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Indian Sound Cinema

Posted by keith1942 on October 23, 2015

India map marks

Indian Cinema – the impact of sound in pre-Independence cinema, 1931 to 1947.

On the eve of the sound era, 85 per cent of films screened in India were imported, predominantly from Hollywood. These were shown at nearly 350 cinemas around the country. Hollywood enjoyed an advantage, as they had already recouped production costs in their own domestic market. Indian films tended to cost distributors and exhibitors more than the Hollywood competitor, and were thus disadvantaged in the film market.

However, the advent of sound radically altered the situation. The first Indian sound film was Alam Ara (1931). Filmed in Hindi and Urdu, and containing seven songs, it provided the basic formula for the new sound film industry. It was also demonstrated how to work with the new sound technology, mastering the problem of a single-system camera, which recorded image and sound simultaneously. For largely illiterate rural audiences, in particular, images and songs could be related to familiar traditional art and entertainment forms. Pat paintings (images on screens) had long been used to illustrate the narratives of traditional sagas in nocturnal performances lasting several hours or even running over for days. Traditional song and dance and the more recent Parsee Theatre strongly influenced the sound film. There had already been several Parsee versions of the Raja Harishchandra myth on stage before Phalke made his film version. The traditions of Parsee Theatre both encouraged stories with a strong melodramatic content and a narrative form that was far looser than that developed in the mainstream western films. Songs and dances were the most important part of such legacies, providing both familiar pleasures, but also crossing regional and linguistic boundaries.

The ‘ Masala’ Musical

The predominant form became the musical film. In early sound films actors and actresses sang live on the sound stages. Later, producers experimented with dubbing the singing to improve the sound quality and the ‘playback’ system appeared in 1935.

One actor describes how the playback system evolved as follows:

‘Filming and song recording were carried out simultaneously. The whole song was taken from one angle. Now another angle was selected and the song was again picturised. Like if there were 15 shots, we had to sing the song 15 times. 30 shots, 30 times!

‘To act in films one had to know singing. When I first went to a producer (when I was freelancing) he asked to read the dialogue in rhythm. When Himansui [Rai] took me into films he made it clear that I must sing in my own films.” (Siddarth Kak, 1980)

It is recorded that Bombay Talkies was the first studio to introduce this new system, which took several years to catch on. In playback a pre-recorded song is ‘played back’ on the set or location and the cast mime and dance to the music. Whilst the early playback singers were un-credited, the audience’s pleasure in their performances was later to lead to credits and stardom.


The coming of sound was, however, a mixed blessing for Indian filmmakers. As film historian Khalid Mohamed (1990) pointed out,

‘During this period, [the 1930s] although an increasing number of entrepreneurs were turning their business interests towards cinema, the market was splintering into linguistic zones. Hindi was the most far-reaching language. But people from different states demanded and received films in their regional language.’

Three main production centres developed. Bombay/Mumbai became associated largely with Hindi language film while its neighbouring cities were associated with Marathi. Bengali films were made in Calcutta/Kolkata and Madras/Chennai became the centre for filmmaking of the South Indian languages, Tamil and Teluga.  Sound film actually was a factor in Hindi becoming widely used and understood: audiences in differences provinces with different languages were able [to a degree] to follow Hindi dialogue and lyrics. Thus it was that over time the Bombay industry became a sort of national cinema.

The records for film output give an idea of the developments;

Bengali            – 3 films in 1931, risen to 19 by 1935

Gujarati           – the first production appeared in 1935

Hindi              – 23 in 1931 and increased to 154 in 1935.

Kanada            – produced the one and only film of the period in 1935,

Marathi            – a first feature in 1935, followed by 8 more.

Tamil               – 1 in 1931 and increased to 38 in 1935.

Teluga             – a first film in 1935 accompanied by six others.

Malayam         – the only film not produced until 1940.

It can be seen that after Bombay/Mumbai the Bengali and Tamil cinemas were the most productive and influential.

However, though fragmentation due to the different language demands was a problem for Indian filmmakers in terms of ensuring the largest possible audiences and dominance in the national market, it did give them a huge advantage over Hollywood and enabled them to develop the industry with far less competition from their big North American rivals.

1930s Studios


Large production studios, like Bombay Talkies dominated the 1930s Hindi film industry. This studio was founded by Himansui Rai, a pioneer producer. Bombay Talkies was the most famous of the ‘Bollywood’ Studios, and whilst they shared a mode of production similar to the Hollywood Studios, they differed both in the working atmosphere and their power within the Industry.

They system was described as a ‘joint-family’ system. Following Phalke’s practices they were often groups of relatives. In a similar fashion to the west they tended to have a production studio and its least a preview theatre. The studios developed in sizeable complexes, with facilities for staff, libraries of costumes, props and film properties,

Prabhat had its own menagerie. Whilst Bombay Talkies had its own medical clinic. This studio system was also less hierarchical than Hollywood.

‘When not acting, an actor might be put to fencing or riding lessons. Or he might be given temporary technical duties. At Bombay talkies an actor was expected to do some work as a cutter, as an essential part of his film training. Similarly, a technician might occasionally perform.’ (Barnouw and Krishaswamy, 1980).

There were stars who establish their popularity and who became important in publicising the films. But there was not a star system on the Hollywood model.

Producers and directors were them important and influential figures and they tended to enjoy higher salaries than the stars.

Constraints on Filmmakers – Censorship

Censorship imposed a major limitation in the form and content of films in India. The British colonial masters introduced a censorship system in 1918. While it shared some of the taboos of British censorship (such as forbidding exaggerated scenes of debauchery, desecration of religious places of worship etc), censors were particularly concerned with anything that appeared to support or encourage communalism and nationalist politics. For example, the Government banned a series of topical films on Mahatma Gandhi. These constraints were backed up with propaganda. Official film units produced ‘Newsreels’ and ‘Topicals’, which exhibitors were legally required to screen in programmes. There are instances of audiences protesting by walking out the cinema for their duration.

However, the censors were frequently literal-minded and insensitive to cultural nuances. During the Second World War, when Congress took a line of neutrality, the major hit was a film called Kismet (1943, dir. Gyan Mukherjee). It included a heroic song, ‘Go away, you invaders! India is ours!’ (Door hato O duniyavato, Hindustan hamara hai), which the censors read as anti-Japanese, but which audiences appear to have read as anti-British.


The Indian film market – which, under the British Raj, comprised what we now identify as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Burma (Myanmar) – remained divided into territories and regions based on languages. Indian film companies never achieved unified control over production, distribution and exhibition, known as vertical integration and the basis of the power of the Hollywood Majors.

The impact of the war

The war introduced changes that were to have far-reaching effects on the film industry. The increased economic activity gave many people money to spend, including on film-going. However, there were government restrictions on film stock, as well as on cinema buildings which accentuated a poor ratio of screenings to potential audiences. Annual output fell in most of the different film industries.

An increasing amount of ‘black money’, money made through illegal activities or undeclared, came into film production. Financing films became a way of laundering money for criminals, and/or avoiding taxes for black market entrepreneurs (hence the term ‘black money’). For example, sometimes important personnel, especially stars, were paid an official ‘above the line’ salary and a covert ‘below the line’ sum of money. Usually, no taxes would be paid on the latter. Such financing was illegal, unreliable and unacceptable to public institutions such as banks. The problem intensified after the war and has remained a problem within the industry to this day.

Nargis with Raj Kapoor

Nargis with Raj Kapoor

Meanwhile, notably in the Bombay/Mumbai studios, there arrived really popular star figures. Ashok Kumar was a actor/producer, he had an early hit in 1936 playing opposite an established star Devika Rani in Jeevan Naiya (1936). He was joined in the 1940s by Yusuf Khan, who was renamed Dilip Kumar. Another would be Dev Anand who started at Prabhat and then moved to Bombay Talkies where he enjoyed an early hit Ziddi (1948). The female star Nargis started as child actress in 1934 and by the 1940s enjoyed major hit in 1949 with Andaz and Barsaat. In these she played opposite actor/producer/director Raj Kapoor. The greatest of the stars of this period, his career really started in the 1940s. And he spawned a family line of popular film players that are still important  today. These stars also enjoyed a shift in the Indian film industry with the decline of the importance of the studios and the growth of the centrality of stars in funding, marketing and the popularity of titles at the box office.

Almost immediately after the war came Independence, but it also produced the split between India and Pakistan, and later Bangladesh. The suffering and separations this produced have provided recurring themes in modern Indian cinema.

One of the key films of the 1930s is Devdas (1935) produced by New Theatres Ltd and adapted from a  famous novel. It was directed by PC Barua, a filmmaker who worked in the industry up until 1950.  Devdas belongs to an affluent family in his home village, but develops a friendship and then romance with Paro. However, the are class and cultural differences and their marriage is prevented. The film then follows a long Odyssey by Devdas as he declines into alcoholism and returns to the village to die. The film was immensely influential and has been remade several times. The first Hindi remake was by the cinematographer of the 1935 version, Bimal Roy, in 1955. However, the film’s influence is also in the character of its protagonist, and there are many Indian films that have a similar ‘hero’.

Sant Tukaram (1936), a Prabhat feature, in is an example of the mythological/religious film. This was an important and popular genre in pre-independence cinema. This example presents the life of a C17th poet and saint. The film  is interesting because it includes the struggle against the caste system, a recurring conflict in Indian cinema.

An example of a genre film is Diamond Queen (1940) produced by Wadia Movietone. This is a swashbuckler in which the heroine Nadia and her sidekicks clean up a town, rather like a western. Fearless Nadia as she was known was a popular star of the 1930s. She was actually Australian circus performer recruited into Indian films. She was billed as ‘India’s Pearl White’ and was a great stunt artist.

For Parallel cinema.

Eric Barnouw and S. Krishnaswamy, Indian Film, Oxford University Press, 1980.

Siddharth Kak, The Bombay Talkies School in Cinema Vision. Vol. 1. No 2, April 1980.

Khalid Mohamed, The Sound of Stardom in Cinema in India, [Journal, Sponsored by National Film Development Corp]  September 1990.

The above post was developed from a contribution to a BFI CD-Rom, [no longer available].

One Response to “Indian Sound Cinema”

  1. […] Light of Asia Indian Silent Cinema 1912 – 1934 edited by Suresh Chabria was published to coincide with the 1994 Giornate del Cinema Muto. It includes a complete filmography for the period. The above post has been developed from a piece in the BFI CD-Rom on Indian Cinema [no longer available]. For sound cinema.. […]

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