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ALAM ARA

March 14, 1931 was a historic day for Indian cinema. Ardeshir Irani of Imperial Movietone released Alam Ara, the first full-length Indian talkie film at the Majestic cinema in Bombay. This film very effectively broke the golden silent era and laid a milestone that marked the steeping into the new talkie era as well as rang the death knell to silent films.
However, it was the Warner Bros who had only a few years earlier launched the sound era with Don Juan (1926) starring Mary Astor with synchronised  musical score and sound effects and followed by Jazz Singer. But it was Lights of New York (1928) that was the first talkies film followed closely by Hitchcockís Blackmail (Britain) and Rene Clairís Sous Les Toits Paris (France). Meanwhile, Indiaís first synchronised film Melody of Love was by Madan Theatres in 1929.

Alam Ara: 124 minutes; black & white; Hindi-Urdu
Director:   Ardeshir Irani
Production company: Imperial Movietone
Scriptwriter: Joseph David
Cinematography: Adi M. Irani, Wilford Deming
Music:  Ferozshah M. Mistri, B. Irani
Lead players: Master Vithal, Miss Zubeida, Jilloo, Sushila, Prithviraj Kapoor, Elizer,   Wazir Mohammad Khan,
                             Jagdish Sethi,  LV Prasad

 
The Story:
Written by Joseph David, a playwright from the Parsi Imperial Theatrical company, the play Alam Ara had already proved to be a popular success.
The story is about the king of Kumarapurís two queens, both of whom are childless. A fakirís prediction that the good queen Navbahar will bear a son comes true, eliciting the intense jealousy of  the wicked queen Dilbahar. Dilbahar fancies Adil, chief of the army but the latter spurns hers. In retaliation she has him imprisoned. Adilís wife dies giving birth to Alam Ara (Zubeida) who grows up in a gypsy camp. One night she goes tot he palace in search of her father, when a charm aroud her neck reveals her true identity. There she meets the young prince (Vithal) and they fall in love. In the end, Adil is released, Dilbahar punished and the lovers married.
 

The making of Alam Ara 
Inspired by Universalís Showboat, Ardeshir Irani went about to produce Alam Ara. The film took months to make following the hazardous recording conditions, the distressing laboratory processing methods of that time and the secrecy surrounding the project.
Says Irani ,  "There were no sound-proof stages , we preferred to to shoot indoors and at night. Since our studio is located near a railway track most of our shooting was done between the hours that the trains ceased operation. We worked with a single system Tamar recording equipment. There were also no booms. Microphones had to be hidden in incredible places to keep out of camera range." Irani and his assistant Rustom Bharucha picked up the rudiments of recording from Wilford Deming, an American engineer, who had come to India to assemble the equipment for them.
Deming, the methods of film production had come as quite a shock. "Film was successfully exposed in light that would result in blank film at home, stages consisted of flimsy uprights supporting a glas or cloth roof or covering. The French DeBrie camera, with a few Bell & Howell and German makes, completed the list of photographic equipment."
As a film, Alam Ara had few technical and artistic qualities but it was pioneering effort. In a letter to the Times of India (March 23, 1931), a viewer who signed as Filmster wrote about the quality of sound, "Principal interest naturally attaches to the voice production and synchronisation. The latter is syllable perfect; the former is somewhat patchy, due to inexperience of the players in facing the microphone and a consequent tendency to talk too loudly."
 

The outcome of Alam Ara:
Alam Ara's rather predicatable story line managed to string together the numerous song and dance numbers. And much to the filmmaker's surprise, the Majestic cinema in Bombay where the film was released was mopbbed by surging crowds. Recalls Irani's partner Abdulally Esoofally in the Indian Talkie Silver Jubilee Souvenir, " In those days, the queue system was not known to filmgoers and the booking office was literally stormed by jostling, riotous mobs, hankering to secure somehow,  anyhow a ticket to see a talking picture in the language they understood. All traffic was jammed and police aid had to be sought to control the crowds. For weeks together tickets were sold out and blackmarket vendors had a field  day."
Meanwhile, the success of Alam Ara led to a rush of other films into production. Producers enticed actors from the stage as voice was the chief criterion and not all actors of the silent era could adapt to sound.
Three weeks after Alam Ara, Madan Theatres' released Jamai Sashti (Bengali), followed by Alam Ara;  Shirin Farhad (Urdu) which was a spectacular success, featured the most popular singing pair, Jahan Ara Kajjan and Master Nissar, was recorded on RCA photophone sound system  and contained three times as many songs as Alam Ara; Kalidas (Tamil, 1931), Bhakta Prahlad (Telugu, 1931), Ayodhyecha Raja (Marathi, 1932), Narasimha Mehta (Gujarati, 1932), Dhruva Kumar (Kannada, 1934).
However, the arrival of sound in spite of being welcome in several quarters had serious implications for the whole industry and its appendages. The talkies era silenced a whole generation of artists, film-makers and technicians.
Many studios unable to switch over to sound closed down; Anglo-Indians who did not speak fluent Hindi or Urdu were the worst hit. Those who could not sing were also hit as there was no playback and direct recording meant artistes had to sing their own songs.
 

The making of the talkie film
Apparantly the very early attempts to make motion pictures audible was the device  used by Edison in 1913 which employed the phonograph record for the source of sound. Though this method worked satisfactorily, the only hitch was the sound reproduction was not enough to fill a theatre. Also the reproduced tone did not sound natural enough to give the proper illusion. (However, it was the vacuum tube which came later and amplified even the most inaudible whisper.)
In Cinema Vision, Ram Mohan quotes veteran film technician Krishna Gopal, "Problems? Of course we had problems--thousands of them--no one knew how to handle the sound equipment. We did not know how to deal with echoes inside the studios. The cameras had no blimps ad their noise drowned out the dialogues. We tried all we could to muffle the camera noise. We wrapped the camera in blankets, put insulating shields around it. Nothing seemed to work. We couldn't hear a word the actors spoke inside the studio." When the shoot was moved outdoors, the quality of sound improved "but one cannot shoot an entire film outdoors. Even in a historical, the characters have to go home sometimes."
Long takes from a single point became a necessity because of the many unsolved problems of combining photography with sound. Actors had to huddle around a hidden, low-fidelity microphone, often resulting in self-conscious performances.  Picturisation of songs too were done in a single shot. Trial and error resulted in mush wastage of raw stock and many films had to be abandoned.
However, there was the other side to it too. The box-office returns were so fabulous that they came to be known as mortgage-lifters, enabling those cinema houses that had shut  down during the Depression to reopen. Also, it gave a temporary respite from pressing foreign competition. Foreign films now suffered a reversal . English dialogue limited the audience to European and a small number of English-speaking Indians.
 

Trivia
* Whenever, they (the Talkie people) camped, they were given a princely ovation and a hero's send-off. The Railways gave them travel concessions; the guard at Trichy junction delayed a train by four minutes for the latecomers; a theatre propreitor in Salem slept by the loudspeaker on the stage to guard it during their stay there; every coffeehouse they visited in Tumkur district town in   Mysore refused payment for food and drink; in Burhampur the cinema propreitor took the party around the vegetable market, where the best of vegetables were presented to them.
--T S Mahadeo, Indian Talkie

* Although Mehboob was scheduled to play the lead in Alam Ara, Master Vithal; from Sharda Studios got the part. When Sharda sued Vithal for breach of contract, he was defended by M A Jinnah.

* The film was remade in 1956  & 1973 by Nanubhai Vakil
 
 

Master Vithal (?-1969)
Best-known Marathi and Hindi film stunt star. Stage debut at the Rajapurkar Natak Mandali. Worked as editor at Maharashtra Film, a studio with a reputation for stunts in their mythologicals.  Vithal started playing a dancing girl in Kalyan Khajina. Acted in Bhalji Pendharkar silents before breaking through at the Sharda Studio. He was its top star for several years, usually playing Douglas Fairbanks-type roles grafted onto indigenous Rajput and Maratha legends. Bhogilal Daveís special effects accompanied his work, along with the rapid editing of directors like A P Kapur, Nanubhai Desai, Harshadrai Mehta , Luhar etc. The style Vithal helped shape had a tremendous impact, making the Sharda Studio synonymous with low-budget stunt films in the silent era. Wadia Movietone later tried to redefine the stunt genre with direct reference to the Niblo/Fairbanks figure of Zorro to distance the genre from Vithal. Apart from Alam Ara, Vithal also starred in Sagar and other Saraswati studio production, ending his career  in the 60s, playing minor parts in Marathi films.

Zubeida (1911-1990)
Actress born in Surat as a Muslim princess, daughter of the Nawab of Sachin and Fatma Begum (later Indiaís first woman director). Started her career in silent films at Kohinoor at age 12. Early career was dominated by her beautiful sister Sultana, a better-known star in the 20s. Her second sister Shehzadi also became a teenage actress. Zubeidaís best-known silent work was for Manilal Joshi at the Kohinoor and Laxmi studios. Identified with courtesan roles in big Urdu, stage-derived costume pictures, a tradition extended by Meena Kumari. Developed the tragic dimension of her image in several of Naval Gandhiís socials including the prestigious Tagore adaptation Balidan. Freelanced at the Ranjit and Sagar studios in her motherís films: Bulbul-e-Paristan, Heer Ranjha, Milan Dinar. Set up Mahalakhsmi Cinetone (1934) with filmmaker Nanubhai Vaki. Retired at the height of her stardom in the late 30s, doing only a few films later on.

Prithviraj Kapoor (1906-1972)
Revered actor born in Peshawar  (now Pakistan) as Prithvinath Kapoor. Son of a police officer, he earned a major reputation  on the amateur stage in Lyallpur and Peshawar. Interrupted law studies to join Imperial in 1929. Acted in several B P Mishra adventure and love stories as well as in Indiaís first talkie, Alam Ara. He impressed with a perfect speaking voice; later joined the Grant Anderson theatre company and performed Shakespeare in English with special acclaim for his Laertes in Hamlet. Worked in New Theatres (1933-39) playing the lead in Hindi version of hit bilinguals. Broke through with Debaki Boseís Rajrani Meera and played Rama in Seeta opposite Durga Khote. Vidyapati was his crowning achievement in Calcutta. Chandulal Shah hired him for the Ranjit studio (1938-40) in Bombay where he acted in some remarkable melodramas with Kardar and Chaturbhuj Joshi. Best-known performance as freelance actor was in the title role of Alexander  the Great in Sohrab Modiís military epic, Sikandar. The film heightened his enduring reputation, enhanced by the role of Emperor Akbar in  Mughal-e-Azam, as the embodiment of Mughal royalty in Hindi-Urdu cinema. Invested his earnings in Hindi theatre, setting up the Prithvi Theatres in 1944 where he produced plays while shooting films at night. Mounted a major play  against partition, Inder Raj Anandís Deewar (1945) which earned him death threats from fundamentalists. He persisted with technically and artistically masterful plays Gaddar (1947) and Pathan (1948). Launched many new talents through Prithvi Theateres, including Ramanand Sagar, Shankar-Jaikishen and Ramesh Saigal, all of whom later made key members of Raj  Kapoor film units, including his sons Raj, Shammi and Shashi.
While directing Paisa, he lost his voice and never regained its original sonorousness. Had to close the theatre and reduce his film work in the late 60s and 70s; acted in several Hindi and Punjabi mythologicals and credited with the revival of Punjabi film industry. Died of cancer in 1972.