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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 mem­oirs In My Skin and The Ro­man­tic: Ital­ian Nights and Days.

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