'Alam-Ara,' India's first talkie, was released 75 years ago on March 14.
'All Talking, Singing, Dancing...,' the billboards screamed. Posters were splashed all over Bombay. Some of them called it the 'All Living, Breathing, 100 percent Talking, Peak Drama, Essence of Romance, Brains and Talents unheard of, all under one banner.' If there was a ruffle of excitement it was only natural. People waited for Saturday, March 14, 1931. Tickets were reserved in advance. Majestic Cinema at Girgaon Corner was geared up for the big event, the release of 'Alam-Ara,' (Light of the Universe) India's first-ever talkie, India's first full-length sound film.Made under the banner of Imperial Movietone, 'Alam-Ara' was produced and directed by Ardeshir Marwan Irani. The black-and-white film had as its cast some of the popular stars of the silent era like Prithviraj Kapoor, L.V. Prasad, W.M. Khan, Master Vithal and Zubeida.
On the day of the release, there was pandemonium at the Majestic Cinema. The booking office was stormed by jostling crowds, hankering for a ticket to witness an historic moment. For weeks together, tickets were sold out. 'Alam-Ara' was an instant hit. It was the beginning of a new era in the history of Indian cinema.The film was based on a successful play of the same name, written by Joseph David for the Parsi Theatre. A period fantasy, in Hindi-Urdu, the film tells the story of a king of an imaginary kingdom. Of his two wives, Dilbahar and Naubahar, the former is issueless and harbours an illicit relationship with Adil, the army chief of the land. When Adil spurns the queen, she plots to have him imprisoned and his daughter, Alam-Ara, (played by Zubeida) exiled. The girl is brought up among nomads and once happens to visit the palace. She is spotted by the young prince (Master Vithal) at the palace, and he falls in love with the beautiful Alam-Ara. Eventually everything is resolved peacefully.The film exploited the technological wonder of sound to the full. It had opulent sets and made rich use of music, song, and dance. But what was most spectacular about the film was that the characters spoke, and that too in a language that they understood. For 124 minutes they escaped into a magic world. Adil, the hero of the first talkie, does not say a word in the film.The whole plot seemed to be an excuse to simply string together songs and dances. Ironically, this became an integral part of Indian cinema from the time of the first talkie.Irani took months to complete the film. This was primarily because of the technical hitches that he had to face in sound recording. There were no sound proof stages; most of the film was shot indoors and during night. Since they worked close to a railway track they had to wait till the trains ceased to operate to begin the shoot.'Alam-Ara' was surely not a technically or aesthetically perfect film. But as a pioneering venture its significance was undeniable. Critics noted that the film shared many of the common defects of Indian productions; there were others who felt that the talkie had killed a healthy trend of Indian films that always attempted to promote social values. The talkie was just chaos, with lots of songs, music, dance and opulence.There were many who feared that this would discourage respectable young men and women from joining films. And there were the sceptics who pooh-poohed the new fangled invention as a temporary fad.
New style of acting
All this proved to be wrong. The talkie ushered in a new style of acting. The muscular, athletic actors of yore gave way to those with a command and flair for language. And then later to those with an ability to sing. This was something that silent cinema could never imagine.In fact, with 'Alam-Ara' begins the history of Indian film music. 'Alam-Ara' had seven songs but not one of them is in circulation today. In fact, the film itself is lost, not a foot of this landmark film, exists today.
'There are no gramophone records of this film. I have got a recording of one song from this film, which was sung by Zubeida at a function, 'Mortal Men, Immortal Melodies,' held in Mumbai, a few years ago. The song begins 'Badla dilwayega yarab tu... ' The credit of the first singer in Indian movies must go to Wajid Mohammed Khan, who plays the role of a fakir in 'Alam-Ara' and sings the opening song, 'De de Khuda pe...' in the film,' observes noted film historian and musicologist, B. Vijayakumar.The stupendous success of 'Alam-Ara' inspired many full-length sound films in various Indian languages. In fact, 'Alam-Ara' itself was made at least twice again, in 1956 and 1973. The fear that the talkie would not address social values and social issues was removed when film makers like V. Shantaram produced some path breaking films a few years after 'Alam-Ara.'The talkie, 75 years after 'Alam-Ara,' imbibing innovations and technological developments, still remains the most popular entertainment media in India.