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When films started singing

Friday, March 16, 2018

Thanks to Prakash Magdum, Director of the National Film Archives of India, Pune, active on Whatsapp, one was reminded that March 14, 1931 was the day when India’s first talkie, 'Alam Ara' was released.

Hollywood's first talkie, 'The Jazz Singer', produced by Darry F. Zanuck and directed by Alan Crosland, had already been released in October 1927, marking the end of silent cinema that soon faded out. The Indian film industry was quick to pick the trend, and movie pioneer, Imperial Movietone head, Ardeshir Irani, raced ahead of many others to being out the first Indian sound film, which premiered at Mumbai’s Majestic Cinema and was advertised as 'All living. Breathing. 100 per cent talking'. It created such a sensation that the police had to be called in to control the crowds and the film ran to full houses for over eight weeks.

'Alam Ara' is a milestone in Indian cinema and sadly, no complete print of the film exists – just a few snippets and stills. According to information available, the film is a love story between a prince and a gypsy girl, based on a Parsi play written by Joseph David. The story was about a fictional royal family in the kingdom of Kumarpur. The Sultan has two warring wives – Dilbahar Begum and Naubahar Begum – whose rivalry intensifies when a fakir predicts that Navbahar will bear the king's heir. The fakir played by Wazir Mohammed Khan got to sing the memorable 'De de khuda ke naam pe', which is the first song of Indian cinema. This was before the time of playback singing, so actors sang live with musicians playing alongside and staying out of the frame; the shooting had to take place late at night to minimize ambient sound. (The film had seven songs, composed by Ferozshah M. Mistri and B. Irani.)

After the prediction, in a fit of rage and jealousy, Dilbahar attempts to seduce the king’s chief aide, General Adil Khan (played by the legendary Prithviraj Kapoor), who spurns her. The queen then imprisons him and banishes his pregnant wife. She dies giving birth to a daughter, Alam Ara (Zubeida), who is raised by gypsies. Alam Ara discovers the truth about her true identity and sets out to free her father. She meets and falls in love with the young prince, Jahangir Khan (Master Vithal). In the end, Adil is released, Dilbahar punished, and the two sweethearts marry. This template was used in a lot of early films, which were mythological or costume dramas with simple plots.

Most Indian films still cannot do without song and dance, so some credit should go to the man and the film that started it all.

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