Mumbai: Alam Ara, India's first talkie made in 1931, turned 76 on Wednesday. But with not a single print of the film traceable anywhere in the world, it seems like the only place one is sure to find it is in history books.
It was through Alam Ara that Indian cinema first found its voice on March 14, 1931 when Ardeshir Irani's love story between a prince and a gypsy girl premiered at the Majestic Cinema in Mumbai.
But India's first talkie film seems destined to stay silent forever as no copy or print of the film can be traced anywhere in the world.
After a fire at Pune's National Film Archives of India (NFAI) destroyed some of the last existing prints of classics such as Raja Harishchandra and Achyut Kanya in 2003, a search was conducted to restore all existing prints of lost and missing classics. But not a single print of Alam Ara could be found.
“It is a sad thing, but there is no print of the film available. We are, however, trying to see if there is anything to be found anywhere else in the world. The search is still on,” says former director of NFAI, K S Shashidharan.
The search is also on in Pakistan where historians believe a print is likely to be found.
The film, which starred master Vithal, Zubeida, LV Prasad and Prithviraj Kapoor is seen as the film that gave direction to Indian cinema.
The film was shot mostly in the night to avoid capturing the noises of the day. Alam Ara was made using microphones that had to be hidden from the camera's range.
While on one hand Alam Ara is credited with having ushered in the new talkie era in Indian cinema, it is also the movie that rang the death knell for silent films.
“It was not just a talkie. It was a talking and singing film with more singing and less talking. It had a number of songs and that actually set the template for the kind of films that were made later,” filmmaker Shyam Benegal explains.
While all signs of that era and the film have been wiped away including the Majestic Cinema, we did find some memories of the movie still alive in a 90-year-old man – possibly the only living person connected directly to the film.
Ramesh Roy, as a 15-year-old office boy at Ardeshir Irani's Imperial Movietone, carried the film's prints to the premiere at the Majestic.
Today, surrounded by film posters, which he sells to make a living, Roy has many stories to tell of those good old days.
“People outside kept asking how could a film talk? I'd tell them to watch the film and find it out for themselves,” Roy remembers nostalgically.
The unavailability of even a single print of Alam Ara sheds much light on the urgent attention that needs to be paid to the restoration of Indian classics.
Even as India's first talkie turns 76, there seems to be no voice to take up the cause.