Bombay Talkies: Broken moulds, forgotten tales

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All that's left of Bombay Talkies. - Paul Noronha
All that's left of Bombay Talkies. - Paul Noronha

Ashoak Upadhyay

When Himanshu Rai founded Bombay Talkies in 1934, he did more than just create another studio to pamper the growing appetite of the urban middle class for cheesy exotic films. What he did was to break several moulds of the film industry's practices. Creating Bombay Talkies as a joint stock company and listing it on the Bombay Stock Exchange with a share capital of Rs 25 lakh, was the first departure from existing informal and, therefore, uncertain forms of film financing. Second, by virtue of its listing as the first film company on the BSE the Bombay Talkies acquired respectability among the city's hard-nosed financiers and bankers that no other film studio would ever enjoy for the next 60 years.

The studio's board of directors was the Milky Way of the city's financial universe; Who's Who of investment bankers, all of them baronets to boot. Rai already had a British aristocrat, Sir Richard Temple, as a partner, a fact that undoubtedly helped Bombay Talkies acquire among other baronets, Sir F. E. Dinshaw, Sir Cowasji Jehangir and Sir Sorabji Pochkanawalla, the founder of the Central Bank of India, and Sir Chimanlal Setalvad, an eminent jurist. Sir Dinshaw offered his mansion in Malad to Bombay Talkies and Himanshu Rai turned that suburban retreat into the crucible of some of the most memorable films of that period. But Himanshu Rai did more.

The studio he presided over with his wife, Devika Rani – the leading lady of some of BT's greatest hits, also broke away from other studios by its professionalism and latest equipment; the company was run like a modern corporation with staff facilities, editing rooms, laboratories and a preview theatre. Rai insisted on hiring graduates for every department; one B.Sc graduate, Kumudlal Ganguly – a reluctant law student nursing ambitions of a stint at UFA studios in Berlin, was taken as a lab assistant; through one of those quirks of fate that seem to occur mostly in the world of films. He was to become a reluctant hero of Bombay Talkies' first great hit Achyut Kanya and the leading man opposite Devika Rani of almost all of Bombay Talkies' films.

Rai also brought with him German expertise, especially from the UFA studios' filmmakers like Franz Osten, who had worked on earlier films with him in Europe for several years till the outbreak of World War II. Since sound had just entered the film world in 1930 spelling the end of the silent film era, Rai was on the lookout for a music composer. By chance, he heard a talented, young lady, on radio and invited her to his studio. Khursheed Minocher-Homji came with impeccable credentials and Rai wasted little time; he offered her the music department, she accepted; her sister, Manek wanted to be an actor and Rai obliged her with supporting roles. That young Parsi music composer, who was named Saraswati Devi to placate her angry community, introduced playback singing and composed the music for songs in about 20 films starting with Achyut Kanya, in which Chandraprabha, the other of the Homji sisters, appears in a supporting role.

The social setting

Bombay Talkies' unique departure from the way studios were run till then, owed as much to the founder's experience and personality as to a social setting that favoured it. Rai trained as a lawyer in London but found theatre and film more interesting; after a series of collaborations in London and Berlin's UFA studio, Rai left troubled Germany with his wife Devika Rani for Bombay and a new venture.

Apart from his film experience, Rai shaped BT with some of the underlying ethics of Weimar-age Berlin; its sense of experimentation in the arts and film, its thematic focus on the social condition that was to find expression in the overtly social themes of his films and a stress on artistic excellence. He was also a great persuader, the clinching condition of pioneering entrepreneurship.

The crumbling skeleton

But that was also the BT's fatal weakness. Without a second line of leadership it began to wobble after his sudden death in 1940. Devika Rani took over and ran the unit with some hits starring a newcomer Dilip Kumar and Madhubala, but differences with director S. Mukherji widened in 1942; paradoxically after the unit's greatest hit Kismet directed by him. Mukherji resigned and an exodus of the best from all departments followed him to form Filmistan studios.

In 1949, Devika Rani sold her shares in Bombay Talkies and the decline of the company was swift as it changed hands morphing into a piece of real estate.

Like other studios in the city, Bombay Talkies has passed into oblivion, remembered today only as a street name, its crumbling skeleton in a busy and chaotic small-trades market, an unremembered relic of India's first listed film company.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 20, 2009)
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