On this day in 1931, Alam Ara, India’s first talkie film, was released. The love story with “more singing and less talking” set the stage for India’s wildly popular and stratospherically successful Bollywood film industry.
The 1931 film was directed by movie great, Aredeshir Irani, an Indian movie-producing legend who recognised the revolutionary impact sound would have on cinema, and who raced to put out India’s first sound film before his competitors. Alam Ara, or “The Light of the World,” debuted at the Majestic Cinema in Bombay (now known as Mumbai) on 14 March 1931, to hordes of eager movie-goers. In fact, the movie was so well-received, according to reports, “police aid had to be summoned to control the crowds.”
Written by Joseph David and Munshi Zaheer, the film is a love story based on a Parsi play written by David. The period fantasy tells the story of the aging king of the fictitious kingdom of Kamarpur and his two queens, Navbahar and Dilbahar. When a fakir, or spiritual ascetic, predicts that Navbahar will bear the king’s heir, a rivalry erupts between the dueling queens. Out of jealousy, Dilbahar attempts to seduce the army chief Adil, but is spurned. In retaliation, she plots to have Adil imprisoned, leaving his daughter, Alam Ara, in exile, to be raised by gypsies. When her gypsy companions invade the palace and Dilbahar’s scheme is exposed, Alam Ara finds herself falling in love with the young prince and heir to the throne. Eventually, Dilbahar is punished for her plotting and the young Alam Ara marries her prince.
In India, Alam Ara was a hit. It introduced filmi, or Indian pop music, to Indians and its hit song, “De de khuda ke naam per,”was as popular as the storyline. Noted film director Shyam Benegal said of the film, “It was not just a talkie. It was a talking and singing film with more singing and less talking. It had a number of songs and that actually set the template for the kind of films that were made later.”
Unfortunately, a fire at the National Film Archive of India in Pune in 2003 destroyed the last surviving prints of Alam Ara, so the film is no longer available in its original format. Its legacy can be seen, however, in the hundreds of iconic song-and-dance romances that have made Bollywood the largest and most popular film industry in the world.
Credit: © AF archive / Alamy
Caption: A dance scene from “Devdas,” directed by Sanjay Leela, Bhansali Film Company.