It was somewhere around 1930 when the idea of Alam Ara took root. Having seen Universal Pictures’ Show Boat (1929), a “40% talkie” in his words, at the Excelsior Theatre in Bombay, Imperial Movietone boss Ardershir Irani began harbouring thoughts of making India’s first talking and singing picture.

As there was no precedent in India of making a talkie, the odds Irani faced were huge. There were no soundproof stages nor technical know-how to make a film that had sound. Nevertheless, Irani decided to take the challenge head on. He decided to make a screen version of a popular stage play written by the doyen of Bombay dramatists, Joseph David, who agreed to adapt the play for the silver screen. The resulting film was Alam Ara.

Alam Ara is a fantasy set piece around typical royal intrigue with a lost-and-found subplot thrown in. The story revolves around the King of Kumarpur and his two wives, Dilbahar and Navbahar, both childless. A fakir predicts that Navbahar will give birth to a son, which gets Dilbahar all worked up. She has designs on army chief Adil, but he spurns her. So Dilbahar has him imprisoned and his pregnant wife banished. Adil’s wife dies giving birth to a girl, Alam Ara, who is brought up by nomads. When Alam Ara finds out she is Adil’s daughter, she secretly leaves the nomads’ camp and makes her way to the palace to attempt to free her father out from prison. There she sees the handsome young prince and the two fall in love.

Irani kept his project a secret. He picked up the basics of sound recording from an American expert, Wilford Deming, who had come in to assemble the Tanar recording equipment for Imperial at the astronomical sum of Rs 100 a day. Filming was done mostly between 1 am and 4 am in the night as the studio was close to the railway tracks and the noise of the trains was unavoidable during the day.

Search for the cast

Since Alam Ara was a talkie, the casting was of utmost importance. As it was imperative for actors to know the language, Zubeida got the nod to play the title role instead of of the studio’s top star, Sulochana. As it turns out, Sulochana was actually an Iraqi Jew whose real name was  Ruby Myers. She was not proficient in Urdu or Hindustani and thus lost out on the opportunity to be the first talkie heroine of Indian cinema.

For the hero, Irani had all but fixed on Mehboob Khan, the future director of classics like Aurat (1940), Anmol Ghadi (1946), Aan (1952) and Mother India (1957), but then decided to go for a more commercially viable name. As Alam Ara was a tale that also involved stunts and fight sequences, Irani thought of casting the biggest stunt star of silent cinema, Master Vithal, who was called the Douglas Fairbanks of India.

Alam Ara (1931).

Master Vithal had graduated to becoming India’s top swashbuckling star after entering the film industry by playing a dancing girl in Kalyan Khajina (1924). He had since joined Sharada Studio and graduated to becoming a dashing action hero. In his eagerness to play the lead role in India’s first talkie, he broke his contract with Sharada and signed on with Irani. Sharada, however, refused to take this lying down and filed a case against Vithal for breach of contract.

Legal saviour, founder of a nation

Coming to Vithal’s legal aid was Bombay’s leading legal expert at the time: Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Jinnah made a very effective defence of Vithal’s right to star in Alam Ara and ensured that Irani got the hero he wanted for his landmark film. That Jinnah had an affinity for the performing arts was well known. There was, in fact, a time when he was disenchanted with law studies in England and had embarked upon a stage career with a Shakespearean company. Eventually, though, he bowed down to his stern father and qualified for the bar.

After completing his studies, Jinnah joined Lincoln’s Inn as an aspiring barrister, and in 1895, when just 19, he returned to India to pursue a legal career. The following year, he became the only Muslim barrister of his time in Bombay.

Ironically, after all the effort it took to win Vithal his dream role, it was discovered after filming began that the action hero’s Hindi diction was poor and he was unable to deliver his lines in Alam Ara convincingly. As a result, the story was changed to magically make him dumb. Through the film, therefore, he was often seen in situations where he was either semiconscious or in a trance, thus ending his hopes as a leading man of Hindi films. However, he did do alright for himself as an actor and director of Marathi films.