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Weekend Movie Matinee: The inception of cinema talkies – Part II

Ankita Chakravarti | New Delhi |

Cinema that continues to be our favourite source of entertainment emerged as a complete visual experience at first. Filmmakers had begun experimenting with the art of narrating a story through ‘moving pictures’. In Indian cinema, ‘Raja Harishchandra’ was made as the first full-length feature film directed by Dada Saheb Phalke in April 1913. But it was a silent one.

A few years after ‘Raja Harishchandra’, the ambitious filmmakers stepped on a path to redefine Indian cinema and in came ‘Alam Ara’, the first Indian sound film.

‘Alam Ara’, directed by Ardeshwar M Irani was released at Mumbai’s Majestic Theatre on March 14, 1931. The film changed the face of Indian cinema completely, it not only broke the dominance of silent films, which were being made till then but also introduced the concept of music and playback in Indian cinema- something that continues to be one of the most important factors of a film even today.

‘Alam Ara’ was a fairy tale based on a popular Parsi play by Joseph David. Image and sound were recorded simultaneously in Alam Ara. Ardeshwar Irani along with his assistant Rustom Bharucha learned the basics of sound recording from Wilford Deming, an American engineer. Irani's experimental film had a lot of firsts in it. Along with being the first talkie to be made in India, it gave India its first playback singer Wazir Mohammed Khan, who also acted in the film along with Prithiviraj Kapoor, Master Vithal, Zubeida and J Sushila.

At the time ‘Alam Ara’ was released, several filmmakers were making talkies in regional languages. While ‘Alam Ara’ released in March, Bengal got its first talkie ‘Jamai Shashti’ in April, thus paved the way for many such films.

However, according to critics of that time, ‘Alam Ara’ wasn’t a treat to the eyes, though its impact on the viewers was astonishing. The crowd thronged the Majestic theatre to catch the sight of the game changer of Indian cinema, the police had to be summoned to control the curious crowd. 

With ‘Alam Ara’ the dramatic values evolved, which could not have been imagined in the silent screens. However, the idea of talkies didn’t go down well with the pioneering filmmakers like Dada Saheb Phalke, who thought that the introduction of sound corrupted the art form of silent films whereas the other set of filmmakers believed that the introduction of sound enhanced the visual experience.

While the west got its first talkie way before India in the form of 'The Jazz Singer' in 1927 which was directed by the Warner brothers. It became the first full-length feature film of Hollywood, that had songs and dialogues. With the release of 'The Jazz Singer', Warner brothers realised that the audience enjoys songs and dialogues more than silent films.

But when the whole world was experiencing this cinematic makeover, there was one actor who never used sound to express himself. Charlie Chaplin remained silent in all his movies.He expressed his feelings through his eyes, face and body movements but never through his voice. He made people laugh but never uttered a single joke, he made people cry but never sang a sad song. His stories continued to speak, to everyone who could hear him and to everyone who could not.