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Bollywood’s birthplace to factory sheds

Mumbai, Dec. 8: It is a narrow, cramped lane that takes off from the main road in Malad. The rows of shops on either side are typically suburban: tiny grocery stores, bicycle spare parts and repair sheds and small Udupi joints selling pure vegetarian food standing cheek by jowl.

But at the end of the lane stands a surprise: Bombay Talkies, the landmark studio that Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani had set up in 1934.

Or its remains, rather. For Bombay Talkies, the studio from where the golden phase of Hindi movies after the silent era took off, is no more.

What remains is an arched facade supported by a few tall pillars. About three or four original structures — sets, offices — have also survived.

They haven’t only survived time. They have also survived their immediate surroundings, for the studio structures are overrun from all sides by thousands of small manufacturing units, many of them illegitimate, that have sprung up on the premises.

It is difficult to imagine that this is where Ashok Kumar, a laboratory assistant with dreams of becoming a cutting-edge cameraman was forced to face the camera; Mahal was shot and so was Mughal-e-Azam.

Floors have been built into the original structure and the floor space divided into small enclosures to house as many shops as possible. In the rehearsals room, where Anil Biswas, Khemchand Prakash or Sachin Dev Burman once sat at the harmonium, one hears the relentless whirring of a drilling machine.

“I remember the horses and the men on them,” says Syeed Pappu, who runs a small construction business from the Bombay Talkies ground, as it is known. But that was almost 50 years ago, when the studio was sold to a businessman called Tolaram Jalan, known in the locality as “Jalaram Tolaram”.

Jalan, who found making movies in the studio unprofitable, started to rent out the grounds to small manufacturers.

In these 50 years, the studio grounds have become a sprawling manufacturing district, mostly of engineering goods, covering 12 of the 17 acres of the premises. One building which used to house the sets now shelters scores of these factories, including Standard Engineering, Sharma Welding, D.R. Engineering, Sudha Spring Works and Free Well Bearings. Now there is no way it can revert to the past.

“We have about 850 registered factories here,” says the manager of the Jalan trust. But another factory owner says there are easily 10,000 small factory shops, several of them illegitimate.

“You can’t imagine what it was like then. The grounds were beautiful, full of trees. I saw Dilip Kumar here,” says Syeed. Dilip Kumar, who was born Yusuf Khan, got a break from Bombay Talkies, after Sarojini Naidu introduced him to Devika Rani.

Rai had established the studio with cutting-edge technology — implemented by a team of German technicians — on a discarded summerhouse of an industrialist friend, with towering ambition. But Bombay Talkies began to crumble very soon with Rai’s death in 1940, only six years after he founded it. The management of the studio, which had produced runaway hits like Achhoot Kanya, starring Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani, passed over to the latter.

But she couldn’t produce any big hit, except Basant in 1942, says Colin Pal, son of story and scriptwriter Niranjan Pal, whom Rai had brought over from Calcutta’s New Theatres. At this time, Shashadhar Mukherjee, whom Rai had also recruited, was producing parallel movies under the Bombay Talkies banner. He made Kismat in 1942, which turned out to be the biggest hit till that date. Then Mukherjee and some of his associates broke away and founded Filmistan Studio in nearby Goregaon.

Devika Rani sold off her shares to Govindaram Sakeseria, the bullion king of Mumbai then, says Colin Pal. Sakeseria brought over Nitin Bose and Bimal Roy, and the studio premises began to be hired out. Mahal and Mughal-e-Azm, not Bombay Talkie productions, were shot in the premises.

In the 50’s, Jalan bought Bombay Talkies lock, stock and barrel from Sakeseria, and he bought over Filmistan studio as well. While Filmistan is still used for its original purpose, Jalan quickly realised that Bombay Talkies had a better business potential. He converted it into the manufacturing zone. “Some original prints of the studio are there in our office,” says the manager of the Jalan trust. “We hire them out.”

Says Colin Pal: “Jalan did it because of the money.”

But perhaps Jalan had an inkling that he could have done otherwise.

“Some people say Jalaram Tolaram’s ghost haunts this place. He comes on a horseback during the night. He cannot get over Bombay Talkies still,” says Syeed.

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