is happy with Gopa, but as it will, boredom soon comes creeping into his paradise. One day he orders his carriage brought around, and ventures forth into the town. Despite the King’s instructions to hide anything unlovely from view, he encounters two old men, one of whom is dying; and also witnesses some people carrying a shrouded corpse out of a house.

His manservant Channa explains the concepts of aging and death to this poor naive Prince, and Gautama is shocked and disturbed.

That night (could you tell?) he agonizes over his decision to leave everything, especially his beloved Gopa, but in the end fate and his calling win and he rides away, leaving Gopa sleeping and unaware.

The next day the King comforts his heartbroken daughter-in-law and sends his men out across the kingdom to search for his son. Gautama (who has sent his horse and his sword and crown back to the palace with Channa) comes across an old man, and exchanges his silk robes and jewels for the old man’s rags.

Possibly I am overthinking things, but it occurs to me that he might have done more immediate good for people if he had spread all that jewelry around a little bit. In any case, I kind of love how that old skinny man looks draped in all those pearls (and I think he does too). Actually it looks like he might fall over, so weighed down is he.

I also love that many of the horses in this film wear elephant costumes.

I wonder if it is historically accurate, or if it was a particular whim of the Maharajah of Jaipur’s? In any case, it is AWESOME.

As Gopa waits, refusing to eat (and forced to reject Devadutta’s romantic overtures), Gautama continues to wander.

Eventually, tired of waiting, Gopa forsakes her luxuries and leaves home to wander too, in search of her beloved.

The palm trees don’t apparently cut it, enlightenment-wise (or possibly it’s the lurid color):

but eventually Gautama settles underneath a bodhi tree and stays there, unmoved by weather or temptation, until he finds the knowledge he has been seeking.

He sets off again, now as a teacher: talking sense into crazy Yogis and saving helpless goats from slaughter.

Finally Gopa happens upon her husband in front of a crowd of curious people and her own heart is touched by his words.

She becomes his first convert, and they live happily ever after, spreading the word of Buddhism. The end!

As some critics have pointed out, the film is not by any means historically “accurate” in terms of content or setting, but I would guess that painstaking historical accuracy was not one of the production company’s main aims anyway. As entertainment (and Buddhist Philosophy 101) it works perfectly for me, and in this day and age the movie is irreplaceable as a treasure from a bygone era of filmmaking. Thank you for taking care of it, British Film Institute!

Himansu Rai’s wife Devika Rani designed the set decoration and Charu Roy (Rai’s co-star in A Throw of Dice) the costumes, and together with director Franz Osten and cinematographer Josef Wirsching (and the Maharajah of Jaipur) this Indian-German team truly created a lovely piece of cinema history.

I salute you all!

45 Comments to “The Light of Asia (Prem Sanyas) (1925)”

  1. God Bless you Memsaab!!! I have just briefly looked at this, and wanted to let you know just how appreciative I am of you for doing such service to the Film Industry in India…I nominate you for a special award…I want to see you at FilmFare right up with the Big B!!!!

    I’m gonna read this more carefully and chat will all my fellow fan buffs…

    P.S. still looking into that film set mystery that you posted earlier from Sherafat and Parveen Babi song from 36 Ghante…

    • Thank the British Film Institute too, for making the effort and spending the money on restoration. Let’s just hope that someone soon adds the soundtrack which I have read they also commissioned and puts this on a proper dvd for everyone to enjoy, as happened with A Throw of Dice…

  2. Most of the stars that we know today weren’t even born at the time of the movie’s release. So don’t be surprised if I am not able to provide any additional info. :-)

    You are making all of us look at the golden era of Bollywood with totally different eyes.

    • I don’t really believe in the “golden era” concept, to be honest. Every year has its gems (some far fewer than others, granted)…but unfortunately quality is in no way a guarantee of acceptance and success. And quality is subjective, anyway!

  3. Oh, I have so wanted to see this film ever since I heard about it! Thank you for the review, and for all those wonderful screen shots. That one of the hunting cheetah interested me, because old Mughal paintings of antelope hunts show cheetahs with almost identical blindfolds. It seems the tradition remained pretty much the same into the 1900s, at least for the maharajas of Jaipur!

    And I love that picture of the Jama Masjid. I was there last weekend, and seeing this again, in an 85-year old flashback, was fascinating. The people, the emptiness at the base of the mosque, the cleanliness around, seems such a contrast to what it is today.

    • Poor cheetah! Had to do all the work during a few glorious moments of freedom, then back to a blindfold and a chain :( The Maharajah of Jaipur in 1925 I think would have been Man Singh (Gayatri Devi’s husband) although he was only 14 or so at the time—I have read that he lent the production team pretty much everything they asked for, including priceless old textiles, etc. It shows! So sumptuous. How I would love to spend a few hours looking at such treasures!

  4. Oh this is lovely! I’ve never seen it, in fact I half-thought there weren’t any copies available any longer unless you somehow managed to wheedle your way into the Film Archives or something. So I’m glad you gave a full recap. And how gorgeous are those scenes? Everything from their composition to the crazy tinting business to the actors and the props and their setting are simply scrumpty. AND they gave Buddha a happy ending! Yay!

  5. Wow, you got it!
    Where did you get this?
    Historical accuracy has never been the main of films anywherre in the world. At time snot even of the documentary film. Thus, I think Himanshu Rai can be aprdoned for that and more than all praised for making this film!
    The screen shots (tints and all) are fabulous!

  6. It sounds as fun as A Throw of Dice- perhaps better, because it doesnt star Charu. He was my only sore point in the other one. I do want to watch this too- Franz Osten’s work is really beautiful- he makes such great use of light, and does really well outdoors. And I like Renee Smith- too bad she didnt do a lot of work- I need to find a copy of this!

    • I liked Charu! Anyway, he designed the costumes for this one and they are FAB. Osten and Wirsching the cinematographer (and whoever did the lighting)…it is truly beautiful especially when you consider that it was still a pretty fledgling industry.

  7. Nice review memsaab–the palm trees don’t cut it because I doubt Budda ever saw one. Seeta Devi is so pretty I just had to google her. I didn’t know about this movie.

    • She is very pretty. Was gorgeous in A Throw of Dice too. Very modern-looking, to me. Didn’t wear a lot of makeup, was very skinny a la the size zero mode now. She was Anglo-Indian, too, of course, as most women in films were at the time. Now I just have to see Shiraz too!

  8. Great one, Memsaab, a good break from B-Grade ’70s stuff (though that is good too.)
    Wirsching continued to shoot in India, mainly for Bombay Talkies and if you ever revisit Mahal, you will see his fantastic lighting, right out of German Expressionism.
    He also shot Pakeezah, partly.

    • He spent the years of WWII in prison in India :( He worked on Acchut Kanya as well, and Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai.

      • I somehow never realized that the Germans spent time in prison here during WWII. And coincidentally, reading Anita Desai’s ‘Baumgartner’s Bombay’, I am at the period when Baumgartner and other Germans living in India are put into prison for 6 years during and after the war. :(

  9. Salute.

    I recall reading a story (don’t remember where) about how Gautama’s wife convinces Buddha to allow her into his sangh. Buddha isn’t okay with it, they would only be distraction. In the end she teaches a thing or two about gender equality to Buddha and manages to get a separate ‘women only’ sangh within Buddha’s sangh. Interesting stuff, she comes across as a smart woman in that story.

    Also, no more Cheetahs in India any more.

  10. I’m so glad to see some silent Indian films have survived to this day, so well preserved too. Is it just me, or did they really do better in the cinematography department before the arrival of sound distracted them?

    Himansu Rai looks a tad too healthy for an ascetic, and do I spot a 90s style mullet on him? ;D

    • I hate to say it, but these have survived because they were in the hands of the British! And have been restored by—the British! Josef Wirsching was just a great cameraman, even with sound added (as someone said above, he worked on Mahal and Pakeezah too, both visually fantastic films).

      LOL@Himansu and his vigor—and bad wig. BAD WIG.

  11. I have wanted to see this film, it is sometimes shown in various film festivals, it was once shown at the Max Mueller Bhavan (German is taught here) but somehow I always missed seeing the film. If not the film the screen caps were worth seeing, thanks for this review, loved it.

  12. I have only ever seen a clip of this movie. So cool to see the caps. It does look beautiful. Great review and thanks for sharing!

  13. This is an absolute gem. I have heard of this movie before, but never thought that movies in the 20’s could look so beautiful.

    I kind of liked the tinted images btw :)

  14. Thank you Memsaab, you write about this film so beautifully that I want to watch it right away!

    I have never heard about this before. Seeta Devi looks so beautiful. You have not mentioned the music (is there music?).

    • I think that the BFI did commission a new soundtrack for when the film is shown in festivals, but there is no sound at all on the copy I was given. Would be fun to hear the original music too though.

  15. Hi Memsaab
    Love your blog…just out of curiosity- how come you never reviewed any of the fun masala movies of the 80s such as Ram Lakhan…? I loved the chemistry between Jackie and ANil…:-)

  16. Fantastic! Still waiting to see this one!

  17. It’s really a pleasure to read the review of such an old movie. I feel it was a mute movie, not a talkie. It’s difficult to imagine how could those passionate filmmaker make such good movies when the technology was not so advanced. They deserve a standing ovation for their efforts.

    Jitendra Mathur

  18. Apologies for coming to this post so late, and thanks as usual to Memsaab for the wonderful write-up and screen-grabs.

    The specially commissioned soundtrack to the restored version is commercially available on Amazon/emusic/itunes

    I have links for the ARTE beautifully restored version (with the soundtrack) which I can send as a PM or post here if people are interested


  19. Where did you see this film Gretaji? I can’t believe it? This is a fantastic find……

  20. I like old movies too. One minute I am doubled up laughing at the way the people act, the sets, costumes etc, the next minute I am charmed by the innocence and beauty. I feel like I am living in those bygone ages and love every moment of it.
    Have to watch this one. Thanks for the post.

  21. 427 prints of this film were made, of which only two were alloted for exhibition in India.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: