Alam Ara alumnus
It’s been 80 years since the release of Alam Ara, India’s first talkie. No one alive has seen the film. I once met a man who’d not only heard cinema break the sound barrier, he’d carried Alam Ara’s can of reels on his head.
It was difficult, if not impossible, to pin Ramesh Roy down to a focused conversation. Naturally. Roy was 93 years old, though still active, and he appeared extremely agile for his age (the years – 90-plus — didn’t show on his mug, or memory).
No one had probably seen the city’s show business take shape through the years like he, perhaps the oldest man alive in Bollywood, had. Initially an “office boy” with Ardeshir Irani’s Imperial Studio for two decades (between 1926 and 1940), Roy said he was employed with a host of pre-Independence era movietone companies until the studio system collapsed in Bombay films. Obviously he had way too many stories to tell. And going by the unrehearsed zeal and candor, it seemed he hadn’t been formally interviewed before.
The reason Shyam Shroff, well-known cinema distributor and an old hand of Bollywood, had guided me to Roy’s tiny room, almost a hole in a wall, in a bylane off Grant Road’s Novelty cinema, is because of a film that Roy had not made. He had merely carried its heavy cans of reel on his head –through a riotous crowd with policemen’s batons getting lashed all over around what was once, the Majestic cinema. Which had hosted a select premiere of Alam Ara. This was the Indian film that could talk (and you could hear). Roy had heard films break the sound barrier. That was March 14, 1931, almost exactly eighty years ago.
When I met Roy in 2006, he was sitting surrounded by prints of hand-painted posters of old movies and a pack of Capstan cigarettes for a table companion in his small kholi he called his office. He said, “I make some money out of selling these posters that are now antiques. Usually I charge about Rs 500 for original posters of films like….” As I said, it was difficult to pin Roy down into a focused conversation. His much younger friend in the room, Abid Hussain (much younger, meaning in his late 70s), would sit, fidget around on the floor by the table’s side, nod, repeatedly refer to himself as “a peon turned producer, I have made three films – Saeed-e-Hawas….”
Roy reminisced, “I was 19 years old when Ardeshir made Alam Ara. A simple task of carrying the film’s prints to the theatre was a nightmare. I didn’t know how to enter the theatre at all. The back of Majestic theatre faced the front gate of another theatre called Central Cinema. Even that compound was completely crowded. All that people wanted to know was how the film could talk: ‘Gungi film bolti kaise hai’.”
The commotion of the 1931 afternoon, Roy referred to, took place in what’s now the Crawford Market in Mumbai. Film fanatics, unaccustomed to queues then, were standing outside only to get reactions from those getting out of the film: “The first two special shows were not open to general public. An imported projector from Calcutta had been brought in. Tickets cost 1 and 2 annas. Only after a fortnight did Ardeshir actually release the movie, after he’d managed to import the cinema equipment.”
The covert race to release India’s first talkie is the stuff of recorded legends. In November 1930, The Times of India had noted, “There are as yet no Indian talkies. But it is known that at least three syndicates are (secretly) negotiating for capital, studio sites and other preliminaries….” Ever so skeptical of a prophesied short-lived “novelty” called ‘talking films’, the journal Moving Picture Monthly had sounded off, “There is a rumour that one prominent film company in Bombay is thinking of drifting into this doubtful direction….”
Roy said, “Ardeshir — a soft-spoken, short but well-built man, who was a rich Rai Bahadur — had seen Universal Pictures’ talkie Melody of Love in Calcutta. He quickly proceeded to London to negotiate. P C Barua (Ardeshir’s closest contender) from Bengal released his first talkie Gauri right after. Barua was a big zamindar. He was facing some trouble with the government at that time. This was the reason he’d lost out in the race to the finish.”
Ones who actually lost out most, almost immediately in Bombay, said Roy, were the Indian language drama companies. “At least nine of them like Capitol Cinema, for instance, shut down for good, when films began to talk and it gradually became common practice for them to.”
Of course it wasn’t easy making those films talk. Roy said he had also assisted Irani during the making of Alam Ara: “We could only shoot indoor. We could only shoot at night, when it was quiet outside. Actors had to be singers. Musicians moved on a trolley along the camera. And then finally, audiences would ask, who’s singing? Is there someone behind the stage? Where’s the sound coming from?”
Alam Ara – ‘a Muslim social’ as against a ‘Hindu mythological’ — was a film with strong religious undertones. As were pretty much all movies back then. It was made at a budget of Rs 50,000, the sort of figure that would baffle film-goers. Most of the money was spent on technical innovations. All equipments were manufactured abroad. Which is true for Indian films even now. Few know that Irani had later also made the first talking film in Persian (Dokhtare Lor) — likewise a landmark moment in Iranian cinema. Such was the cultural exchange within Asia at the time.
Much about cinema has changed since. And this I realised is what Roy had really wanted to talk about. I’d carried an encyclopedia of Indian cinema (Paul Willermen, Ashish Rajyadhaksha) with me, just to spot names in the book he may recurrently spout. Roy looked at the fat anthology. “You won’t find me there. So many books have been published, but you won’t find my name anywhere,” he said. “But I have written and directed at least 40 films.”
Roy said he entered film business in 1926 when he was only 10. “A friend took me to the Imperial studio. I had no special interest in films, but this was a job like any other. And I enrolled as an office attendant. But gradually I began to dabble in set designing, photography, editing, producing, distributing, directing…. Even while I was directing films, I’d get Rs 5, and my official designation on the board would be that of an office boy. Once I left Imperial when it shut down in 1940, Irani gave me Rs 1.5 lakh as retirement fee. I made a film under my own banner Hind Pictures in 1943. It was called Abru and it starred Sitara Devi and Yakub. It ran for 10 weeks. I didn’t make any money on it. But I recovered my cost.”
It’s impossible to verify Roy’s claims. He has no leaflets or posters of the said films, no place where he can show his name on the credits. He said, “Like everybody at the time in the studios, I refused to display my name. All movies in fact would begin with such and such studio presents, and followed, may be, by the actors’ names. Very few would have liked to be identified with the movies – they would automatically be termed ‘bhaands’. Even the prostitutes weren’t interested in this profession in those days. The ones who usually came in were foreigners, Jews, Parsees…. After many years too, nobody was interested in publicity. What would I do with credit? I only wanted the money. Chandulal Shah made 255 films. Who is he? Who remembers Bombay Talkies’ Himanshu Rai?”
This took Roy down memory road about his “interactions” with the masters of his time: Dadasaheb Phalke, who he learnt trick photography under; Nandlal Jassubhai, who taught him photography; days at the Ranjit Movietone; occasional brushes with Prithviraj Kapoor and V Shantaram; dubbing films for Gemini Studio in Madras; watching the first studio being set up in Hyderabad…
“The movie industry was a great place to be in until the ‘50s,” Roy said. “Everyone from the office to the leading star was paid like 9-to-7 employees. Everything from the studios, cinemas and the trade was extremely professional, governed by organised Gujaratis. Now you will hardly find a Gujarati in film business. They fled the industry after Partition, when Sindhis and Punjabis came into the trade from Lahore and rest of the North.” Roy, unlike his surname (it’s meant to be Rai), came from Saurashtra, though he said he was born in South Africa where his parents lived. He grew up with his grandparents in Bombay.
When the studio system shut down roughly after WWII, he said, everyone, like him, became a freelancer. “And a so-called star-system with preposterous price system came into the picture. Black money obviously entered too. There remained no distributors, only gamblers. Conditions of shooting floors became absolutely abysmal too. In fact stories later started getting lifted from Hollywood films, or concocted by big actors –songs, simply attached, without situations. Where are the writers now?”
New industries usually spring up from a disordered scratch to more organised set-ups. Motion pictures in Bombay began with highly sophisticated, structured, corporate studios that hired everyone from actors to the crew at monthly salaries. They owned distribution networks, including several theatres. This was somewhat in line with the Hollywood studio system at the same time. It’s no surprise that Indian feature films broke the sound barrier just four years after American cinema did with Al Jonson’s The Jazz Singer.
Roy would periodically alternate between lament and nostalgia — a monologue that continued long before I was to take his leave. It’s all verbal history, I realised. None of the films of his age remain. “We used nitrate films then. If you kept it out in the sun or under hard light, the films would immediately catch fire. ‘Safety films’ (ones easier to preserve) came to India only around 1970.” Of Alam Ara, Roy said, there’s only a reel of a song that remains at the National Film Archives of India in Pune. No one alive has actually seen the film, or ever will. Even Roy, I suppose, is no more.
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