Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.
As we start to celebrate the 75th year of Independent India, it is a good time to remind ourselves the idea of India. Bollywood, the biggest – and arguably the best – cultural export of India has, rightfully and very admirably, been at the forefront of experimentation with templates that stuck over time. One early example was set up by the first talkie, “Alam Ara”, released in March 1931.
Produced by Ardeshir Irani, a Persi (Iranian immigrant), Alam Ara was bankrolled by a Hindu businessman Seth Badriprasad Dube. The story was written by Joseph David, a white Brit, and was written in Urdu infused Hindi, in the manner of aristocratic speech of early 1930’s. The story vaguely parallels known fables, and foibles, of the Mughal Court, even if it was about a fictitious Hindu royal family. Alam Ara did well in the box office, audience were mesmerized by the songs, a novel concept, presumably starting a century-old symbiotic association between songs and story lines that enthrall millions today. Sadly, no print or gramophone record of the movie exists today, only posters and stills.
The role of the princess Alam Ara, born of an affair between a Hindu wife of the King and a Muslim commander of his army, went to Zubeida, the next leading lady of the time, who also happened to be a daughter of a Muslim cleric. The role almost went to Ruby Myers, a Iraqi Jew, who was the #1 actress those days. Ms. Myers lost out because her spoken Urdu was not good enough. Role of Alam Ara’s biological father, the Muslim commander Adil, was played by Prithviraj Kapoor who began the illustrious Kapoor dynasty of Indian movies. The lead actor role was played by Master Vithal, a Hindu. Master Vithal, plays Qamar, the son of the Hindu King and one of his Hindu wives, even if the name is unmistakably Muslim. Master Vithal started in the industry as a “woman” dancer, progressed to being a stuntman and became an action hero next. In “Alam Ara” his was silent as his diction was perceived to be below par but he still got the role as he had market cache. In a typical Masala fashion, Qamar falls in love with Alam Ara and lives happily ever after, even Adil is forgiven by the King for his dalliance with the queen.
Master Vithal broke his existing contract with a rival studio, which promptly sued to kill this project. In defense of the actor rose the most prominent barrister of the day in Mumbai, a certain Mohd. Ali Jinnah. Jinnah liberally quoted from the Vedas and the American constitution to secure release of the actor. The sound recording was done by an American brought in specifically for the movie. He was paid a very princely sum of Rs. 100 (~USD 10 K in today’s dollars) a day.
Irani took risk on a new technology so you can assume he looked for a tried-and-true tale. Even if the story was simplistic – boy meets girl, not supposed to be, despite all odds they bond, and it all ends well – identities were fused and interchangeable, both for characters in the story and amongst the players who represented them. Do not make Irani seem superhuman though, even if Irani replaced Myers for Zubeida because Myers could not speak Urdu, he kept Master Vithal as he had appeal carried over from his action hero days. If you smell some amount of male domination of the industry, you will not be wrong – the odor surely carries over today. That said, Vithal’s past as a “woman” dancer did not get in the way, some identities were transient even those days. The dog-eat-dog business of Bollywood reared its head in the legal spat, but Jinnah defending Master Vithal exhibited the same identity-agnostic mores that we expect of the best of us.
All of the above came together for a delivery that aimed to please, and make money in the process. In economics there is an idea of revealed preference – roughly said, if you spend money on something then you must prefer those over alternatives – and Bollywood understands that better than most in the world. Alam Ara, and numerous other Bollywood examples thereafter, bet that the idea of India that makes people fork over hard-earned money is that of One India. An India that is established on the building blocks of, and still exemplifies, shared / malleable / fused heritage. An India where any other identity one has is secondary, almost as an afterthought. An idea of India that lets people grow into newer Avatars, takes chances, believes in happy endings, and that pooh-poohs a faux sophistication that mocks these ideas, individually or together.
That idea of India is as alive today as ever. Do not let naysayers guile you into believing anything else.
Happy Independence Day, India!!!