An audacious dreamer, a series of crises, a dollop of luck and action! That sums up the start of the ‘talkie’ that went on to shape India’s prolific and glitzy movie industry. The 1931 movie Alam Ara, ushered in a new era in film making and it launched epic careers and filmy khandaans or empires.
It all started with a lottery!
The man behind the pioneering effort of making the first movie with sound in India, was Ardeshir Irani an accidental film producer. Irani was born in 1886, to an ‘Irani’ Zoroastrian family in Pune. Iranis like his parents, were the latest migrants from Iran, escaping religious persecution. His parents left Iran in 1879. Irani grew up in Mumbai and started off running a musical instruments shop.
His entry into films was a quirk of fate. In 1903, he won a lottery of Rs 14,000, a huge sum in those days, which spurred him to follow his passion - films. He chose to become a small time film distributor showing films in ‘tent cinemas’ which were literally makeshift tents with projectors. The success of the first Indian feature film, Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra, released in 1913, had led to more such films, being produced and released by other Indian directors and by 1926, Irani was one of the many. But he was the first to take the leap, when sound came in.
The inspiration came in 1929 from the Hollywood film Show Boat, which Irani watched at Mumbai’s Excelsior Cinema. Quick to see the future, Irani decided to embrace change and take his work to the next level. The first dilemma was the language. In a break from norm, Irani decided to make the film in Hindustani (a mixture of Hindi & Urdu), instead of Marathi or Gujarati as he felt it would have a potential of reaching a larger audience. This choice would go on to shape the industry.
– Unbelievable as it may sound to us today, instrumentalists - harmonium and tabla players, were made to hide behind trees so they could provide ‘invisible’ musical support
Next came the plot. The fashion then, in the silent era (like now, ironically) were mythological themes. Irani opted to experiment and decided that the first ‘talkie’ he would make, would be based on a popular play written by the prominent Baghdadi Jew dramatist Joseph David, who lived in Mumbai. The play was ‘Alam Ara’ - a daring tale of warring queens, palace intrigues, and romance.
To get the right feel, Irani also had to improvise on the casting. Until Alam Ara, silent movies in India generally had Anglo-Indian or Baghdadi Jew actresses in female leads. Their fair skin and western sensibilities worked well. However, in a ‘talkie’ film, they faced a problem. None of them could speak Hindustani. Even if they did, their accent was all wrong. As a result Irani had to look beyond his studio’s top star Sulochana (Ruby Myers) and opt for a young actress named Zubeida.
For the male lead, Irani had initially chosen Mehboob Khan, the future director of the classic Mother India, but then decided to go for a more commercially viable name – Marathi stunt star Master Vithal. The villain was none other than the legendary Prithviraj Kapoor. The cast also included L V Prasad, who later went on to become a rage in the south.
– It was advertised with the English tagline, ‘All living. Breathing. 100 per cent talking’ and a Hindi punchline, ‘78 murde insaan zinda ho gaye. Unko bolte dekho?’
The actual shooting was another task. The studio in Grant Road, Mumbai, where the film was recorded overlooked the railway tracks. The absence of soundproof rooms forced the crew to shoot the film only at night when the trains ceased to work. Also, the shoot was uncomfortable. Large microphones had to be placed inside the costumes of the actors or else within the props, near the actors, to pick up their dialogues in such a way that they were hidden from the camera. Unbelievable as it may sound to us today, instrumentalists - harmonium and tabla players, were made to hide behind trees so they could provide ‘invisible’ musical support.
Alam Ara was also the first movie to introduce playback singing in India. Interestingly one of the songs, De De Khuda Ke Naam Par was sung by Wazir Muhammad Khan, a curious neighbourhood watchman! Irani hired him because of his coarse voice, which he felt was perfect as the voice of a fakir. Besides this, the film had six other songs.
Not surpringly, while a silent film took approximately one month’s time to complete, Alam Ara took four. India’s first talkie was ready for its grand release on 14th March 1931 at the Majestic Cinema in Bombay. It was advertised with the English tagline, ‘All living. Breathing. 100 per cent talking’ and a Hindi punchline, ‘78 murde insaan zinda ho gaye. Unko bolte dekho?’
For the public, who had never seen people talk on screen, Alam Ara was a sensation. The theatre was mobbed. The police had to be called in. Tickets which were generally prized at 4 annas were sold in the black market for 4-5 rupees! It was a full house for the next eight weeks. Later, the unit went on tour with the film, taking all the sound projection equipment with them, and drew surging crowds everywhere.
Following Alam Ara’s success Ardeshir Irani went on to make films till 1945, after which he went into graceful retirement. He passed away in 1969 at the age of 82.
In his career, he made many stars.
The actress Zubeida married Raja Dhanrajgir of Hyderabad while Prithviraj Kapoor, Mehboob Khan and L V Prasad became film legends in their own right.
Sadly, today no copy of this film exists. All we are left with to remember India’s pioneering film, are a few stills. One hopes that someday a reel of the film just may show up. Until then all we can do is remember Alam Ara and thank it for the shubh arambh or Muhurat it acted as, laying the road for India’s billion dollar movie industry.
DID YOU KNOW?
In 1937, Ardeshir Irani also produced the first Hindi colour feature film of India called Kisan Kanya.
– ABOUT LIVE HISTORY INDIA