7 Things You Should Know About the First Indian Talkie ‘Alam Ara’
Let’s read out a story - The King of Kumarpur has two warring wives - Dilbahar and Navbahar. When a fakir makes a prophesy that Navbahar will give birth to to the king’s heir, it leaves Dilbahar unsettled. Driven by resentment, she incarcerates army chief Adil who spurns her.
After giving birth to a girl, Adil’s wife dies. This girl, Alam Ara is raised by nomads. When she discovers the truth of her identity, she makes a clandestine plan to set out to the palace to liberate her father. After encountering the prince there, she falls hook line and sinker for him.
That was Alam Ara, a love story between a prince and gypsy girl - the first sound talkie to be made and released in India on this day (14 March) in 1931, which introduced the idea of music and playback singing in Indian cinema. A fantasy set piece directed by Ardeshir Irani, the sound film was an adaptation of a Parsi theatre play written by Joseph David. It breathed new life in storytelling since the silent era mostly relied on mythology for scripts.
Since the masterpiece completes 88 years of its release, learn all that you may not know about this stellar achievement that paved the way for all the ‘sorcery’ that we witness on the big screen today.
1. “All Living. Breathing. 100 Per Cent Talking"
This was the tagline employed in the promotions of the film. Sounds pre-historic right? and the Hindi punchline was....wait for it.... '78 murde insaan zinda ho gaye. Unko bolte dekho'?
It ran houseful for eight weeks after its release at the Majestic Cinema in ‘Bombay’. The film garnered such popularity that police aid had to be allegedly summoned to control the crowds.
2. De De Khuda ke Naam Pe was the first song of Indian cinema
Let that jaw drop and scrape the floor - this was the first song ever to grace the Indian film screen, with music composed by Pherozeshah M Mistry. The name of the poet/lyricist has been lost through the sieve of time. The film also gave India its first playback singer in the form of Wazir Mohammed Khan.
3. Alam Ara was shot at night, between 1am and 4am
Irani made Alam Ara after taking inspiration from Universal Pictures’ Show Boat. He called it a “40 per cent talkie” and almost treated his project a clandestine one. Irani learned the basics of sound recording from an American expert. The film was shot in a studio which was located next to a railway track. The crew was forced to film it at night to avoid the din.
4. The Kapoor Connection
Taimur’s great great grandfather appeared in the film in a supporting role. Prithviraj Kapoor played General Adil Khan in the film!
5. No Known Copy of the Film Today
A known copy of the film could not be located as far back as 1967. The National Archives of India has confirmed that they do not possess a print of the film.
6. Zubeida Toppled the Studio’s Top Star then, Sulochana
Proficiency in language gained prominence as a criterion since Alam Ara was the first sound film. Zubeida was picked to play the titular role instead of the studio’s top star then, Sulochana (originally Ruby Myers) who was an Iraqi Jew. She was not adept at Urdu or Hindi and didn’t make the cut as the first talkie heroine of Indian cinema.
7. The Pakistani Intervention
Master Vithal, who played a dancing girl in Kalyan Khajina (1924) took the Hindi film industry by storm then. Scroll reported that after getting an offer to play the lead in Alam Ara, he impulsively broke the contract with Sharada Studio, which led to a suit being filed against him. Muhammad Ali Jinnah had a soft corner for performing artists and he argued in Vithal’s defence, which earned him the part in Irani’s film.
Irani had almost zeroed in on Mehboob Khan, who would go on to be the director of classics like Aurat (1940), Anmol Ghadi (1946), Aan (1952) and Mother India (1957), but then opted for a more bankable name for his first talkie - Master Vitthal.
(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 14 March 2018. It is being republished to mark the 88th anniversary of the release of Alam Ara.)
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