85th anniversary: Indra Sabha, a film with nearly 70 songs

In 1932, Madan Theatres launched an opera with Indra Sabha, featuring 69 numbers, a record yet to be beaten 85 years later.

Sonal Pandya

Madan Theatres' Indra Sabha, which debuted in February 1932, holds the distinction of having the most number of songs in an Indian film. Around 69 tunes were composed by Nagardas Nayak and sung by the lead actors Nissar (as Gulfam) and Kajjan (as Sabj Pari), who reunited after the popular hit Shirin Farhad (1931). Indra Sabha was adapted by the Sayed Aga Hasan Amanat play for the Lucknow court of the Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah. First staged in 1853, it is considered to be the first finished Urdu stage play. Set in Indra's court, the story follows a king who has his mettle tested when an apsara (fairy) asks for his help as a fallen woman. Vilayat Hussain played Indra.

While it wasn't uncommon for a Bombay talkie to contain around 40 songs, the nearly 70 numbers of Indra Sabha were shot as the characters talked in verse in the form of songs. Directed by JJ Madan and made on the heels of India's first talkie Alam Ara (1931), the musical was performed as a grand opera with numbers in different regional dialects besides the usual Hindustani and the Urdu ghazal. Indra Sabha's Italian cinematographer T Marconi was probably inspired by previous European opera epics and shot the film like a neo-classical production.

The film's script was written by Aga Hashr Kashmiri, widely known as the 'Shakespeare of Urdu'. With a running time of 211 minutes, the fantasy film promised 'lavish settings' and 'dazzling beauties in Indra's court' set to unconventional dance styles not common to that period. In contrast, Aspi Irani's Navjawan in 1937, became the first Hindi talkie to be released without songs. And despite this ambitious project by Madan Theatres, the studio did not successfully survive the transition from silent to sound and it closed down in the late 1930s.