Ardeshir Irani – The First Talkie

As Alam Ara released on this day in 1931, Dr. Manash P. Goswami traces the making of this Indian classic.

A dreamer, a lottery winner and an entrepreneur – these were some of the traits of the man who made India’s first talkie – Alam Ara. Ardeshir Irani – a second generation Parsi, whose father had landed in India in the later half of the 19th century from Iran, had been a dreamer since his early years. While starting off with a business of selling musical instruments, Irani nurtured a dream to explore the potential of moving pictures, or films. His dream turned into reality when he won a lottery of Rs. 14,000. It enabled him to take his first step into the film industry as a small-time film distributor, showing films in ‘tent cinema’ with a projector. The first Indian film, Raja Harishchandra (1913), produced by Dadasaheb Phalke, and subsequent films in later years motivated Irani to try his hand in filmmaking. Throughout the 1920s, he directed more than half a dozen silent films that established him as a prominent name in the budding Indian film industry.

Ardeshir Irani

Irani could further sense the huge potential of the film industry when he watched Universal Pictures’ Show Boat – a 40 per cent talkie, in Mumbai’s Excelsior Cinema in 1929. His business insights and visionary ideas pushed him to take a big leap with the experience he had with Show Boat. He planned to produce the first Indian talkie. He was well aware of his lack of experience in following up with this venture. But he still decided to go ahead with the idea.

While tackling confusions and the dearth of resources, Irani also had to improvise on many occasions. The dilemma of choosing the language for the film (Marathi or Gujarati) ended when Irani decided to produce the film in Hindustani (a mixture of Hindi and Urdu). His choice of language came from the business potential of the Hindustani language, as it could reach out to a larger audience.

The choice of story or plot came next. Irani decided to go with a drama – Alam Ara, a popular Parsi stage play by a Bombay dramatist about the love story of a prince and a gypsy girl. Even though the silent films of that period were mythology-based, Irani decided to experiment with a new flavour for his talkie.

(Left) Poster of Alma-Ara. (Right) A collage of stills from Alam Ara

The challenges in introducing sound in the film required much effort and innovative ideas. It may sound unbelievable, or funny too, but the instrumentalists – harmonium and tabla players, hid behind the trees in the scenes that required musical support. The microphones were placed inside the costumes of actors, or within props kept near the actors, so that the dialogue could be recorded. The crew took all caution to hide them from the camera.

The shooting was another Herculean task. The studio decided on Grant Road, Mumbai, as the location. But as trains passed through the area all day and there were no sound-proof rooms, the shooting had to be done during nights only.

Even though most films of the silent era had Anglo-Indian or Jewish actresses as female leads due to their fair skin, a young actress of Indian origin played the lead role in Alam Ara. Irani had to choose Zubeida over Ruby Myers (popularly known as Sulochana), a Baghdadi Jewish girl, as the main actress for the film as none of the Jewish or Anglo-Indian actresses could speak Hindustani, and their accent was also wrong. For the male lead, Irani initially chose Mehboob Khan, but finally settled for a more commercially viable name – Marathi stunt star Master Vithal. For the villain’s role, Prithviraj Kapoor was Irani’s first and last choice.

Ferozshah M. Mistri and B. Irani, the duo behind lyrics and music composition, chose Hindustani language and Urdu dialect. There were seven songs in the film, with the song De de Khuda ke naam par being the most popular one. Interestingly, a watchman of the neighbourhood, Wazir Muhammad Khan, who had a coarse voice, sang this song as Irani felt that Khan’s voice was perfect for a fakir.

As the first film with Hindi songs and the first in the filmi-ghazal style, the music of the film was influenced by the ghazal tradition of Urdu-Parsi theatre. This film also set the record for being the first film to introduce playback singing in India.

Unlike a silent film that took nearly one month to complete, the production of Alam Ara had taken nearly four months. Shooting with much caution and with the hazards of sound recording, the production took up a long time. Moreover, Irani had to keep the making of the first talkie in India a closely guarded secret.

With the release of the film on March 14, 1931, Irani put India on the world map as one of the pioneers in producing talkies. The film, screened at the Majestic Cinema in Bombay, turned out to be a sensation. The advertisements ran with headlines like – ‘All living. Breathing. 100 per cent talking’ in English, and ‘78 murde insaan zinda ho gaye. Unko bolte dekho’ in Hindi. And this built curiosity among the people for Irani’s Alam Ara.

For those who had never seen people talking on the screen, Alam Ara was the talk of the town. The police was called in to control the overcrowded theatre on the day of its release. The tickets, usually priced at four annas, were sold in the black market. The film ran houseful for more than eight weeks. Its popularity encouraged Irani to screen the film in tent theatres in different places, carrying sound and projection equipment. The film got an overwhelming response everywhere.


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