Bombay Talkies and the Birth of Bollywood



It was a pioneering world-class film studio built in 1934 in the northern suburb of Malad in Bombay. Its story is a fascinating potboiler of the city's continuing love affair with the movies and the beginnings of present-day Bollywood. Bombay Talkies was the first corporatised film studio, that shaped India’s dream factory.

The studio was set up by Himanshu Rai who, whilst training to be a barrister in London in the early 1920s, had a chance meeting with Niranjan Pal (son of Indian nationalist Bipin Chandra Pal), a noted playwright. This opened up an interest in acting. Rai's stage experiences in productions on London’s famed West End helped fuel his passion further.

Himanshu Rai, 1928
Himanshu Rai, 1928|Wikimedia Commons

The advent of the talkies in India happened in a wave and enthralled Indian audiences, much like they do now.


Bombay Talkies helped create a new, unique Indian cinematic language

But there was also a larger narrative at play. Indian artists such as Rai at the turn of the 20th century really wanted to create a new aesthetic, a visual language which would be simultaneously Indian as well as modern, a trope seen in current Bollywood cinema. Frustrated with patronising European and colonialist stereotypes, they turned to local artistic talent to craft this new cinematic language.

Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani with Rabindranath Tagore, Berlin, 1931
Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani with Rabindranath Tagore, Berlin, 1931|Wikimedia Commons

Rai then headed to late 1920s Weimar Germany, where he liaised with Universum Film AG (UFA) and Emelka Film Company, which were among the big production houses of the time there. Upon his return to India, he founded Bombay Talkies, with Rajnarayan Dube as principal financier and Devika Rani, great-grandniece of Rabindranath Tagore, whom he had met while working on a film in London, and later married.

On 15 April, 1934, Bombay Talkies began operations.  The first of the films to come out of the new studio’s stable was Light of Asia (Prem Sanyas), based on the life of Prince Siddhartha, and his transformation into the Buddha upon enlightenment, a concept that Rai had explored in earlier productions in Europe.

Poster for film ‘Vachan,’1938
Poster for film ‘Vachan,’1938|Wikimedia Commons

This was followed by Jawani ki Hawa, Achhut Kannya (that launched Ashok Kumar) and Jeevan Naiya. The studio operated along the principle of keeping the creative aspects and business aspects separate, mirroring the big Hollywood studios in the way it functioned. Dube would look into the business end of things and both Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani would immerse themselves in the creative pursuit. This approach gave rise to some of the most technically impressive films of the time, in India.


The studio was the first to follow the ‘Hollywood’ style of functioning

German technicians such as director Franz Osten and cinematographer Josef Wirsching were at the forefront of this technological evolution. Rai also was able to persuade highly influential investors, such as lawyer Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, Sir Richard Temple, highly influential son of a former Bombay Governor, and the prolific businessman and lawyer F.E. Dinshaw.

Bombay Talkies thus quickly established itself as one of the leading film studios in India and blazed the trail for later institutions such as RK Studios.

Early advertisment for Bombay Talkies
Early advertisment for Bombay Talkies|Indian Cinema Wiki

The studio essentially defined India's commercial film format, producing some of the most iconic musicals tackling social issues such as ‘untouchability,’screened for the masses. Equally taking from the East and West, it helped create the heady cinematic cocktail of ‘Swadeshi modernism.’


The studio essentially defined India’s commercial film format, still seen in Bollywood blockbusters today

With a staff of 400 people and state-of-the-art equipment, the studio churned out hit films through the years such as Kismet (1943) with its famous ‘Swadeshi modernism’ song ‘Door Hato Ae Duniyawalo, and films like Ziddi (1948) and Mahal (1951). Devika Rani was the leading lady in many of them and went on to become ‘the first lady of Indian cinema.’

Bombay Talkies produced 40 films over its 20 year run. It launched the careers of stalwarts such as Dilip Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Madhubala and Raj Kapoor. This heralded the golden age of Indian films and ‘Bollywood,’ which still is at the heart of Indian pop culture.

Raj Kapoor and Madhubala in a still from <i>Neel Kamal </i>(1947)
Raj Kapoor and Madhubala in a still from Neel Kamal (1947)|Pinterest

Then came the Second World War, leading to a different kind of exchange, when Jewish exiles such as celebrated composer Walter Kaufmann and screenwriter Willy Haas moved to Bombay and entered the local film scene. But when the war broke out in 1939, the British government interned the studio’s German technicians, crippling operations.


WWII crippled the studio’s operations, leading to its steady decline 

The studio was now showing cracks in the management process. Himanshu Rai had had a serious fallout with Niranjan Pal, who had helped start it all. Rai’s relationship with Devika Rani also soured and this took a serious toll on his health. He had a nervous breakdown, was hospitalised and died in 1940, at just 48 years of age.

Bombay Talkies Team (with Ashok Kumar, Franz Osten, Devika Rani, Niranjan Pal and Himanshu Rai seated centre), 1930s
Bombay Talkies Team (with Ashok Kumar, Franz Osten, Devika Rani, Niranjan Pal and Himanshu Rai seated centre), 1930s|Pinterest

After Rai’s demise, Devika Rani took over Bombay Talkies, a rare occasion in those times for a woman to take charge of a studio. Sadly, her pioneering role as an actor did not spill over to the business side of things. There were many problems, with powerful stakeholders in the company such as producer Sashadhar Mukherjee and Ashok Kumar rebelling and forming the Filmistan Studio, which went on to script its own successful story in the movies.


The famous Filmistan studio was formed by a rebelling Bombay Talkies faction

Devika Rani quit Bombay Talkies in 1945, married Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich (son of famous painter Nicholas Roerich) and went on to live a quiet life with him, in Bangalore, taking the entire Bombay Talkies archive with her. Unable to preserve the material, she later sent it to the New York-based Nicholas Roerich Museum. She died without any heir in 1994, closing the curtains on Bombay Talkies.

Bombay Talkies Ruins, Malad, Mumbai, 2014
Bombay Talkies Ruins, Malad, Mumbai, 2014|www.pharaat.com

India’s relationship with film today looks more to the future, much like its cities, with technology the ever-present enabler to leapfrog it into more modern times. It is equally important to recognize the same future-facing spirit shown by the Bombay Talkies pioneers.

With Rajnarayan Dube’s family now attempting a revival of the studio, over 60 years later, it remains to be seen whether the magic of Bombay Talkies can be faithfully restored.


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