Willy Haas

  • The former editor of [i]Die Literarische Welt[/i] fled to Bombay in 1939. In India Haas worked as scriptwriter for Bhavnani Productions – and had further impact on modern Indian film.
  • Willy
  • Haas
  • Vilém Haas

  • 07-06-1891
  • Prague (CZ)
  • 04-09-1973
  • Hamburg (DE)
  • EditorScript WriterCultural Critic
  • The former editor of Die Literarische Welt fled to Bombay in 1939. In India Haas worked as scriptwriter for Bhavnani Productions – and had further impact on modern Indian film.

    Word Count: 28

  • Portrait of Willy Haas as censor of the British Indian army, n.d. (Repro by the author from the collection of Dr. Herta Haas/ now Schiller Nationalmuseum/Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach am Neckar).
  • Born into a German-Jewish family in Prague in 1891, Willy Haas became part of the literary circles that revolved around poets like Franz Kafka and Franz Werfel. After World War I, Haas moved to Berlin, where he entered the film business as a critic and scriptwriter. In 1925 he was appointed editor of Die Literarische Welt, probably the most important literary weekly of the Weimar Republic. When Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933, the dedicated democrat Haas fled back to Prague. When the Nazis invaded his hometown in 1939, Haas again had to flee. With the help of Walter Kaufmann, he set off for Bombay.
    On 26th July of that year ‘Vilém’ Haas, using the Czech version of his name, arrived in Bombay on board the SS Conte Rosso. He later recalled in his autobiography: “My friend Kaufmann was one of the first people who came on board. […] I could not find words to thank him […] He had provided me with a post at an Indian film company, a visa for India, rescued me from the claws of the Gestapo.” (Haas 1957, 201)
    The composer Walter Kaufmann had already worked with director and producer Mohan Bhavnani and had convinced him to employ Haas as a scriptwriter for Bhavnani Productions. Holding a firm job offer was essential to obtain a visa for British India. The local Jewish Relief Association helped Haas fulfil the strict conditions of the immigration authorities in Bombay.
    Despite all the support he received and the relief of being saved from persecution, it was not an easy task for Haas to acclimatise to daily life in Bombay with all its noise, bustle, and excitement. He struggled with the climate and the monsoon, got lost in the crowded bazaar quarters and was shocked by the sick and poor people he saw on the streets.
    But Haas wanted to make India his new home. He tried hard to get into the culture, the history, the myths. He was fascinated by antique sculptures like the Trimurti on Elephanta Island and the meditating sadhus at the Kanheri Caves. He studied in the Royal Asiatic Library at Horniman Circle and became acquainted with the literary and intellectual circles of Bombay. One of his friends was the writer Raja Rao, who invited him for lectures to Kitab Khana-events and helped him to publish in the Bombay Chronicle. Haas became a member of the Indian P.E.N. and had close connections with the United Lodge of Theosophists and its prominent member Sophia Wadia. Haas often went to the café on the ground floor of the Soona Mahal building on Marine Drive, which was a meeting place for Indian intellectuals. Lesser’s Boarding House, where he was staying, was also in the building, on the second floor.
    The first of Haas’s film scripts written in India to reach the screen was The Naked Truth, which had its premiere on 21 March 1940 at Krishna Talkies. It got good reviews and was quite successful. The story was based on Ibsen’s Ghosts, with motifs from other of his works, and tackled the double standards pertaining in many marriages and the danger of sexually transmitted diseases – while including the obligatory songs and dances and happy ending. Although Haas did not question the unwritten laws of Indian movies in public, he was not happy with the project at all, declaring himself “fed up with this hotchpotch of Ibsen and religious songs” (Haas 1957, 231).
    Haas somehow convinced Bhavnani of his plan to write the script for a real religious drama in the form of a village legend. To study Indian village life, he went to the small princely state of Limbdi on the peninsula of Kathiavar. Deeply impressed by what he had seen and with a head full of ideas, Haas returned to Bombay and wrote a charming love story of good and evil, fate and destiny, unforeseen changes, and malicious plans – plus spiritual enlightenment as the happy ending. The story was produced as Prem Nagar, though with some changes. In particular, the ending was different from the one Haas had intended. Instead of enlightenment, a happy couple was shown rocking their baby in a crib. However, with its star cast, including Bimla Kumari, and music composed by the later legendary Naushad Ali, the movie was a success when it finally opened at the Novelty cinema in April 1941.
    Haas’s engagement with Bhavnani Productions ended several months before the film’s premiere, when the company went bankrupt. Desperately looking for new employment, he tried to survive by writing articles and stories for publications such as the Illustrated Weekly, as well as plays for All India Radio. Much of his work from this time takes a strong stance against National Socialism. In this context, Haas’s book Germans beyond Germany must be emphasised. In the introduction to his anthology Haas formulated a merciless analysis of the links between German literature and fascism.
    When the book was finally published in 1942, Haas had already left Bombay. On 15 May 1941 he began his service with the British Indian army in the Central Internment Camp for enemy aliens near Dehra Doon in northern India. Working as a censor, he was eventually promoted to the rank of captain but, being far from the literary circles of Bombay, he felt very lonely. His only intellectual anchor back then was his close friend G. C. Chatterjee and his family. Chatterjee edited the Punjab Educational Journal in which Haas published a series On teaching German literature, which was in some way a supplement to Germans beyond Germany. Decades later, Chatterjee’s daughter Uma revealed another impact of Haas, whom she called “our intellectual life-saver in Dehra Doon”, on modern Indian film. Many of the ideas which the exiled European shared and discussed with Uma and her film producer husband Chetan Anand “seeped into Chetan’s Neecha Nagar” (Uma Anand to the author, 20th March 2002). Anand’s landmark film was awarded a Grand Prix at Cannes in 1946.
    Haas returned to Europe and reached the United Kingdom on 13th March 1947. About a year later he went back to Germany to contribute to the British Re-Education programme for the German people by establishing democratic media in the British sector. He then became the grand seigneur of the Welt and Welt am Sonntag newspapers in Hamburg.

    Word Count: 1046

  • Letter of intent to employ Willy Haas at Bhavnani Productions, 3 March 1939 (Repro by the author from the collection of Dr. Herta Haas/ now Schiller Nationalmuseum/Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach am Neckar).
    Willy Haas’s ticket for the passage to India on the SS Conte Rosso, 1939 (Repro by the author from the collection of Dr. Herta Haas/ now Schiller Nationalmuseum/Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach am Neckar).
    Scene from the movie Prem Nagar directed and produced by M. Bhavnani, 1941 (Screenshot by the author from a copy by the National Film Archive of India/courtesy of Famous Cine Laboratory).
    Book jacket of Germans beyond Germany. Bombay: International Book House, 1942 (Repro by the author from the collection of Dr. Herta Haas/ now Schiller Nationalmuseum/Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach am Neckar).
  • Haas, Vilem, editor. Germans Beyond Germany. Translated by Hetty Kohn, The International Book House Bombay, 1942. Internet Archive, Accessed 23 March 2021.

    Haas, Vilem [Willy]. “On Teaching German Literature I“. The Punjab Educational Journal, vol. XXXIX, no. 4, July 1944, pp. 247–254.

    Haas, Vilem [Willy]. “On Teaching German Literature II“. The Punjab Educational Journal, vol. XXXIX, no. 5, August 1944, pp. 274–278.

    Haas, Vilem [Willy]. “On Teaching German Literature III“. The Punjab Educational Journal, vol. XXXIX, no. 6, September 1944, pp. 301 –308.

    Haas, Vilem [Willy]. “On Teaching German Literature IV“. The Punjab Educational Journal, vol. XXXIX, no. 7, October 1944, pp. 333 –336.

    Haas, Willy. Die Literarische Welt. Erinnerungen. P. List, 1957. [Translations by the author]

    Ungern-Sternberg, Christoph von. Willy Haas 1891-1973. “Ein grosser Regisseur der Literatur”. edition text + kritik, 2007.

    Word Count: 120

  • Collection of Dr. Herta Haas, Hamburg (now Schiller Nationalmuseum/Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach am Neckar).
    National Film Archive of India, Pune.
    Schiller Nationalmuseum/Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach am Neckar.

    Word Count: 27

  • Christoph von Ungern-Sternberg
  • Bombay, India (1939−1941); Dehra Doon, India (1941−1947); London, UK (1947−1948).

  • Bhavnani Productions, 104, Main Rd, Lokhandwala Complex, Andheri West, Bombay (now Mumbai)(studio 1939−1941); Soona Mahal, Marine Drive, Bombay (now Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Rd Churchgate, Mumbai) (residence 1939−1941).

  • Bombay
  • Christoph von Ungern-Sternberg. "Willy Haas." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 15-09-2021.
  • Paul Zils

    Paul Zils became a central figure in the realm of the Indian documentary film history. Before his emigration to Bombay in 1945, he had worked at Ufa in Germany.

    Word Count: 28

    Lesser’s Boarding House
    HotelGerman Jewish boarding house

    During the 1940’s Max Lesser ran one of the very few German-Jewish boarding houses in Bombay – in the art deco “Soona Mahal” on Marine Drive.

    Word Count: 25

    Jewish Relief Association Bombay
    Relief Organisation

    In 1934, the first refugees from National Socialism founded a Jewish aid association in Bombay called the Jewish Relief Association (JRA) to help refugees in financial and other difficulties.

    Word Count: 28

    Walter Kaufmann

    The 12-year exile in Bombay shaped Walter Kaufmann’s life and work; his signature tune for All India Radio is played till today.

    Word Count: 23