Article Hindi Silent

The pioneering spirit of Bombay Talkies founder Himanshu Rai

On Himanshu Rai's 80th death anniversary, a look at the ways in which the studio he co-founded, Bombay Talkies, influenced the very form of commercial Hindi films.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Himanshu Rai, one of the more influential men in early Indian cinema, has been hailed as a visionary filmmaker who, along with second wife Devika Rani, set up India's first corporate film studio, Bombay Talkies, something many filmmakers have failed to do even 80 years after Rai left the scene.

Himanshu Rai belonged to an aristocratic family and met his partner in business and life, Devika Rani Choudhury, while preparing for the shooting of his film, A Throw Of Dice (1929), an Indo-German co-production directed by Franz Osten. After the completion of the film, Rai proposed to Devika Rani despite being married at the time to a German woman, Mary Hainli, with whom he also had a daughter.

Rai and Devika Rani starred together in Karma (1933), a film that still holds the record for longest on-screen kiss in Indian cinema. It was Rai’s first talkie film while Devika Rani was making her acting debut. Made simultaneously in English and Hindi, the film was premiered in London, with a special screening organized for the royal family. With its Eastern exoticism, the film charmed England but failed to attract an audience in India.

The following year, the couple, along with a few others, set up Bombay Talkies as a joint stock company with some of the most distinguished people in Bombay then on its board of directors. With a German team that included Osten, cinematographer Josef Wirsching and art director and set designer Karl von Spreti and an Indian team comprising producer Sashadhar Mukherjee, writer-director Amiya Chakrabarty, screenwriter Niranjan Pal and production designer NR Acharya, amongst others, the studio was set up in Malad, then a village far away from Bombay, much beyond the distant suburbs of Bandra and Santa Cruz.

Equipped with modern technology that included soundproof stages, editing rooms, a preview theatre and facilities for artistes and administrative staff, the studio set the benchmark for film production in the country.

While the early silent films made by Himanshu Rai were Orientalist in nature and presented the 'exotic East' to a Western audience, like The Light Of Asia or Prem Sanyas (1926), Shiraz (1928) and A Throw Of Dice (1929), a significant shift occurred with the setting up of Bombay Talkies. With the coming of the talkie, the focus changed as Rai and Devika Rani began to make films about contemporary life in India and engage a wider audience in India. Significantly, this was also the time when the nationalist struggle in India was on the rise and the founders sought to create a quintessentially Indian identity for their enterprise.

Their first film was a romantic whodunnit Jawani Ki Hawa (1935), starring Devika Rani and Nazmul Hussain, followed by another romantic drama, Jeevan Naiya (1936), the film that introduced Ashok Kumar.

Next came one of their biggest successes, the social film Acchut Kanya (1936), on the subject of untouchability, with Devika Rani playing a young Dalit woman who falls in love with an 'upper-caste' young man played by Ashok Kumar. Film historian BD Garga has written, “In a period of political and social unrest, it was a pertinent theme.” It was particularly notable for the authenticity of dialogue and glimpses of rural life, which were, as Garga noted, “in refreshing contrast to many other contemporary films”.

The films that followed continued the studio's engagement with contemporary social issues — Janma Bhoomi (1936), Izzat (1937), Jeevan Prabhat (1937), Nirmala (1938) and Durga (1939) are all examples. Though the studio saw a string of unsuccessful films, it bounced back with Kangan (1939), which introduced Leela Chitnis.

Some images from the Bombay Talkies studio days in FilmIndia. Courtesy: Peter Dietze

With its studied dialogues, elaborate costumes, lighting, music and sets; Bombay Talkies established the commercial form of Hindi cinema and became fertile ground for young talent to prosper. The studio became as famous for its cosmopolitan atmosphere as for its films, with everyone eating together in the canteen irrespective of social status, caste or religion, and employing nearly 400 people at one point.

But all this exacted a huge toll on its primary founder, Himanshu Rai. In 1939, leading film journalist Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, who, incidentally, began his career as a film publicist with Bombay Talkies and later went on to become a well-known screenwriter and director himself, wrote about Rai, “Few persons have any idea of the amount of work he does — from the writing of the scenario and dialogue to the printing of publicity posters, there is nothing to which he does not give his personal attention. Indeed, he does too much work and in his own interests and in the interests of the studio he should share it with others.”

Abbas proved prescient. Himanshu Rai suffered a nervous breakdown and died, aged 48, on 16 May 1940, leaving an indelible mark on India's film history.