March 14, 2021 3:57:50 pm
Ardeshir Irani’s ambitious project Alam Ara ushered in a new wave in Indian cinema. It brought sound on the celluloid, ending the silent era. The first Indian talkie, Alam Ara completes 90 years today. But beyond that, most of us do not have much idea about the pioneering movie. Sadly enough, most of us have not even watched it.
Director Ardeshir Irani got the inspiration to make India’s first talking and singing film, after he watched the American film Show Boat in 1929. It is here, that Bollywood’s global impression of making exuberant musicals begun.
Alam Ara was pathbreaking, for reasons beyond just having sound. Before its release, India produced only silent films (starting with Raja Harishchandra in 1913), themed around mythology. Irani risked it all to pick a popular play. It was also his conviction that he chose a mix of Hindi and Urdu in Alam Ara to ensure it reaches a wider audience.
Alam Ara, translating as “The Ornament of the World”, was adapted from a Parsi play written by Joseph David. Its basic plot revolved around the love story between a prince (Adil Jahangir Khan) and a gypsy girl (Alamara). Actors Master Vithal and Zubeida played the central parts. Because of Vithal’s poor diction, his character was rewritten and mostly shown either half-conscious or in trance to ensure he has no dialogues. Yes, the prince here, the leading man of Alam Ara, was mute!
Interestingly, the patriarch of the Kapoor family, Prithviraj Kapoor played the role of General Adil Khan in Alam Ara.
In the absence of recording equipment back then, Alam Ara had to be shot using real sound, with actors carrying microphones in their pockets to capture their dialogues. Another fact to note is how Alam Ara was filmed at Bombay’s Majestic Talkie, post midnight between 1 am and 4 am as the shooting studio was next to a train track, and this was the only time when the passing of trains was at its lowest.
The film had songs created on the Tanar Sound System, that used the Tanar single-system camera, which recorded sound directly onto the film. Its song “De De Kuda Ke Naam Pe Pyaare” was recorded using only a tabla and a harmonium, making it the first playback song of Indian cinema. In fact, the background music and songs were created using real sound, with musicians hiding behind trees and corners of the set.
Just the fact that film lovers will get to see actors “speaking” in their own voices, the ticket prices of Alam Ara soared beyond imagination, reportedly from four aanas (25 paisa) to Rs 5.
Alam Ara released on March 14, 1931. During the film’s promotions and advertising, the makers used the tagline – “All living. Breathing. 100 percent talking.” In Hindi, it read – “78 murde insaan zinda ho gaye. Unko bolte dekho?” This, because 78 actors recorded their voices for Alam Ara.
The humungous success of Alam Ara lead to Ardeshir Irani making many more movies including India’s first colour feature film, Kisan Kanya in 1937.
Sadly, today, according to the National Archives of India, there’s no copy available of Alam Ara. Filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur had previously told PTI, “It’s a sad commentary that we as a country have not been able to preserve even a single print of Alam Ara, not even in poorly-kept condition. Alam Ara pioneered something extraordinary and it should have been preserved like the majestic Taj Mahal.”
Even if there was little hope for cinema lovers, film students and even cinephiles to ever dig out Alam Ara and watch it, there’s no scope today, in the absence of a print.
But, that doesn’t mean we can refrain from acknowledging how Alam Ara set the tone for Indian films, leaving behind a legacy and making music, sound and songs, a necessity in our movies.
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