Sound and Music of Hindi Talkies: The First Four Years

Surjit Singh


Everybody knows that the talkie era in India was begun by Imperial Movietone, Bombay on March 14, 1931 when the first full-length feature film Alam Ara (called ‘All Living, Breathing 100% Talking’ in a contemporary ad) was released in the Majestic Cinema, Girgaum. Not so well known is the fact that since early 1929, Calcutta’s Madan Theatres have been making and releasing short items consisting of songs, dances, scenes from stage plays and musical audio-visual recordings. The sound reproduction of Alam Ara was ‘patchy’, and the hero Master Vithal did not speak at all. However, the talkie (with its seven songs and some dances) was so successful commercially that it led to a deluge of singing-dancing musicals that still continues 75 years later and has defied movie critics at home and abroad!

The rest of this article is in two sections. In the first part, we will describe the history of sound and music in the first four years and, in the latter part we will survey the technology involved.

 No records were issued and no prints survive of the first talkie. Miss Zubeida sang a line from one of her songs, ‘badala dilwayega ya rab tu sitamgaron se’ in a 1982 television program called ‘Mortal Men, Immortal Melodies’. The second talkie was released by Madan on May 30 and was called Shirin Farhad. It was based on an existing stage play, written by the famous Agha Hashr Kashmiri, starring Master Nisar and Jahanara Kajjan (who recreated their stage roles) and was even more successful. It is said that a tongawalla in Lahore pawned his tonga to see this film 22 times! Madan Theatres produced seven more talkies this year while the rest of the films were made in Bombay. Until recently it was believed that no records were issued in 1931. However, Mr. Narendra Shrimali ‘Kamal’ was able to obtain two records containing two songs of the talkie Trapped. The songs are ‘hum hain bande ishq ke’ and ‘phulrahin belariyan dole’ recorded in February and November 1931, respectively.

Just as the first two talkies, many of the early movies were based on popular stage plays, mostly mythological or social. In fact many films were simply talkie versions of the silents that were in turn based on dramas! A comprehensive list can be found in a book written by Mr. Shrimali who studied the influence of plays in Urdu, Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi on early talkies. The Parsi stage has a well-known history and produced plays mainly in language that was a mixture of Hindi and Urdu. The leading music directors of this era were Phirozshah M. Mistry, Ustad Jhande Khan, Professor B. R. Deodhar, Master Mohammad, Master Ali Bakhsh (Meena Kumari’s father). Perhaps the most successful was Ustad Jhande Khan who had many future music directors as his assistants, e.g. Naushad, Ghulam Muhammad and Hemant Kumar. In the next two years many well-known music directors such as R. C. Boral, Govind Rao Tembe, Madhulal Damodar Master, Pankaj Mullick and K. C. Dey made their debut.  


In 1934 came Adal-e-Jehangir, the first movie to have a female music director. Her name was Isharat Sultana, commonly known as Bibbo. Before Har Mandir Singh Hamraaz’s Hindi Film Geet Kosh was published, it was usually believed that Saraswati Devi (real name Khorshed Minocher-Homji) was the first female music director with the film Jawani Ki Hawa (1935). Hamraaz’s research showed that Jaddan Bai (Nargis’s mother) whose film Talash-e-Haque (1935) had been released earlier deserved that honor. But recently, a veteran poster on or RMIM, Dhananjay Naniwadekar (who writes under the name Nani) pointed out the obviously overlooked film by Bibbo, released in the previous year, as mentioned above. She went on a to become a singing star and played character roles in Pakistani films until much later.

Since many early talkies were based on dramas, naturally, the songs that were a part and parcel of these plays were written by the playwrights themselves. For other talkies new songwriters were required. Among the early lyricists we find the veteran dramatists Agha Hashr Kashmiri, Radheshyam Barelvi, Pandit Narayan Prasad Betab, Joseph David and various ‘Munshis’ about whom, unfortunately, much is not known except their names. Among others we can count Dina Nath Madhok who went on to become a very successful lyricist, screenplay and dialog writer. 

Playback singing was not in vogue yet, so all the singing was done by the actors themselves. Again, many of them came directly from stage. We have mentioned Master Nisar and Kajjan above. Among other stage singers who made it to the movies, the most famous was perhaps Ashraf Khan, who came from UP but became a very important singer-actor in Parsi theaters and on the Gujarati stage. He kept singing in the movies well onto the forties. Master Fida Hussain was another theatre veteran who had become well known after playing the role of Narsi Mehta. Among newcomers we have K. L. Saigal, Kanan Devi, Pahadi Sanyal, Devika Rani, Rajkumari. In relatively rare phenomenon two ladies, Uma Shashi and Shanta Apte, shot to fame with their very first talkies! On the other hand, many famous Anglo-Indian stars of the silents were left behind because of their inability to speak Hindi-Urdu very well. Many others suffered initially because of their inability to sing.

Turning now to the technology we note that in the beginning sound posed many problems. The cameras were very noisy. Sound had to be recorded at the same time as picture for synchronization. Microphones were fixed in place and of low fidelity. So, the actors were very restricted in their movement, had to speak loudly and clearly in the direction of the hidden mikes! A good example of this can be seen in a spoof of the early talkies in the Hollywood classic Singing in the Rain. . In an interview with B. D. Garga, the director of Alam Ara said, “There were no sound-proof stages, we preferred to shoot indoors and at night. Since our studio is located near a railway track … most of our shooting was done between the hours that the trains ceased operation. We worked with a single system Tanar recording equipment.” This lead to very unnatural performances by actors, especially when they were singing. The songs in fact had to be picturized in a single shot. Because of all these problems, it was felt that all the progress achieved during the silent era was lost. It may be recalled that in the silents we already had outdoor shooting, action sequences on rooftops and trains and elaborate editing techniques. In an editorial in Moving Picture Monthly (November 1931), we read, “The screen has gone back anywhere from five to fifteen years … the ‘talkie’ technique looks decidedly like a throw back to old Hindustan or earlier Kohinoor pictures … the producers cannot expect to emulate the stage, make their screen puppets a lot of chatterboxes, and expect to get away with it.” Similar sentiments were expressed by eminent directors in Western countries, e.g. Alfred Hitchcock.    

Fortunately, in a year or so all these problems were solved. Soundproof camera casings called ‘blimps’ were invented to muffle the noise of the operating camera. Boom mikes (mikes at the end of long pole) were used to give more freedom to the actors because these devices could be moved around while staying outside the frame. Directional microphones with increased frequency and volume range were invented to improve the audio quality a whole lot.

Perhaps the most important advance during this era was the ‘double system sound’ as opposed to ‘single system sound’. In the latter system, as mentioned above, the sound must be recorded at the same time as the shooting. This makes synchronization of audio and video automatic but gives rise other problems. In the double system, the moving pictures and the sound were recorded by two different systems.  In the beginning the sound was recorded on an optical track. Since the sound was separated, the need for sound specialists arose. Examples of these are Dialog Editor, Sound Editor, Sound Designer, Foley Artist and Re-recording mixer. These professionals applied the techniques of cutting, merging, looping and special effects to sound, as a film Editor would do the video! Of course, it also created the need for well-equipped sound studios.  By all contemporary accounts, the best in the early days was Prabhat Studios in Poona. The General Technical Director who also doubled as the Sound Engineer was Vishnupant Damle, one of the founders. Damle had worked as an electrician in the Bombay docks and was a well-known tinkerer. His early talkies such as Ayodhya Ka Raja and Maya Machhindra are well known to this day. One of the earliest mention of a Sound Recordist is in Chandidas (1934), where Mukul Bose is listed under Audiography.

Even though the technology has advanced beyond imagination, many of the sound techniques developed in the early days are still in use today. It is instructive to describe the whole scheme briefly. The whole feature film is conceived in two or three acts, which are made of a multitude of scenes. A scene is described by its location or an incident or some kind of a minor climax. In Hindi movies, a scene can be a song and what happens immediately before and after it. Or, the final chase or action scene! Scenes are made of shots that are ultimately chosen from the various takes. A take is what starts with the clapper boy making his famous ‘khataak’ sound (needed for synchronization later) and when the unit director says, “Action!” and it ends with him saying, “Cut!”. Some examples of sound techniques still in vogue: clapping, using background audio for dance and song scenes, using some dialog from the shoot and dubbing more later in post-production, extending or shortening the audio track to match the video, using stock sounds of trains and thunderstorms, merging the background score etc.

In conclusion, one can say that in spite of very primitive beginning, much was accomplished in the early days and the pattern for most Hindi talkies was established from the start that has continued to this day and not likely to be given up any time soon!

© Surjit Singh. Please ask  for permission before reproducing.



1.        Har Mandir Singh ‘Hamraaz’, Hindi Film Geet Kosh Volume I, Satinder Kaur, Kanpur, 1988.

2.        B. D. Garga, So Many Cinemas: The Motion Picture in India, Eminence Designs, Pvt. Ltd., Mumbai, 1996.

3.        Narendra Shrimali ‘Kamal’, Music of Theatre and Hindi Cinema, M. S. University of Baroda, Vadodara, 2001.

4.        Samik Bandopadhyay, Indian Cinema: Contemporary Perceptions from the Thirties, Celluloid Chapter, Jamshedpur, 1993.

5.        Wikipedia contributors. Sound Film. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. November 6, 2006. Available at: Accessed November 7, 2006.

6.        Gulzar (Sampooran Singh Kalra), Govind Nihalani and Saibal Chatterjee, Encyclopaedia of Hindi Cinema, Encyclopaedia Britannica (India) Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2003.