WM Khan: The singer behind India’s first hit number

On the actor-singer’s 42nd death anniversary today (14 October), a look back at the hit song from India’s first talkie, Alam Ara (1931).

Sonal Pandya

On 14 March 1931, the first Indian talkie was released and through it, director Ardeshir Irani brought about the birth of film music through the film. Actor Wazir Mohammed (WM) Khan had a small role in the film, that of a fakir who foretold a prophecy about the Prince Kamar. Alam Ara’s star cast included Prithviraj Kapoor, Zubeida and Master Vithal as cursed Kamar. All of the actors received much recognition but none more than Khan, whose song ‘De De Khuda Ke Naam Par Pyare’ (Give alms in the name of the Lord) became a huge hit. Remarkably, Khan was filmed singing the song live since playback singing wasn’t yet the norm in the Hindi film industry. While he enacted the role of an old man, Khan was only 29. The first talkie, Alam Ara, was primarily shot indoors and at night so the sounds got recorded properly.

Even though the music was such a large part of the film, the composer or the lyricist never properly got their due. The lyrics of ‘De De Khuda Ke Naam Par Pyare’ were in Hindi and Urdu and only two musical accompaniments were used — the tabla and the harmonium. The song was the first to use a commentating chorus. While the lyricist of the song remains unknown, Ferozshah M Mistry is usually credited as the music composer, with B Irani joining him as the second composer at times.

Khan was a theatre actor who had only done small roles in silent cinema before becoming a breakthrough star in the talkies. The song became his calling card. While he appeared in films like Mehboob Khan’s Elan (1947) and Bimal Roy’s Kabuliwala (1961), Khan was always remembered for his rendition of 'De De Khuda Ke Naam Par Pyare' in subsequent remakes of Alam Ara. He reprised his role as the fakir both times, in the 1956 and 1973 remakes directed by Nanubhai Vakil. His original song is lost forever as the movie’s print hasn’t been recovered, all that remains is his versions from the later films.