Master Vithal was an actor who happened to be on the path of the juggernaut of Hindi cinema history. As the hero of the first Indian talkie, Alam Ara, Vithal witnessed the same force that elevated him to a permanent place in film annals, also becoming the cause for the annihilation of his career.
Before the advent of the talkie, this Maharashtrian hero was labelled the Douglas Fairbanks of India and enjoyed immense popularity as the swashbuckling star of early silent stunt films. Master Vithal was discovered by Bombay’s Sharda Film Company, where he helped shape the fledgling action genre in silent films with names like Masked Cavalier and Warrior. People interpreted the success of his rebel heroes as an indication of India’s innate desire to throw off the yoke of the British. In the late 20s, Vithal made a very popular pair with the notorious spitfire, Zebunissa and when he shifted loyalties from Sharda to the bigger Sagar Studios, in 1930, he became famous as the highest paid male star of the time.
In fact, so popular was he that when Ardeshir Irani of Imperial Film Company was planning India’s first talkie, Alam Ara (’31), it was decided that it was imperative to have Vithal as the hero of this Muslim tale of yore. So, though he was not on the Imperial payroll, Master Vithal was signed on for Alam Ara. When his parent studio sued him, it was Mohammed Ali Jinnah (the architect of Pakistan and later its first head of government), who defended Vithal in court.
Tragically, however, it was discovered during the course of the shooting that Vithal just could not speak Hindi well and was consequently shown either unconscious or in a trance for most of the film. Master Vithal’s career in the talkies could not survive this ignominy.
As no talkie offers were forthcoming, Vithal went back to doing silent films in 1932. But the days of the cue cards were obviously over.
With Shahu Modak as the hero, Vithal took to direction and his Awara Shehzada (’33), where he introduced the concept of a double role, was a success. Vithal continued to do the sporadic Hindi or Marathi film but that early luminescence of his career had dimmed.
It remains one of the film world’s greatest ironies that just as Alam Ara entered the history books, it was synchronous with the termination of its hero’s glorious days.