11 March 1931 will remain as the second most important date in the annals of the region’s history of cinema. On that day Alam Ara, the first full length locally-produced talkie film, was released at the Majestic Cinema, in Bombay. It was made under the banner of the Imperial Film Company owned by Ardeshir Irani and his silent partner, Abdul Ali Yusuf Bhai. Though the film was only partly in sound, it created a great impact at the box office. The public response was overwhelming and for the first time tickets were sold in the black market for as much as twenty rupees for a normal seat otherwise worth a few annas. Alam Ara a.k.a. The Light of the World had top ranking artistes like Master Vithal, Zubeida, Prithivi Raj, Jillo Bai, Yaqub, Jagdish Sethi and W.M. Khan in the cast.
The film had a few songs, sung by the actors themselves and recorded at the time of shooting. The concept of playback singing, using the voice-over technique, was introduced later, after the invention of the optical sound recording and playing sound machine which could run in sync with the camera. The popularity of a lyrical composition, De de khuda ke naam par pyare (Give alms in the name of God) went beyond the imagination of any analyst. The film’s business soared as the melody spread to every nook and corner of the country. Though it was another five years before the era of silent films ended, the song, as a new element in the cinema of the subcontinent, had come to stay.
Alam Ara was closely followed by yet another talkie, Shirin Farhad, produced by Madan Theatres of Calcutta. Based on the love legend of Persia, it starred Master Nisar and Jahanara Kajjan, a popular duo of the time. The script and dialogues were penned by Agha Hashar Kashmiri. The film had as many as forty-two songs.
The first talkie of the Punjab was Heer Ranjha and it came within a year and a half of Alam Ara. It was produced under the banner of a newly-formed studio called Play Art Photo Tone, owned by Hakim Ram Parshad, the proprietor of the Capital Theatre (later Ranjit Cinema) in Lahore. Kardar directed the film in the Urdu language, casting Anwera Begum and Rafiq Ghaznavi (the flamboyant actor and music composer) in the main lead, with M. Ismail, Lala Yakub, and Walayat Begum also in the cast. The heroine and hero got married and are the maternal grandparents of Salma Agha, the glamorous singer-actress who achieved the distinction of acting in both Indian and Pakistani films during the late eighties.
The story of Heer Ranjha was written by Syed Abid Ali Abid and the screenplay by M. Sadiq. The film was major box-office hit and Kardar’s fame reached Calcutta, his next destination. Other notables in the field were Seth Hari Ram who founded the Punjab Art Studios to produce Abla and Falcon under the direction of Ramgopal Kirpalani. Elephanta Movietone was set up as production unit in the Capital cinema building by film journalist B.R. Oberoi to produce Pavitar Nartiki. Daily Milap’s editor Lala Nanak Chand set up the Ravi Talkies to produce Paap Ki Nagri. It was during this period that Sant Nagar’s Jaswant Singh purchased land from landlord Fida Husain to set up a studio on the banks of the Lahore canal. This was named Northern India Studios which later came to be known as Punjab Studio. The first film produced here was R.L. Shori’s Radhe Shyam, which Shori directed with the help of A.P. Kapoor in 1932.
Lahore talkie productions found easy access to the mainstream distribution market and attracted many entrepreneurs including a rich Lahorite, Dr Daulat Ram, who invested in a film studio at Muslim Town. He made three films: Sacred Ganges and Suhag Din directed by Imtiaz Ali Taj and also Surag Ki Seerhi. All the scripts were written by Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj and directed by J.K. Nanda. The cast included Bibbo (Ishrat Sultana), Prem Adeeb and Jeevan. Swarg Ki Seerhi was the first film of Master Ghulam Haider as music director. It was during the shooting of the same film that Haider fell in love with Umrao Zia and married her. Commercially, none of the films clicked at the box office.
While Dr Daulat Ram was making sound films, two other cineasts, Roshan Lal Shorey and Dalsukh Pancholi, were planning to make talkies in Lahore. R.L. Shorey started his career in the photolitho department of the Military Staff College, Quetta. From there he went to the USA for training in photography. On his return, he settled in Lahore and founded Kamla Movietone in 1924. During the era of silent movies, his film work was mostly sponsored by the government of British India. With the advent of sound he turned towards feature production and made his first film Radhe Shyam based on Hindu mythology. Later his Quetta-born son, Roop Kishore, better known as Roop. K. Shorey, expanded the family enterprise and attained the status of a movie mogul. The first film Roshan Lal Shorey directed and produced was Majnu (1935). Herald Louis was the hero opposite Shyama Zatshti, the daughter of a Lahore barrister. Sheyama was a Congress leader who took part in political activities, therefore she bid farewell to the film world later. Other cast members included Mukhtar, Sultan Beg (Khosat), Hakam Singh and Kamla. This was also the first film of Wali Sahib as writer. Herald Louis earned such fame from the film that he was known for the rest of his life as Majnu.
Dulla Bhatti (1940), and the Punjabi blockbuster of 1942, Mangti with an all Lahorite cast of Mumtaz Shanti, Masud Pervaiz, Majnoon and Manorma were other hit films produced by Kamla Movietone. The same company later produced Koel and Nishani. But when the two films failed, the Shoris left the Northern Studios and shifted to a smaller studio behind Regent cinema.
The other cineast, Dalsukh M. Pancholi (1906-59) was born in Karachi. Dalsukh studied script-writing and cinematography at New York. He expanded the film distribution network started by his father during the First World War and became the largest importer of American motion pictures in northern and western India. His first feature was a Punjabi film Gul Bakavli, released in 1938. It marked the debut of child star Noor Jehan as a singer in films. One of the two compositions of Ghulam Haider, Shala Jawania, was cheered all over Punjab and earned a name for its singer.
Later, Seth Pancholi sent shock waves by producing Zamindar, a major box-office hit. Shanta Apte was called to lead the female cast opposite Dr S.D. Narang. The next Pancholi film, Poonji, was also a great hit. The film had, for the first time, a chorus in color.
Pancholi also offered Shaukat Hussain Rizvi his directorial debut in Khandan. It was, according to the local cinema genre, a Muslim social film. Noor Jehan and Pran Krishna were paired in this film as heroine and hero. In post-independence Bombay, Pran dropped Krishna from his name and had a long and highly successful career playing the villain and later doing several memorable character roles. Khandan featured some of Ghulam Haider’s refreshing tunes sung in the melodious voice of Noor Jehan.
Tu kaun si badli me mere chand hey aaja and Meri ammi ka raj bhala became popular all over India. The film broke all previous collection records for Urdu films. Noor Jehan and Shaukat Hussain went to Bombay to pursue higher ambitions and soon got married there. Through the Hindi-Urdu productions of Pancholi Art Pictures, Lahore cinema penetrated the country-wide distribution network.
The years 1942-43 saw Lahore reaching the zenith of the Indian film industry when more than one dozen production units were set up. Syed Ataullah Shah Hashmi, then editing a film weekly Adakar ventured Ravi Par directed by Zia Sarhady. Patwari, directed by Raj Hans, Ik Musafir,directed by R.K. Shori, and Pagli were also made that year.
Rashid Attrre made his debut as music director in Pagli. Another notable film of the period was Gawandhi, in which Shyam appeared for the first time as hero and Veena as heroine. Veena’s real name was Tajour Sultana and she belonged to Lahore’s Chuna Mandi.
Seth Pancholi then gave another super hit, Daasi, which saw the first appearance of Om Parkash and G.N. Butt. Najmul Hasan was the hero with Raagini in the female lead. Direction was by Haran Bose, called from Calcutta, and film had music by Pandit Amarnath. Other less important films followed; and then came Gul Baloch (Punjabi), a film made in 1943-44 which was comedian Nazar’s first film. It also introduced Mohammad Rafi as a playback singer. Nigar Production’s Panchhi saw Ajmal in the male lead for the first and last time.
The success of Pancholi’s films can be mainly attributed to the enchanting musical score of Ghulam Haider. The team worked well through five films but then Pancholi broke away from the maestro. Of Pancholi’s five latter films including Shireen Farhad, Dhamki and Kaise Kahoon, none clicked at the box office. Pancholi fled to Bombay when communal riots erupted in most parts of the subcontinent at the time of independence – Mahmood Zaman, Mirza Abdul Haq, Mushtaq Gazdar & Ummer Siddique