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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.
  • Paul
  • Zils
  • 18-06-1915
  • Barmen (DE)
  • 30-03-1979
  • Munich (DE)
  • Filmmaker
  • 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

  • Image of Paul Zils, around 1950 (© Private Archive Amrit Gangar).
  • Paul Zils worked at Ufa from 1933 to 1937 but quit when the political situation changed. He then travelled to Africa and the US, where he worked on some films in Hollywood (1939). While there, he persuaded Paramount Pictures to fund him to make a film (Lambon) in Bali, Indonesia, then under Dutch control. When Germany attacked Holland, he was arrested by the British (1941) and brought to India by the Royal Indian Navy and place in an internment camp at Deolali (in the Nashik district of the state of Maharashtra). For four years (1941–1945), he saw India as a prisoner of war behind barbed wires. He was released in late October 1945 and arrived in Bombay with a contract in his hand, signed by the then British Indian government to head the External Unit of their Information Films of India (IFI). In Bombay he lived in the Soona Mahal building: a contact hub at the time for European exiles such as author Willy Haas. Zils was to produce documentaries made exclusively for exhibition in foreign lands (Gangar 2003, 51).
    Regarding Zils’ ideological affinities, there are different accounts and references to be found in India. The Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, for example, mentions that at Ufa he was a favourite of Goebbels and was often used by Ufa to secure Nazi governmental approval for scripts (Rajadhyaksha/Willemen 1999, 240). He was also described as a Nazi sympathiser (Bhattacharya 2006). Such accounts and claims need to be checked through the appropriate documents. While writing a book on Paul Zils for the Goethe Institut Bombay, I put the question to several of my interviewees, who had known Zils and worked with him, but none confirmed this claim. In one of his memories which form part of my book, Zils writes about a feature documentary that he wanted to submit to Ufa: “I knew very well that I could not ‘sell’ a picture to the Ufa without first submitting a shooting script. On the other hand, I knew that I could not make use of the script while shooting. […] It was to be Ufa’s first feature-documentary with no stars attached. That the film was never made was neither my nor the Ufa’s fault, but strictly due to Politics.” (Italics added; Gangar 2003, 54). He appears to be referring to the increasing Nazification of Ufa.
    With his expertise in filmmaking, affable manners and fluent unaccented English, he was able to convince the IFI bosses to take him on the staff. But the IFI was soon closed down by the interim Indian government of Jawaharlal Nehru, who became independent India’s first Prime Minister. The IFI was turned into the Films Division (1948), one of the largest documentary film producing government units in the world Zils made some films for the Division but continued to believe in and promote independent documentary film-making and, to this end became founder-president of the Indian Documentary Producers’ Association (IDPA, established in 1956 and still active). He was also the man behind the launch of the journal Indian Documentary, popularising independent documentary film-making in India.
    The way Zils got involved in the Indian film production-distribution-exhibition enterprise is an incredible story for an émigré who was once a prisoner of war. Besides the IDPA, Zils was also a founder and life member of the Children’s Film Society of India (established in 1955 and still active) represented it on the Film Federation of India, an apex body. When in March 1959, he left India (Bombay) for Germany (Munich), he left behind an impressive filmography (Gangar 2003, 77−79) over 70 documentary films – under the aegis of the Documentary Unit of India and the Arts Films of India which he had established in partnership with the producer-cinematographer-director Fali Bilimoria. Dr P.V. Pathy, who had studied film-making at IDHEC in Paris, was also his associate and shot many of his films.
    Among his three feature films, the doubleversion (Hindi and English) Hindustan Hamara / Our India (1950) was, as he described it, a socio-economic study of modern India “with a simple story woven into the documentary design, enacted by ‘types’ not actors.” (Gangar 2003, 64) For the fiction-feature film Zalzala (1952), he adapted the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s novel Char Adhyay (Four Chapters). Interestingly, many Bollywood (the name still not coined then) matinée idols worked for Zils for nominal remuneration. Zils’s third feature film was Shabash (1952), a comedy and one of six features on the production schedule (Gangar 2003, 65).
    Yet another half-hour long documentary (perhaps India’s first corporate film) India’s Struggle for National Shipping (1945–46) remains a milestone and a significant gift from this German émigré who loved India. Produced by the Scindia Steam Navigation Company, this film “stars” all the prominent national leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru! Incidentally, I was fortunate to have discovered and rescued its nitrate prints (Gangar 2008, 64−71).

    Word Count: 790

  • Soona Mahal at Mumbai’s Marine Drive, where Zils lived in an apartment flat, 2002 (Photo: Amrit Gangar).
    Zils shooting a documentary film, Fali Bilimoria on camera and the assistant Sukhdev (waving a hand), who later joined the Films Division, 1955 (© Private Archive Amrit Gangar).
  • Bhattacharya, Chandrima S. “Hitler hand in advance of Hindi cinema.” The Telegraph online, 15 January 2006, Accessed 20 March 2021.

    Gangar, Amrit. “Paul Zils: Filmography.” Idem. Paul Zils and the Indian Documentary. Goethe Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, 2003, pp. 77–79.

    Gangar, Amrit. “Ten Years: Documentary-Making in India – I, Paul Zils.” Idem. Paul Zils and the Indian Documentary. Goethe Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, 2003, pp. 51–57.

    Gangar, Amrit. “Ten Years: Documentary Making in India – II, Paul Zils.” Idem Paul Zils and the Indian Documentary. Goethe Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, 2003, pp. 58–63.

    Gangar, Amrit. “Ten Years: Documentary Making in India – III, Paul Zils.” Idem. Paul Zils and the Indian Documentary. Goethe Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, 2003, pp. 64–69.

    Gangar, Amrit. “Discovery and Restoration of Documentary Film India’s Struggle for National Shipping.” Journal of Ship Technology, vol. 4, no. 2, July 2008, pp 56–58.

    Rajadhyaksha, Ashish, and Paul Willemen, editors. Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, Oxford University Press, 1999.

    Word Count: 146

  • Online Catalogue of the German National Library (via the link ‘Open Archive Object’), . Accessed on 20 March 2021.

    Word Count: 25

  • Amrit Gangar
  • Bombay, India (1945–1959)

  • Famous Cine Building, 223 Dr E. Moses Road, Mahalakshmi, Bombay (now Anandilal P Marg, Mahalakshmi, Mumbai).

  • Bombay
  • Amrit Gangar. "Paul Zils." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 13-09-2021.
  • 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

    Willy Haas
    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