x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Tribute to a century of Bollywood: Part two 1923-1933

Join us in celebrating 100 years of Bollywood. On the second day of our illustrated tribute to Bollywood, we look at 1923-1933 known as the decade of mad inventiveness.

Sulochana. Illustration by Mathew Kurian
Sulochana. Illustration by Mathew Kurian

Join us in celebrating 100 years of Bollywood. On the second day of our illustrated tribute to  Bollywood, we look at 1923-1933

Indian film finds its voice as the move into talkies is made

This was the decade of mad inventiveness, even as the world swung dizzily between boom and bust. India then was part of the global economy through the British Empire and reaped some benefits – travel was easier, technology flowed faster – but also paid the price in famine and misery. But cinema had gained huge ground. Theatres were spreading across the subcontinent. Sound had not yet fixed the camera and hampered its inventiveness, though one of our stars would make the first sound film at the end of the decade. This was also the decade that invented stardom. The women were still from minority communities, but they would become rich and famous and perhaps encourage the entry of Hindu Brahmin women in the next decade.

Patience Cooper

One of the quintessential products of the silent era, Patience Cooper was an Anglo-Indian whose first brush with fame was when she worked with J?F Madan in one of his theatre companies. She probably didn’t speak any Hindi, but didn’t need to. She became one of the first true superstars. She was one of the first actors to ever play double roles; in Rani Sundari she played mother and daughter and in Patni Pratap she played twin sisters. (Both are now a standard of Bollywood. You’re not a star until you’ve played your own dad.)


Zubeida, it is said, was born into Muslim royalty. But she became screen royalty soon enough. She made her debut in Kohinoor at 12 and worked through the silent era and into sound because she could speak the Hindustani-Urdu mix that was to become the language of “Hindi cinema”. She starred in Alam Ara. Oh, and as for lineage, Zubeida’s mum, Fatma Begum, became India’s first woman director while her granddaughter, Rhea Pillai, is a model.


Her screen name was Sulochana but her real name was Ruby Myers. Of Eurasian parentage, she entered the world of films as a stunt actress but soon became one of the highest-paid actors of her time. She worked with Irani’s Imperial Studios in a number of successful films. But her star turn was in Wildcat of Bombay, where she played eight roles. She won the Dadasaheb Phalke award, the highest honour the Indian government confers on film people, in 1973.

Himanshu Rai

Himanshu Rai came from a wealthy family in Kolkata who had their own private theatre; he studied with the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, got a law degree and went to England, where he did some theatre and became a consultant on films with exotic Oriental themes. When he returned to India, it was to direct a cinematic version of Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia. Problems with distribution? Rai took his film and showed it to the Windsors. He was that kind of man. He would set up Bombay Talkies with his wife, Devika Rani,in a marriage that was legendary in more ways than one.

Ardeshir Irani

He is credited with the making of Bollywood’s first sound film, Alam Ara, in 1933 and with the making of its first indigenous colour film, Kisan Kanya, in 1937. He was an old-style movie mogul who is said to have made 250 movies. Half these were silents but when sound came, he made movies in nine languages including the first Farsi film, Dukhtar-e-Lur. Imperial Studios went into liquidation but that didn’t stop Irani from making a film or two -afterwards. There’s a bridge in Mumbai named after him.


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