A pioneering Melbourne designer discovers a family link to the birth of the Indian film industry. By Kate Holden.

Designer and film historian Peter Dietze

Before he’d go out to play football with his friends in Ivanhoe East, the boy would make them take Mass in the living room. He’d haul out the vestments, sewn by his mother, and hand them to his friends: rice paper for the communion wafers, tabernacle improvised from a table. You stand there, he’d instruct, you kneel there and I’ll be the Father. His priesthood ended when he set the curtains on fire with liturgical candles, but perhaps directing was in his blood. A director lay within him, and little Peter Dietze, Melbourne child of German immigrants, would one day set stages, too, first behind glass and later on screens.

His mother used to circle odd items in the newspaper occasionally: a showing of an Indian film, a mention of a cinema star with an exotic name. Peter shrugged: he loved action movies, Steve McQueen. His parents tried to teach him German, but it didn’t take; at school children called him “Nazi” and “wog”. It was the 1960s. There was something else wrong, too: after church on Sundays his friends disappeared, to visit people called “grandparents”. Peter’s were distant, in Europe. He had only his little family, and pictures in his head, the box full of costumes and Elvis in Viva Las Vegas.

By young manhood he was selling his VW, chasing a girl overseas to London, pledging himself to the fashion world, window-dressing. Back in Australia he devised hallucinations for a job: a shop window turned into a fish tank in Toorak Road, full of living fish; half a car salvaged from a wrecker hoisted aloft to sell shirts; loafers fitted with little outboard engines to become boat shoes; a chairlift that really moved in a blizzard of beanbag snow. His mind was always conjuring and his works were magic. Devotees came every day just to see what new miracles had manifested. “People should walk past a display and think: I dream about it,” Dietze says. He drew ordinary people towards his box full of light, and entranced them.

Another box, full of family photos found in the attic, and a handsome face in black and white. “That looks like me,” the young man said, and his mother, Nilima, said, “That’s your grandfather.” “But,” said Dietze, “he’s Indian.”

He wasn’t thrown; instead he steadied. “It changes a lot of things,” he says. “It was a centring thing for me. All of a sudden I understood why I behave the way I do, where I came from. All the things came together.” The grandfather was Himansu Rai, a founding father of Indian cinema: actor and director, law student in London, abandoner of Nilima’s mother, identity obscured for the White Australia Policy, Peter Dietze’s lodestar.

The pursuit began: to know everything about the ancestor, to begin collecting. Dietze’s world went black and white: notes scribbled on pads, phone numbers, film stills and photographs.

Rai had been seized, in 1920s London, by a desire to represent India’s beauty and history to the ignorant orientalising West. He left the law; learnt directing; acted in his own silent films; cast up visions of palaces and maharajahs, elephants and golden thrones, beautiful women and fabulous myths. Weimar Germany, in its own daze of illusions, gave him the best cameramen and technicians: he took them to India, too. All was gilded in eastern light. Decades later Dietze chased and persisted, tracking descendants of German technicians in India, rumours of film prints, the whereabouts of sumptuous actress, Rai’s second wife, Devika Rani, and the legacy of Rai’s greatest achievement, the Bombay Talkies film studio.

Devika Rani was out there, alive. This was before the internet, and Dietze yearned to find her but she died before the technology could track the breadcrumb trail. She had kept a hoard, however, and it came to Dietze. There were the films: the trilogy of classic silents; the archives, the letters, the mementos; more boxes of photographs. Thousands of items. His grandfather was there, right there, in the darkness. Dietze lifted the lid: all gleamed with light.

They showed A Throw of Dice in Trafalgar Square, with a new soundtrack, and Dietze walked among 5000 Indian fans showing photos of Rai. That’s my granddad, he said. That’s my granddad. He took the film to Rajasthan to meet the Maharana of Udaipur, and showed it in the palace where it was filmed. There, he gestured to the maharana, is the golden throne that rested on the back of that elephant, and he pointed to a long-dead beast on a screen.

He’s almost there: he’s made an exhibition now showing at Melbourne’s ACMI. It’s been a dream for 20 years, now it’s just started. Always, Dietze believed, it should begin in Melbourne. He loves it here: has stood in Federation Square between Oktoberfest at Transport bar and Diwali on the big screen, proudly German, exultantly Indian. Cravat tied, boat shoes polished, he’ll take the exhibition to the world, and then hand it all to India.

The Bombay Talkies studio survives in Mumbai, ruined, grass-grown, crumbling as a Roman temple. He dreams, one day, of course, of building it anew.

Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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