If Phalke is credited with pioneering the production of films in India, Himanshu Rai is generally lauded for lending sophistication to the nascent craft. The founder of Bombay Talkies was indeed a true visionary with ideas forever fermenting in his head.
The westward-leaning Rai became one of the first Indians to collaborate with European filmmakers. While studying Law in London he grew interested in acting and vowed to improve the general standards of Indian films with foreign inputs. With great dexterity this pushy youngster convinced Germany’s Emelka Studio to co-produce the silent film Light of Asia (’27), with The Great Eastern Film Corporation, Delhi. Starring Himanshu Rai in the role of Gautam Buddha, Light Of Asia was a success in Germany. Rai now decided to become a producer himself. He collaborated with various filmmakers including the famous German studio, UFA and made Shiraz and A Throw Of Dice.
After his marriage to the beauteous and well-connected Devika Rani, Rai joined forces with IBP of England and made India’s first English-Hindi bilingual film — Karma (’33). Premiered at London’s Marble Arch Pavillion, Karma won rave reviews but the general public’s reaction was decidedly cool. Rai was said to have turned the thin story of two royal heirs seeking to modernize their kingdoms into a west-oriented spectacle, exploiting India’s poverty to picturesque advantage.
After Karma, Himanshu Rai decided to concentrate on the Indian audience. He realized his long cherished dream in 1935, when he started his own studio — Bombay Talkies. India’s first public limited film company, it was launched with an authorized capital of Rs 25 lakhs and with prominent citizens on its board of directors.
Thereafter, Rai gave up acting and concentrated on supervising the shooting of quality films like Acchut Kanya (’36) and Bhabhi (’38), which his studio came to be associated with. Bombay Talkies’ films popularized the concept of actors speaking film dialogue in simple Hindustani instead of high flown Urdu. Rai, a Bengali, stipulated that any line that he could not understand would not be allowed in the script.
Rai patterned Bombay Talkies on Hollywood studios like MGM. Everything from a sound stage to a laboratory, to a studio for designing, to an extensive library, was contained within the Bombay Talkies portals.
Tragedy struck in 1939, when World War II was announced. Rai’s old associate and director of all Bombay Talkies films till then, the German Franz Osten, was forcefully interned by the British Government. Overwork and mental strain took their toll. Leela Chitnis, then under contract with Bombay Talkies, describes in her autobiography the violent showdown between Rai and some staff members that precipitated Rai’s nervous breakdown. Himanshu Rai never really recovered and in 1940, Bombay Talkies was left rudderless by his death.
Within 15 years, the studio that Rai built in Malad, Bombay, no longer dealt with the art of celluloid myth making. Fate had decreed that it be turned into an industrial estate instead.