Widely regarded as the ‘father of Indian talkies’, Ardeshir Irani has several firsts to his name, the most famous being India’s first talkie, Alam Ara, in 1931.
Alam Ara’s success had dealt a heavy blow to the silent film era. It set the precedent for the kind of movies Indian cinema would go on to make – complete with dancing and singing.
Before sound was introduced in movies, actors could mask their poor diction but the advent of talkies changed the game completely, especially for Anglo-Indian actors who dominated the industry up until that point.
Introducing sound in cinemas also meant that the industry had to reimagine the very idea of filmmaking – existing systems of production and exhibition could no longer suffice.
In 1938, the ‘Indian Cinematograph Book’ observed that producers started transforming their old studios or building anew to house the new order of things. “Silent projectors were replaced with sound equipment, and theatres were made soundproof.”
It is said that Ardeshir had always been a dreamer – a man looking to find his place amid something bigger, something better.
Born in 1886, Khan Bahadur Ardeshir Irani was the son of Iranian immigrants who had arrived in India towards the end of the 19th century to escape religious persecution.
He began his professional career as a teacher, and briefly, a kerosene inspector. When he won a lottery of Rs 14,000, a big sum in those times, he stepped foot in the film industry and he began as a small-time film distributor.
In 1905, he became the Indian representative of Universal Studios showcasing Hollywood movies to the average Indian audience.
In 1926, he set up Imperial Films Studio. It was this studio that forever changed the landscape of Indian cinema with the release of Alam Ara.
Ardeshir told film historian BD Garga, “About a year before I set upon producing Alam Ara, I had seen Universal Pictures’ Show Boat (1929), a 40% talkie, at Excelsior.”
“This gave me the idea of making an Indian talkie film. But we had no experience and no precedents to follow. Anyhow, we decided to go ahead,” he added.
Other than Alam Ara, he made over 60 films in the studio. His last film, Pujari, was released in 1945, and he died on 14 October 1969 at the age of 82.
Today, Indian cinema produces around 1,800 movies a year. It was Irani’s ambition that set the stage, so to speak, for the cinema we know and admire today.