In a tiny shop opposite Mumbai’s Novelty cinema, I once met a gentleman called Ramesh Roy, who I rightly believed was the oldest man alive in Bollywood.
This was five years ago; Ramesh was over 90 years old then, he’d worked at Imperial studio for three decades until it shut down in 1940. Ramesh had started out as an office-boy, and his claim to fame was that he’d carried the can of reels of Alam Ara to its premiere show at Majestic cinema in 1931. Alam Ara was India’s first talkie. Its opening night, Ramesh recalled, was a moment in history, when the public coming out of the show wouldn’t stop talking about the film they’d seen, that also talked! It’s been exactly 80 years since.
The movie’s director Ardeshir Irani, a man of Persian descent, was the boss of Imperial studio. The film, it’s suggested, was kind of ‘a Muslim social’ as against a ‘Hindu mythological’. It was made at a budget of R50,000, the sort of figure that would baffle film trade. Ramesh made R5 a month. Most of the money was spent on technical innovations. All equipment was imported. This is true for Indian films even now. Few know that Ardeshir had later also made the first talking film in Persian (Dokhtare Lor).
Hindi films took a different route 1940s onwards. The industry has followed a strange trajectory, Ramesh said. New industries usually move from a disordered scratch to organised set-ups. Motion pictures in Bombay began with sophisticated studios
that hired everyone at monthly salaries. This was in line with the Hollywood system at the time.
After WWII, when a “star system” (huge fee for actors) and freelancers emerged, on the scene, studios shut down. Ardeshir closed Imperial. No one preserved the films. No one, it turns out, has seen Alam Ara. So much for the 80th anniversary of India’s first talkie.