At 17, Indian cinema could only be seen, not heard. That was in 1930, the last year when only silent films would roll their way into the theatres. Only a year later, Indian cinema was to break its silence and begin talking, also singing and dancing. And uttering the first words would be Ardeshir Irani’s Alam Ara, the love story of a prince and a gypsy girl, starring Master Vithal and Zubeida. Cinema started talking in all languages, in its 18th year: Bhakta Prahlad spoke in Telugu, Kalidasa in Tamil and Jamai Shashti in Bengali.
But what were the last of the silent films, in the year 1930, like? There were some relatively uncelebrated ones like E. Bilimoria’s Ram Rahim, Moti B. Gidwani’s Veer Na Ver and Sarfarosh by A.R. Kardar, who is credited with establishing the film industry in Lahore, Pakistan. But there were also a few intriguing movies; three significant ones, in fact, had the industry casting an inward eye. There was, for instance, Prithviraj Kapoor’s Cinema Girl, a continuation of sorts of the 1925 Sulochana starrer, Cinema Queen. While Cinema Queen looked at the life of a star, Cinema Girl was a cinematic study of the mechanics and inner workings of the industry. It told the story of a bankrupt studio being saved by the donations of its employees, and unravelled the financier-producer power play, of how a producer can control the director and, in turn, the creative process of filmmaking. Its larger theme of business versus creativity is of course one that will endure.
Then there was Daily Mail, a film that looked at the morality and ethics of the film industry and also, presciently, its nexus with the media. It was a satire on the gossip columns that were extremely popular in the Marathi and Gujarati papers of the day, most of them using the glam world as fodder, as they still do.
Vithal-Zubeida in Alam Ara (’31)
There were also many films based on the works of Rabindranath Tagore, who was 69 in 1930 and who remained curious and excited about the moving image. Giribala, based on one of his stories, looked at the world of theatre while exposing the bedrock of hypocrisy a marriage could have been built on. It tells the story of a husband who cheats on his wife as he gets drawn to a stage actress. An exposure to this world makes the wife embrace it too and she becomes an actress herself. Does her husband now accept her in this new role?
Curtailment of freedom of expression, like today, was a contentious issue back then as well. V. Shantaram’s Udaykal, based on the life and times of Shivaji, had to face objections from the censor board and had to have some scenes forcibly chopped. The colonial government also banned newsreels made on Mahatma Gandhi.
More than what was happening on screen, 1930 was also the year when a lot was happening off it. For one, the year marked the start of a significant decade that saw the emergence of the studio system. These were the years Prabhat, Bombay Talkies and New Theatre came up and ruled the industry. Meanwhile, Irani was racing to complete Alam Ara, using the famed Tanar Sound System; the film was shot with the Tanar camera, which recorded sound directly on to the film. Since no soundproof studios were available then, the shooting was done at night, with hidden microphones, to minimise noise. A year later, both the movie and its music were to become a runaway success, including the song De de khuda ke naam par, the first of Indian cinema. Sung by actor Wazir Mohammed Khan, it was recorded live with harmonium and tabla for accompaniment. The all-Indian musical had arrived.