The first day of the calendar year marks a new dawn helping us raise a toast to the collective consciousness of cinema. Each one waves out a greeting to the other in some special way which is deemed to be remembered all through the year and beyond. On this day, this year 01 January, 2018, here comes MI ‘Movie Toast with Morning Tea‘ mubarakbaad to all the movie and music mavens. This delectable and delightful treat will be served every week in the form of year wise musings on movies, music and manoharanjan in the realm of Hindi Cinema!! The inaugural post features the epoch making year 1931 which marked the advent of sound.
Movie Toast with Morning Tea
The world economic crisis and the Great Depression of the late 20s fostered a new marvel called ‘sound’. Ardeshir Irani introduced ‘sound’ to the Indian Cinema and is hailed as the ‘Father of Indian Talkie’. He started his career as an exhibitor in the days of tent shows. Later, he exhibited Dadasaheb Phalke’s silent films “Kaliya Mardan” and “Shree Krishna Janma” in the Alexandra Theatre which he co-owned. The spectacular success of Phalke’s films inspired Irani to make his own films.
Irani made a few silent films, first under the banner of Majestic Films and then under his now iconic Imperial Films. Seeking inspiration from Universal Pictures’ “Show Boat”, he made “Alam Ara“, the first full length Indian talkie film. The film starred popular stars of the time Master Vithal and Zubeida and it inaugurated a new chapter at the Majestic Cinema on 14 March, 1931. Ergo, the ‘Sound’ Era began and the idea of ‘synchronising recorded sound with running pictures’ clicked.
Joseph David, a playwright from the Parsi Imperial Theatrical Company, adapted a play written by him for the screen. Irani was assisted in the film by one Rustam Bharucha. Music was composed by Pirojshah Jamaji Mistry and B Irani. Incidentally, they all belonged to the Parsi community or theatre and the contribution of the faction to cinema is commendable.
The film had in all seven songs which were recorded with just three instruments viz. Harmonium, Tabla and Violin. Wazir Mohammed Khan sang the beautifully worded minstrel song :
दे दे खुदा के नाम पे प्यारे, ताक़त हो गर देने की,
कुछ चाहे अगर तो मांगले मुझसे, हिम्मत हो गर लेने की।
Since then, music lovers, with a ravenous appetite for good music, haven’t stopped begging for more songs. And, the bollywood badshahs have been bounteous enough in dishing out a bellyful of these melody notes to movie buffs like us who are reveling in the feast of the flow of good songs, ad infinitum!
The Golden Era of Music was all set to dawn and dazzle in times to come!
Coping with Constraints
“Alam Ara” was made under severe constraints. Irani’s Imperial Studio was located near Grant Road railway station. There were no sound proof stages. So, most of the shooting was done indoors in the night when the trains were not running and human movement was minimal. Technical facilities were also not available. Microphones were hidden at incredible places to keep them out of range of the camera. The shooting, recording, editing, laboratory processing with sound in view were unimaginably distressing and formidable.
The film took several months to complete because of difficult recording conditions. To keep the potential competitors in the dark, all efforts were taken to maintain secrecy surrounding the painstaking ‘pioneering effort’; in other words, the making of the film was guarded closely with utmost care and caution.
Like Dadasaheb Phalke, Ardeshir Irani too had problem finalising the stars. He wanted to cast the commercially saleable star Sulochana (an Iraqi Jew whose real name was Ruby Myers) in the title role. But, being the first talkie and because of her faulty diction, he settled for a lesser known star Zubeida who had good command over Hindi and Urdu.
Similarly, Irani considered Mehboob Khan (who started his career as an ‘extra’ with Irani and went on to become a filmmaker extraordinaire) for the role of the prince. Again, being the first talkie film and a fantasy film with lot of fights and stunts, Irani signed Master Vithal as the hero, the biggest stunt star of the silent era. Being a Maharashtrian, Vithal too had difficulty with his diction. But, Irani changed the story halfway making him either dumb or appear in a dazed and subconscious state and took care of his ‘diction drawback’.
Besides the lead actors, others who were a major part of the historic film include now big and popular names like Prithviraj Kapoor, W M Khan, Jilloo (who played mother in law of Nargis in “Mother India” and mother of Madhubala in “Mughal-e-Azam”) and Jagdish Sethi (who played father of Shyama in “Aar Paar”)
Lost and Found Lore
“Alam Ara” was also the first film with the ‘Lost and Found‘ sub plot. Not many must have given even a remote thought to this. Set in an imaginary kingdom, the story is about a King Sultan Saleem Khan and his two warring and childless wives Gulbahar and Naubahar. A fakir (mendicant) predicts that Naubahar will soon beget the heir to the throne. Out of jealousy, Gulbahar tries to seduce the Chief Minister Adil (played by Prithviraj Kapoor) for a child. Her advances are thwarted by him and, to seek revenge, she has him imprisoned and his wife banished. The wife dies giving birth to a girl child who is brought up by a group of banjaras (nomads) and is named Alam Ara (played by Zubeida).
As she grows up, a charm around her neck / a precious stone embedded in the necklace reveals that she is the daughter of the imprisoned Minister. With the help of the nomads, she sets out to free him. In the palace, she meets the handsome prince Jahangir Khan (son of Naubahar, played by Vithal) and both fall in love. After a lot of dramatic twists and turns, Alam Ara unites with her long lost father, the vicious queen Gulbahar is punished and the lovers marry.
Alam Ara sets out to ‘Lose’ herself to ‘Find’ her father. In the process, she not only loses her heart to the prince but also finds her father. The entire idiom of ‘Lost and Found’ formula in Indian films is the story line finding expression in the very first talkie film “Alam Ara”!
Even after the transition from silent to talkie films, a number of silent films were made. Of the total 1330 silent films made since 1913, over 200 films were made and released in 1931 alone; these films were made by the now forgotten leading film companies like Imperial, Kohinoor, Mehta-Luhar, Ranjit, Sagar, Saraswati, Sharda, Surya to name a few.
A total number of 24 talkie films were made and released in 1931. Most of these films came from the stable of Madan (seven films), Imperial and Krishnatone (five each), Sagar (three), Ranjit and Saroj (one each). The Indian talkie paved the way gradually to the studio system….
Close on heels of “Alam Ara” followed musicals like Madan Theatres’ “Laila Majnu”, “Shakuntala” and “Shirin Farhad”. The last named film had about 17 songs and the film had an incredible run for 14 weeks thereby establishing music and dance as an integral part of Indian cinema. Music in these films was given by Vrajlal Varma and the songs are lost forever.
These films featured the legendary singing stars Master Nissar and Jahan Ara Kajjan. With their good looks, sound musical background, good command over Urdu, rich theater experience and an impeccable dialogue delivery, Nissar and Kajjan became the first and the most popular singing stars of the Indian cinema.
Ardeshir Irani (Imperial Films) and J J Madan (who took over Madan Theatres after the demise of his father J F Madan, the first movie Moghal of India and essentially a showman with extraordinary business instinct), were among the major forces to shape the future of talkie films particularly in the early 30s. But the rich contribution of Parsis to Indian Cinema has never been accorded the deserved recognition.
The Parsi Theatre and the playwrights associated with it had their influence on the Indian talkie in its initial stage. They banked heavily on the Indian epics and mythology, Persian legends and romances, Arabian fantasies and tales, English plays for their scripts. Though these scripts were mere reproduction and devoid of imagination or innovations, the films, replete with songs, dances, spectacle, stunts, melodrama, were safe bets at the box office.
Other noteworthy films of the year were Sagar’s costume drama “Romantic Prince” starring Vithal and Zubeida (the stars of the first talkie film) and the mythological film “Veer Abhimanyu” starring Jal Merchant and Zubeida who went on to become one of the popular lead pairs of the 30s. Music in these films was given by S P Rane. Incidentally, before he went on to become a director extraOrdinaire, Mehboob Khan played small roles as an ‘extra’ in both these and other films of Sagar.
Sagar introduced Yakub in the title role in “Romantic Prince”, his first talkie film. He went on to do many more films of Sagar but is best remembered for his portrayal of the rebellious Birju in the Mehboob directed rural epic “Aurat”. The role was played by Sunil Dutt in its remake “Mother India”.
Incidentally, Yakub made his debut in Bhalji Pendharkar’s silent historical film “Bajirao Mastani” (1925), a full 90 years before Sanjay Leela Bhansali made his spectacular film in 2015. Some divine connection; both Yakub and Ranveer Singh who played Bajirao exuded an incredible intensity and raw sensuality.
Ranjit Film Company
The prestigious company’s first talkie film was the mythological film “Devi Devyani” starring D Billimoria and Gohar. Ustad Jhandekhan made his debut as a composer with this film.
Among the other premier studios of the 30s, B N Sircar’s the now iconic New Theatres was established in February 1931. New Theatre’s first talkie film was “Dena Paona” in Bengali and directed by Premankur Atorthy who went on to direct the four initial films of K L Saigal in 1932-33.
Notable Natter ~ 1931
Prithviraj Kapoor arrived with a bang on the firmament of talkie cinema with “Alam Ara” in 1931. And, the year saw his progeny Shammi Kapoor make a beginning of a biological birth ~ Yahoo!!
The three films of Sagar released in 1931: “Abul Hasan”, “Romantic Prince” and “Veer Abhimanyu” had an actor playing prominent roles in these and other films of the company. He was Sankata Prasad, the elder brother of Kanhaiyalal who excelled in playing the roles of a sly money lender, lala, munim, pandit, station master and other roles in films set in rural background.
Alam Ara: “Alam Ara” was made again in 1956 and 1973. Both the remakes were directed by Nanubhai Vakil and featured W M Khan who sang the minstrel song again in both the films. Music was by A R Quereshi and Iqbal Quereshi respectively.
There were several versions in later years of popular films based on legends and history which were made in 1931:
The film critic extraordinaire and highly charismatic editor Baburao Patel (of Film India fame) was smitten at first sight by the gracious looking Sushila Rani and her divine voice. This was sometime in 1942. Later, to promote his lady love, he made two films and the first was “Draupadi” in 1944. The film starred Sushila Rani in the title role opposite Chandramohan. Later, she married the already married Patel with three grown up children.
1931 ~ starring Master Fakira and Shanta Kumari (music by Ali Baux, father of Meena Kumari)
1932 ~ starring Rafiq Ghaznavi (also composer) and Anwari and directed by A R Kardar
1948 ~ starring Ghulam Mohd (not the composer) and Mumtaz Shanti
1970 ~ starring Rajkumar and Priya Rajvansh and directed by Chetan Anand
1992 ~ starring Anil Kapoor and Sridevi and directed by Harmesh Malhotra
1931 ~ two films were made in 1931 itself;
one starring Nissar and Kajjan and directed by J J Madan
other starring Rafiq Ghaznavi and Ram Pyaari
1945 ~ starring Nazir and Swarnalata
1953 ~ starring Shammi Kapoor and Nutan and directed by K Amarnath
1976 ~ starring Rishi Kapoor and Ranjeeta and directed by H S Rawail
1931 ~ starring Nayampalli, Mazhar Khan and Vimala and directed by Ezra Mir;
Ezra Mir went on to direct a number of films for Sagar Movietone in the 30s
1967 ~ starring Pradeep Kumar and Meena Kumari and directed by M Sadiq;
1931 ~ two films were made in 1931 itself; one starring Nissar nd Kajjan and directed by J J Madan
other starring Ashraf Khan and Najju Begum
1943 ~ starring Chandramohan and Jayshree and directed by V Shantaram
1945 ~ starring Jayant and Ragini
1956 ~ starring Pradeep Kumar and Madhubala
A film with a rare title “Trapped” was made in 1931. Another film with the same title was made in 2016 with Rajkumar Rao in the lead.
The 1931 film was directed by Mohan Dayaram Bhavnani (director of several silent films and talkie films of 30s and 40s including “Prem Nagar” (1940) which marked the debut of Naushad as composer). Incidentally, in 1931, Mohan Bhavnani made a silent film “Vasantasena”, a film version of Sudraka’s Sanskrit classic “Mrichchhakatika” (The Little Clay Cart) which was not governed by commercial considerations. The film was shot in the magnificent temples of South India portraying the religious ceremonies in all its grandeur and richness. The film also brought members of educated class such as Kamala Chattopadhyaya, Kumar Chattopadhyaya, Enakshi Rama Rau, Nalini Tarkhud, Jaikishan Nanda to the screen as actors. This marked the beginning of breaking the prejudices against the film profession. For the record, Shashi Kapoor’s period film “Utsav” was based on the same classic.
For the ‘Record’, the first ever gramophone record to be issued of an Indian film was that of “Trapped”. And the song was Phulrahi belariyaa dole in Raag Durga by Master Vasant who also wrote the lyrics of this and the other songs in the film. It is presumed the music was also given by him though no information on the composer is available. Of the six songs, three were sung by Master Vasant and three by Durga Khote. She played a small role in this film before she graduated to playing major roles in the films of Prabhat and others.
With the advent of sound, many of the earlier studios found it difficult to adapt and afford the transition to sound and were forced to pull down their shutters. Many popular stars, mostly the Anglo Indians, too found themselves like a fish out of water, jobless and disoriented, their voices bringing and ringing their death knell. They could neither speak fluent Hindi or Urdu nor could they sing which was a must then.
Manohar ‘M T’ Iyer
Photos Courtesy: “So Many Cinemas” by B D Garga, Google and Personal Collection