India's first talkie 'silent forever' - All Alam-Ara prints lost, govt clueless

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By CITHARA PAUL in Delhi
  • Published 18.02.09
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New Delhi, Feb. 18: If you are a movie buff and keen to see India’s first-ever talkie, Alam-Ara, you could almost be asking for the impossible. For, not a single print of the 78-year-old film is available anywhere in the country.

“Unfortunately, the prints of Alam-Ara are not traceable anywhere in the world. Our first talkie seems to be destined to stay silent forever,” said an information and broadcasting ministry official metaphorically.

Indian cinema had found its voice on March 14, 1931 when Ardeshir Irani’s love story between a prince and a gypsy girl premiered at the Majestic cinema in Mumbai.

According to him, the ministry was under the impression that the National Film Archives of India (NFAI) in Pune would have a copy. “But the NFAI has informed us that it does not have a single copy,” the official said. Only pictures and photographs of the movie are available now, with the National Archives of India, he added.

Ministry officials are not sure if Alam-Ara copies were lost in a 2003 fire at the NFAI that had destroyed the prints of other classics like Raja Harishchandra and Achyut Kanya.

Raja Harishchandra prints are available, at least in private collections. But Alam-Ara could not be traced,” said the official. According to him, the prints must have been destroyed to extract the silver in the film material as the practice then was to make films on a silver nitrate base.

Alam-Ara, which is based on a Parsi play, starred Prithviraj Kapoor, Master Vithal, Zubeida, Jillo, J. Sushila, Elizer, Wazir Mohammed Khan, Jagdish Sethi and L.V. Prasad. But Master Vithal, who plays the character of Adil, doesn’t utter a single word through the movie.

The costume and fantasy drama — with each print 10,500 feet long — was made in Hindi and Urdu. Alam-Ara also marked the beginning of film music, including seven songs, in Indian cinema. Ferozshah M. Mistri had scored the music.

As playback singing hadn’t started, the songs were recorded live, to the accompaniment of a harmonium and tabla. Both the film and its music were widely successful, including the popular number, De de khuda ke naam par — which became the first song in Indian cinema.

The shooting was done with the Tanar single-system camera, which recorded sound directly onto the film. Since there were no soundproof studios available at the time, the shooting was said to have been done mostly at night.

According to sources, producers at that time enticed actors from the stage, with voice being the main criterion, and not all actors of the silent era could adapt to sound.