Walter Steffen’s documentary Munich In India is a fascinating account of those times as the filmmaker revisits the palaces of yore through the eyes of the grandson of German court painter Fritz-Munich

What if you could get on a time machine that will take you back to 1932 and give you an insight into the life of the rich and the famous maharajas of India?

What if you could see Gandhi from close quarters?

What if you could walk the streets of Munich and feel the angst of an artist during the times of Hitler and Nazi rule?

Walter Steffen’s documentary Munich In India (Munchen In Indien), screened recently at the Goethe Institut, is a fascinating account of those times as the filmmaker revisits the palaces of yore through the eyes of the grandson of German court painter Fritz-Munich.

The film shuttles between archival black-and-white film footage shot between 1932 and 1937 (all narrated with a voiceover based on diary entries of Fritz Munich) and the present day discoveries of the grandson Konstantin Fritz as he takes a tour of India and visits every place his grandfather had been to in the 1930s — Bombay, Udaipur, Patiala, Kapurthala, Amritsar, Baroda, Cochin, and all the way to Ceylon.

The result is an engaging blast of nostalgia as the grandson traces the original paintings from the 1930s based on the archival 16mm film footage, photographs taken during the period and notes made by his grandfather Fritz Munich. “I thought of it as a road movie through time and space,” says filmmaker Walter Steffen. “I had two hours and 50 minutes of archival footage and about 80 hours of present day footage to put together. I wanted to make it seamless — not as a heavy story but as a personal account of the times.”

Constrasting ideologies

“It’s interesting how you subtly dwell on the contrasting ideologies — the non-violence of Gandhi as witnessed by Fritz in India at Sabarmati and the fascist regime of Hitler on his return back home,” filmmaker K. Hariharan observed during the question and answer session that followed the screening.

“Yes, there was the World War all set to break out and then the Independence movement in India… So there was a strong subtext of oppression, but I wanted to keep it light and explore it purely from the point of view of art and heritage. When I ask people today what heritage means to you, they are not interested. They say they are looking ahead into the future. I wanted to capture a lost part of heritage and history,” Steffen explains.

The 90-minute documentary is a feel-good account of those times. Does this mean Fritz-Munich had only pleasant memories of India or did he edit out the unpleasant ones, we ask. “No, he didn’t really complain, except for maybe not finding commissions travels down South to Cochin and Sri Lanka but then, he was a cheerful man,” says Steffen.

“It was the story of a man who gave up his secure position at a large German bank to follow his inner voice to become an artist. As portrait painter, he got access to Indian Princely Courts, became the only German court painter of the maharajas and got to fame and wealth. In order to support his family, he tried to arrange himself with the Nazi regime – in vain and fell out of favour… After the World War II, Fritz-Munich looked for new customers in his orginal homeland and found them with the Palatine winegrowers… The story of a classical hero, it tells of his fast rise, of his tragic fall and finally its happy end,” as the filmmaker sums up the film in his Director’s Statement.