How WM Khan's voice made history

On the 85th anniversary of India's first feature talkie, we take a look at the first song from Alam Ara.

Sonal Pandya

India's first feature talkie, Alam Ara (1931), broke many records and wowed audiences with its advances in sound technologies. For the first time, moviegoers could experience the wonderment of the first song ever recorded by Wazir Mohammed (WM) Khan.

Ardeshir Irani of Imperial Film Company adapted the stage play complete with its seven songs from a screenplay by Joseph David. Starring Master Vithal, Zubeida and Prithviraj Kapoor, the talkie contained both dialogues and songs, a style taken over from the Parsi stage. 

In this early stage, as playback singing wasn't yet established, actor-singer WM Khan was recorded on screen singing in a combination of Hindi-Urdu the song 'De De Khuda Ke Naam Par Pyare' in the guise of a fakir.

Though only two musical instruments, the tabla and the harmonium, were used as accompaniments, the song quickly became a hit. However, in the haste to produce the first ever sound film, the lyricist and the film's composer were never properly credited. Ferozshah M Mistry is widely regarded as the composer but the lyricist of 'De De Khuda' remains anonymous. In some places, B Irani is also credited as the second composer.

The widespread acceptance of 'De De Khuda Ke Naam Par Pyare' meant that Khan, a former theatre actor who had performed a few small parts in silent films, became one of the first singing stars of Hindi cinema. The first song of Indian cinema became so popular that Khan reprised the role and the song twice in his career, in two separate remakes of Alam Ara in 1956 and again in 1973.

The film's title, Alam Ara, refers to the daughter of General Adil, played by Prithviraj Kapoor, accused of molesting Queen Dilbahar. WM Khan's fakir tells the king about a prophecy about his unborn son from his queen, Navabahar, who requires a special necklace after his 18th birthday to live. The king's second queen Dilbahar gets the general arrested and his wife banished from the kingdom.

Zubeida played Alam Ara who grows up vowing to eventually free her father. She encounters Kamar, the prince played by Master Vithal, who is cursed to live only with a special necklace. The two fall in love and Alam Ara is instrumental in bringing to light the misdeeds of Queen Dilbahar (who captures Kamar's necklace) and getting her father's good name restored.

Alam Ara was first released at Majestic Cinema in Mumbai (then Bombay) on 14 March 1931. Unfortunately, no print or audio exists of this historical first talkie film of Indian cinema. All that remains are a few stills and advertisements that have been preserved through the ages.