Bombay talkies and her forgotten heroes

Bombay Talkies, the dream studio of actor-director Himanshu Rai, was training ground for some of the best talent in the Indian film industry. Today, it lies forgotten among garbage and cottage industries.

 

In the 1930s, Indian cinema received a new impetus with the emergence of film studios. The introduction of sound, Indian film makers zeal to emulate Hollywood in their production methods and establish production, distribution and exhibition of cinema under one roof, resulted in B.N. Sircar's New Theatres Ltd in Calcutta (established in 1930), Himansu Rai's Bombay Talkies (1934) in Bombay, and Prabhat (1929) in Poona.

The year 1934 witnessed F. E. Dinshaw's summer mansion in suburban Mumbai transform into one of the most modern film studios of the time - Bombay Talkies. With a capital of Rs. 25 lakhs Himanshu Rai, designed and equipped the studio with sound and echo-proof stages, automatic laboratory, editing rooms, preview theatre and highly skilled staff (many of German origin).

Bombay Talkies, India's first public limited film company, produced controversial motion pictures challenging aspects of Indian society, such as the caste social system. The films created were marked by naturalness of acting, colloquial speech and technical competence. The first film to be produced at the studio was Jawani Ki Hawa (1935) starring Devika Rani, which was a regular whodunit with shades of Agatha Christie. The studio rose to fame with Jeevan Naiya (1936), a romantic drama, which featured Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar.

Himanshu Rai attracted real talent into the company's orbit, generating confidence and giving dignity to the medium. Ashok Kumar was one such. He worked as a laboratory assistant with New Theatres for a time in 1934. While he was planning to proceed to Germany for further training in film technique, Rai offered him a job with Bombay Talkies, in the same position that he held with New Theatres. Ashok Kumar then became one of the most sought after actors of that time. Raj Kapoor, the playboy, showman and mega star of Indian Cinema who worked as a clapper-boy for the Bombay Talkies went on to become another of its star products. Devika Rani Chaudury acclaimed for her beauty and sensitive performances was offered her first role in films, by Rai. She later became his wife. Devika Rani starred in several films, most notably Achhut Kanya, the story of a love affair between a Harijan girl and a Brahman boy.

Soon news of the studios competence spread far and wide and Bombay Talkies became training ground for a large number of directors, technicians and acting talent of the stature of N R Acharya, Najam Naqvi, R D Mathur, S Mukherji, S Vacha, M I Dharamsey, and artistes like Devika Rani, Renuka Devi, Snehaprabha Pradhan, Leela Chitnis, Ashok Kumar, Kishore Sahu, and Rama Shakul.

While most studio in the 1930s were driven by chaos and disorder, Bombay Talkies was all order and efficiency. Perhaps, Rai's long association with the German film industry had something to do with this. The board of directors comprised half a dozen baronets, lending it an elitist aura. Its films, though supervised by foreign technicians, were rooted in the real India.

Tragedy struck in 1939, when World War II was announced. Overwork and mental strain took their toll and led to Rai's nervous breakdown. He never really recovered and in 1940 Bombay Talkies was left rudderless by his death. The next year, the control of the company was passed on to his wife, Devika Rani. Bombay Talkies went into decline when differences arose between Devika Rani and her partners.

Today, cottage industries, heaps of rubble and garbage and a public toilet conceal the dilapidated studio that once stood proud, showcasing the best acting talent in the country.



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