FPJ Anniversary 2021: Chasing the Bollywood dream: From Bombay Talkies to Mumbai Studios

11:46 PM Jul 23, 2021 | Roshmila Bhattacharya

On January 28, 1934, a 22-year-old law student from Kolkata stepped out of the train with a look of wonder in his eyes. Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly had spent the Rs 35 his father had sent him to pay for his second-year exams to buy a third-class ticket to the City of Dreams. His college principal in whom he had confided his secret desire to make movies, had suggested that Kumud meet Himanshu Rai who had just arrived from London to start a studio in Bombay (now Mumbai).

He joined Bombay Talkies soon after, starting out in the camera department, and was promoted to lab assistant after eight months. Impressed with him, Himanshu Rai had sent him to his German cinematographer for a screen test, but shaking his head over the results, Franz Osten had warned the youngster that he would never make it as an actor. A nonplussed Kumud had told him that he had not come to Bombay to act in films, but to direct them.


Thereafter, the boss’s actress-wife, Devika Rani, eloped with her Jeevan Naiya co-star, Najmul Hussain. While she was eventually accepted back, her lover was no longer welcome. Looking for a replacement, Rai came across Kumad smoking outside the lab. He had made an unmemorable one-scene appearance in the runaway couple’s earlier film, Jawani Ki Hawa. Overriding his protests, the reluctant boy was pushed in front of the camera with Rai holding on to his patience as Kumud reported for the first day’s shoot with half his head shaved, then, brought down his leading lady’s carefully constructed bouffant and fractured the knee of the villain, Massey, with an ill-timed boxer’s punch.


Despite everything, the film was a hit. But Kumud, christened Ashok Kumar for the screen, still preferred a job as an income tax commissioner or a police inspector to acting in the movies and wanted to go back to Khandwa with his father. Rai packed his father back home and packed Kumud off to the theatre in a new suit to watch himself on screen. During the interval, the hero was introduced to his first fans, the Maharaja and Maharani of Gwalior.

Achyut Kanya followed. Ashok Kumar wooed a dozing Sarojini Naidu with his on-screen singing at a special trial show held for Jawaharlal Nehru. He went on to rule showbiz for over 60 years.

Achyut Kanya

Interestingly, his mentor was also working toward a law degree in Kolkata, going to London to study for the Bar at the Inner Temple. There, he started doing bit roles on stage, was spotted by Niranjan Pal who cast him as lead in his play Goddess and Rai, like his protégé, quit law to become an actor and a filmmaker.

He went on to collaborate with Munich’s Emelka Film Company on a film scripted by Pal, The Light of Asia. Himanshu Rai played Gautam Buddha with Renee Smith, an Anglo-Indian girl renamed Sita Devi, as Princess Gopa. The film was presented to King George V and Queen Mary at the Windsor Castle, ran for four months at the Philharmonic Hall and was rated amongst the 10 best films of 1925.

Followed two more international joint productions, Shiraz and A Throw of Dice, in 1929. Devika Rani, the grandniece of Rabindranath Tagore, was the costume designer on the latter. After the film wrapped up, she married Rai and went on to play his lover in Karma four years later. The film, made in Hindi and English, brought the couple many tempting offers, but they chose to return to India and set up Bombay Talkies in 1944. The studio launched the careers of many ‘outsiders’, their biggest find after Ashok Kumar being Dilip Kumar.

Dilip Kumar in Devdas

Mohammed Yusuf Khan was the fifth of 13 children of a fruit merchant with orchards in Peshawar and Deolali. He ran a canteen in the Air Force cantonment in Pune and dreamt of scoring a century for the country in a cricket match. But a chance meeting with Devika Rani got him hired on the spot. When he confessed to director Amiya Chakraborty that he did not know the ABC of acting, he was instructed to observe Ashok Kumar who was filming the 1943 top grosser Kismet.

Yusuf Khan made his debut in Jwar Bhata, begging his producers to not use his real name. He remembered how angry his father had been with Prithviraj, the son of their neighbour in Peshawar, Lala Basheshwer Nath Kapoor, believing the young man was wasting his life acting on stage. He crossed over to Mumbai, opened Prithvi Theatre and his sons, Raj, Shammi and Shashi, followed him into films, the eldest taking the legacy forward with his own banner, RK Films, and RK Studio.

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Like Bombay Talkies, RK Studios also introduced new faces like Nimmi, who came from Abbottabad with her nani and raised a storm when she let Prem Nath get her pregnant before marriage in Barsaat. Three decades later, Raj Kapoor unveiled Meerut girl Yasmin under a waterfall as Mandakini. That image remains etched in our collective consciousness even though the Ram Teri Ganga Maili actress has long since faded away into oblivion.

After the actor-filmmaker’s demise, his elder son, Randhir, brought Zeba Bakhtiar down from Pakistan for the cross-country romance, Henna. Before her in 1943, Dharamdev Pishorimal Anand had arrived by the Frontier Mail from Lahore with just

Rs 30 in his pocket. The English literature graduate worked as a clerk with an accountancy firm, scrutinized letters written and received by Indian soldiers forced to fight their own in the censor office at the General Post Office, before landing a three-year contract with Prabhat Studio. He flagged off his film career with Hum Ek Hain in 1946, but his big break, Ziddi, came only two years later with Bombay Talkies after Prabhat shut shop.

Dev Anand impressed Ashok Kumar, who had bought the studio by then, telling him that his remuneration would be people saying that Ashok Kumar had given the industry a star. This kind of confidence, so rare in a 24-year-old still-struggling actor, led to him launching his own production house in 1949, Navketan Films. Some of those Dev Anand launched, from Guru Dutt, Kalpana Kartik, Waheeda Rehman and Zeenat Aman to Jackie Shroff, Tina Munim and Tabu, have made their place in Hindi film history. Others like Christine O’ Neil, Shoib Khan, Shaista Usta, Raman Kapoor and Fatima Shaikh have become history. But almost all of them had no film background, some even new to the city and the country.

India has film industries flourishing in many states, but the reason Biswajit Chatterjee, a star in Bengal, left his family back home to carve a niche for himself in Bollywood, first as a ‘suspense hero’ and then as a ‘desi Elvis’, is because Hindi cinema has always a wider reach as compared to regional cinema, bringing in not just a pan-India but also a global audience. But for every Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, who went on to become the Shahenshah and Badshah respectively, there are thousands of starry-eyed aspirants who have returned home defeated.

The exodus from the South, which started with Padmini, Vyjayanthimala and Waheeda and continued with Rekha and Hema Malini, hasn’t dried up. But while Jaya Prada and Sridevi still make us do a Tathaiya Tathaiya Ta Thai, the Sripradhas, Bhanupriyas, Shanti Priyas and Vijayshantis have been drowned out. Even doyens like Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, Mammootty and Mohanlal, Chiranjeevi, Suriya and Vikram have gone back to rule their own kingdoms, but that hasn’t kept the likes of Dulquer Salmaan, Mahesh Babu, Prabhas, Rana Daggubati, Vijay Deverakonda, NRR Jr. away. Or for that matter Keerthy Suresh, Rashmika Mandanna and Samantha Akkineni as well.

Preity Zinta came from Shimla, Kangana Ranaut from Manali and Priyanka Chopra from Ambala. Mithun Chakraborty from Kolkata, Ayushmann Khurrana from Chandigarh and Sushant Singh Rajput and Manoj Bajpayee from Delhi via Bihar. Katrina Kaif came from London, Nargis Fakri from New York, Jacqueline Fernandez from Sri Lanka and Lisa Hayden from Australia…There’s something about Bollywood that draws artistes from across the globe and all walks of life. Perhaps that something has a lot to do with the fact that it is rooted in the City of Dreams. But many have realized, agonizingly so, that some dreams die too.

Today, not many will believe that Dharmendra who came from Sahnewal in Punjab to audition for Filmfare’s United Producers’ Talent Hunt Contest, was all set to return home to his job of boring holes for tubewells despite winning the contest and landing Bimal Roy’s Bandini. The film took five years to release and for two years, the handsome Jatt made the rounds of studios and producers’ offices with his two friends, Shashi Kapoor and Manoj Kumar. The three musketeers would land up together, hoping one of them would land a film, but most days would return to their digs empty-handed.

One day, Manoj Kumar got a note from Dharmendra informing him that he was going back to Punjab. He rushed to Matunga Railways Quarters and convinced his friend not to board the Frontier Mail, but give himself two more months in Bombay. On the third day, he bagged Picnic. It’s another story that the film was eventually made with Manoj Kumar while Dharmendra started out with Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere. It’s their success story that everyone remembers today.

Garam Dharam went on to rule as Hindi cinema’s He-Man, giving life lessons to Guddis and paving the way for his sons, Sunny and Bobby, and daughter Esha. Manoj Kumar’s patriotic dramas have immortalized him as Mr Bharat.

And so, the march continues. Like moths to a flame, young people chase after the Bollywood dream. knowing it’s as fragile as Dresden China and can shatter easily… Knowing that the glitter is that of a firefly and can turn into darkness quickly… Knowing that name, fame and money is ephemeral. Yet, no nepotism debate, no #MeToo scandal, no headline-grabbing suicide or NCB raid can keep them away.

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