Wednesday, 25 May, 2022
HomeThePrint ProfileArdeshir Irani, the father of Indian talkies who had many other milestones...

Ardeshir Irani, the father of Indian talkies who had many other milestones to his name

Ardeshir Irani's Alam Ara didn't just end India cinema's silent era but also set the song-and-dance template for the future.

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New Delhi: “The theatre was mobbed. Tickets were unavailable for weeks and the police was called in to control a riotous mob,” writes film historian B.D. Garga on the release of Alam Ara in his book, Art of Cinema.

The first Indian sound film, Alam Ara, was released in 1931. It changed India forever. And if there is one person whose name is most indelibly linked with this change, it is Ardeshir Irani.

Today, 50 years after he died, ThePrint rewinds to a few key scenes of the life and times of this pioneer.

Making of a movie mogul

Born into a Parsi family in Pune in 1886, Ardeshir Irani was a school teacher and a kerosene inspector before he went to Bombay’s J.J. School of Arts. Following his father’s footsteps, he got involved in the business of phonographic equipment and musical instruments. Soon after, he realised he was meant for something more, something bigger, and that something bigger was the world of movies. In partnership with exhibitor and businessman Abdulally Esoofally, he began showing films in ‘tent cinemas’. By 1905, Irani was Universal Studios’ Indian representative, and by 1914, Irani and Esoofally had acquired the city’s Alexander theatre.

Established in 1920, his first production company, Star Films limited, was in collaboration with Bhogilal Dave, a graduate from the New York School of Photography. The company produced Irani’s directorial debut, a silent film called Veer Abhimanyu, in 1922. Five years later, Irani set up Majestic Films, followed by Imperial Film Company in 1926, under whose banner Alam Ara was released.

A viewing of Universal Pictures’ Show Boat, a 40 per cent talkie, at Bombay’s Excelsior Cinema sometime in 1930, led Ardeshir Irani to reinvent Indian cinema. Until 1930, silent pictures dominated the market and the only talkies available were those made by the Americans. However, with the release of Alam Ara on 14 March 1931, Indian cinema developed a new identity, one replete with song and dance the trope that is synonymous with Hindi cinema across the globe even after 88 years. Veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal aptly said, “(It) set the template for the kind of films that were made later,” with seven songs.

The musical that changed India

“Rustom Bharucha (a versatile lawyer who later managed Imperial Studios) and I picked up the rudiments of sound recording from Wilford Deming Jr, a Hollywood sound expert, who had come to Bombay to assemble the machine for us,” Irani told B.D. Garga. “He was charging us Rs 100 per day, a large sum for those days, which we could ill afford, so I took it upon myself to record the film.”

Irani’s studio was adjacent to the railway tracks and the sound of trains passing by was too loud and distracting. And so was introduced the concept of night shoots. “There were no soundproof stages. We preferred to shoot indoors and at night,” Irani told Garga.

Where an average silent film took roughly a month to shoot, the first talkie took longer due to the logistical obstacles it faced. Following the 1 to 4 am schedule, accompanied with extra caution by the entire crew because of the ‘single system’ camera which recorded sound directly on to the film Alam Ara was made on a budget of Rs 40,000.

The film was adapted from a “popular stage play by that doyen of Bombay dramatists, Joseph David, who also adapted it for the screen”. The story revolves around two queens of Kumarpur Navbahar and Dilbahar both of whom are childless. However, a fakir predicts that a son will soon be born to Navbahar, resulting in Dilbahar’s jealousy. She also has her eyes set on the army chief, Adil, who rejects her. Out of spite, she imprisons him and banishes his pregnant wife.

When the baby is born, named Alam Ara, she is raised amongst the nomads. When she finds out whose daughter she really is, she returns to the palace, seeking her father’s release. At the palace, she meets and falls in love with Navbahar’s son. The climactic scene ties together multiple threads where Dilbahar is exposed, Adil is released and Alam Ara marries the prince.

Most of the film’s songs were sung by Zubeida, the actress who played Alam Ara. However, for the longest time, no credits were given to any music composer. “I chose the lyrics and the tunes. We used only a harmonium and tabla player who were out of camera range and the singer sang into a hidden microphone,” Irani told Garga.

The casting of the lead was originally meant for Mehboob Khan, but was later given to Master Vithal, while Prithviraj Kapoor, unusually, played the villain’s role.

And when the movie hit the screens, the excitement had reached such a fever pitch that theatres were mobbed, riots unleashed and tickets meant for four annas (about 25 paise) were sold at Rs 5 and thus began the black marketing of movie tickets.

Beyond Alam Ara

Irani’s contribution towards cinema was not limited to bringing the first talkie to India, but also to Iran. The Lor Girl, released in 1934, was the first ever Persian sound film to be released, at a time when people mainly watched European short comedies and animated features with political undertones. Irani directed it, and also produced it alongside Abdolhossein Sepanta, who also starred in it. This too was a success, with sold-out theatres.

The plot of the film revolves around a young teahouse girl from Lor, Golnar, who is kidnapped by a gang of thieves. The leader of the gang, Goli Khan, takes a liking to this girl. However, she meets a young man called Jafar, falls in love and moves to Bombay with him, out of fear of the lawlessness in Iran. The lead character was played by a local the first ever female film star from Iran Roohangiz Saminejad. She was a volunteer and the wife of an employee who worked on the set.

The impact of talkies

Talkies marked the beginning of a new era in Indian cinema, but they meant the end of the road for many silent film actors who were not native to India and therefore unfamiliar with the languages, or even those whose voices were not conducive to sound films. Soon, regional artists started gaining popularity, and Anglo-Indian artists receded to the background except for one. Ruby Myers, known as Sulochana, was of Jewish origin and dominated the Indian box office during the era of silent movies. Talkies forced her to take a break, learn Hindi and earn back the top spot with the release of Anarkali, Bombay Ki Billi and Indira BA (renamed Indira MA) all of which were talking remakes of her hit silent films.

“Following the inception of ‘talkies’ in India some film stars were highly sought after and earned comfortable incomes through acting,” notes Renu Saran in her book, History of Indian Cinema.

Ardeshir Irani is responsible for many firsts in the world of cinema. While Alam Ara remains a popular example, The Lor Girl was also a benchmark, and a third milestone against his name is the release of the first coloured film in India, Kisna Kanya, in 1937.

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  1. Another major factual error in Mr Deol’s article above is when he says – “by 1905, Irani was Universal’s India Representative.” The fact however is that Universal did NOT EXIST in 1905, nor did Hollywood ! How Mr Deol, did Irani manage to become India Rep of a company which had not yet been born ?? Please think about this, please check your facts before you write. The Print company should also cross-check its authors…

    • I would love to hear from Print, the Publishers of this article, what they have to say in defence of their casual attitude to facts and historical truth – as shown in this Irani article….

      • Questions/comments aside, thank you Messrs Print, for agreeing to publish my comments ! No malice is intended by me to Mr. Deol, nor to Print. Please treat this as criticism from a friend…

  2. There are many factual errors in Taran Deol’s article on Ardeshir Irani. He never studied at the J J School of Art in Bombay, to give just one instance. Many of the key dates of his early years given above are WRONG.

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