Alam Ara: Indian Cinema Finds Its Voice

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On 14th March 1931, Indian cinema found its voice. It was the day the movie Alam Ara was released in Bombay, ushering in the talkies. It was a new era in filmmaking in India. Alam Ara was a daring tale of warring queens, palace intrigue and romance.

Poster of 'Alam Ara'
Poster of 'Alam Ara'

The movie was advertised with the English tagline, ‘All living. Breathing. 100 per cent talking’. Its Hindi punchline said, ‘78 murde insaan zinda ho gaye. Unko bolte dekho?’ Audiences were bowled over.

The film’s producer-director, Ardeshir Irani, made the film in the Hindustani language to maximise its reach. He had to introduce huge technological changes. One, actors had to be fluent in Hindi, so the Anglicised actors of the silent era were given the boot.

Ardeshir Irani On The Sets Of 'Alam Ara'
Ardeshir Irani On The Sets Of 'Alam Ara'

Suddenly, theatre artistes and gramophone singers, whose vocations depended on the use of their voice, shot to fame. The talkies also introduced a new class of professionals, such as dialogue writers, music composers and sound recordists.

The talkies also called for a change in storytelling format, and they looked to the popular Parsi theatre of the time. Also, this era marked the beginning of song-and-dance in Indian films. Hundreds of talkies were released in the 1930s, and almost all of them made money.

Zubeida and Master Vithal in 'Alam Ara'
Zubeida and Master Vithal in 'Alam Ara'

The growing popularity of the talkies attracted a new group of financiers. Enter speculative investors and cotton merchants. Everyone wanted a piece of this delicious pie!

A major challenge in making a talkie was the live recording of sound on the sets or on location. The orchestra had to be hidden behind trees to stay invisible. Even the buzz of an aeroplane, the honk of a car, or the sneeze of a crew member could ruin the shot.

A Still From The Film 'Alam Ara'
A Still From The Film 'Alam Ara'

There also arose a need for quieter studios and movie-making shifted from working-class neighbourhoods in South Bombay to suburbs like Andheri, Goregaon and Malad.

The 1930s also gave us some of the early movie superstars, like Prithviraj Kapoor, Devika Rani, Jahanara Kajjan and K L Saigal.

According to film historian Debashree Mukherjee, “It was between 1931 and 1936 that cinema started to unfold as the preeminent mass cultural form of 20th century South Asia.”


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