Indian Cinema: Transition to the Talkies

The trajectory of Indian cinema from the early silent era to the talkies era is as rich and illuminating as it is difficult to trace and comprehend. The social and institutional forces map its course in multitudinous ways.

Indian Cinema: Transition to the Talkies Indian Cinema: Transition to the Talkies Source : Press

North India emerged as the most lucrative market for film producers early in the history of Indian cinema. The filmmakers used the literary and performative art traditions to establish films as the most popular source of entertainment. The shift of cinema towards realism must be seen in context with the larger movement gaining pace at the turn of the century in arts, literature and theater; and the cultural nationalist and social-reformist agenda of the bourgeois.

Even though it was the Parsi, Gujarati and North Indian middle class that dominated film production, people from all parts of the subcontinent joined the film industry. Anglo-Indian and Jewish actresses became stars like Sulochana (Ruby Myers), Seeta Devi (Renee Smith), Madhuri (Beryl Claessen), and Manorama (Erin Daniels); a middle-class actor like Prithviraj Kapoor and Elizer, a theatre veteran were all simultaneously working in the film industry.

There were newcomers that marked the period of technical sophistication in film production which were now longer and plusher. Directors like Homi Wadia (famous for his action-stunt films), Sarvottam Badami, Nandlal Jaswantlal, Mehboob Khan and Dhirubhai Desai; Indian actresses like Mehtab, Bibbo, Durga Khote, Gohar, Devika Rani became stars; actors like Prithviraj Kapoor, Dinshaw Bilimoria, Paidi Jairaj, S. B. Nayampalli and Jagdish Sethi set new benchmarks; increased location shooting and increasing publicity turned everything professional as the standard of Indian films rapidly improved.

It was also an era of experimentation which arose out of a need for new ideas to beat the growing competition. Producer Himanshu Rai brought the influences from German Expressionist cinema to Indian films. Indian cinema could not prevent itself from mimicking American films. After all, it was the Golden Age of Hollywood. Stars and studios swept the billboard like Hollywood-Dinshaw Bilimoria even sported the cowboy look and heroines were dressed up in trousers.

Parsi Theatre influenced the style and texture of films made in the late silent and early talkie era with orientalized setting and title cards language. ‘Oriental' style is the "spectacle of adventure against semi-historical settings marked by a particular configuration of dress, décor, action and sexuality" (Bhaumik, K., 2001).

Most notable films from this era of transition include Prafulla Ghosh's big budget 1929 serial based on the Arabian Nights Hatimtai, Devi Devyani, Radha Rani and Sati Savitri. This Urduised tilt is evident from the titles of Sulochana and Bilimoria's late silent films- Khwab-e-Hasti, Noor-e-Alam, Khuda ki Shaan, Diwani Dilbar and Baghdad-nu Bulbul.

Historic cinema of the first decade of the Indian film industry was replaced with the cinema of elite and extravaganza, reflecting the Islamic influence on India. Hundreds of elaborate costume drama films were made in the period between the 1920s and the 1930s which synchronized the modern with the Islamic motifs that revoked India's past. Actress Sulochana in the 1933 adventure-romance film Daku ki Ladki was depicted in shirt and Arab style headscarf à la Rudolph Valentino. Later, Fearless Nadia wore the same look in Wadia Movietone's Hunterwali series.

Hindu revivalism was limited to the elite and bourgeoisie while Urdu-Hindustani dominated much of popular culture in the north and north-west India. It was Muslim actors and actresses that were in demand when the talkies started to be produced because of their proficiency at speech and singing. The popular Muslim actors in talkies were Najamul Hassan, Master Mohammed, WM Khan, Ashraf Khan, Rafique Ghaznavi, Nissar, Kajjan and Jaddan Bai. Master Yakub Khan, ‘the songster of Bombay' famously starred in Shree Mahalaxmi Cinetone's Panjab ki Padmini (1933).

The cinema of Arabian Nights used classicized dialogue, décor, dance and music and in the case of Bombay cinema, became increasingly related to mystical themes. If the adventure-romance film had cosmopolitan ethos, then Arabian Nights was more classical in its dialogue, music and style. Alif Laila (1933) was presented as ‘a mix of romance and adventure' with a ‘thrilling climax' featuring a ‘fight with magic'. The horse-riding, whip-cracking, fair-skinned heroine was a successor of the heroines from a Parsi theatre. Jayant's Zahr-e-Ishq (1933) featured bandits, princes and princesses, fakirs, evil ministers and dancing girls.

Alam Ara's legendary opening at Majestic cinema in Bombay was due to the cinema craze across all sections of the society. It was so successful that hall owners grew rich overnight. Soon, the ‘talkie' became a part of the urban culture of India and marked the beginning of the official history of Indian cinema. The voice and dancing skill of the performers turned them into stars that led to the success of the early talkies.

After the success of early talkie socials, the bourgeoisie stepped in the film industry to advance the social realism culture of other arts to film. The frenzy of talkies had subsided by then. The song and dance extravaganza that once brought the ‘classes' and the ‘masses' together had run its course.

Many stars like Gulab and Nandram from the silent era, with their diction and voices were found out, failed to stand the storm of the talkies. Those who underwent language training came back, like Sulochana, Zubeida and Gohar. 

The silent cinema was pushed back into the oblivion and its lack of presence in popular culture reflects the chasm between the two epochs and also interlink between the talkies and middle-class sensibility. For much of India, cinema is talkies. It was an endeavor to imagine the identity for contemporary India that required reconciliation between history and realism-an India that borrowed the essence of the values from her past to understand what ailed her present.

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