The Bustling Streets of Mumbai, India in 1929: Vintage Footage Captured with Very Early Sound Cameras

“Though hard­ly a cin­e­mat­ic mas­ter­piece,” film crit­ic Andre Soares writes, “or even a good film,” Al Jolson’s 1927 The Jazz Singer will for­ev­er bear the dis­tinc­tion of “the first time in a fea­ture film that syn­chro­nized sound and voic­es could be heard in musi­cal num­bers and talk­ing seg­ments.” What usu­al­ly goes unre­marked in film his­to­ry is that Indi­an cin­e­ma was nev­er far behind its U.S. coun­ter­part. The country’s first fea­ture sound film appeared just four years after The Jazz Singer. Now lost, the love sto­ry Alam Ara debuted in March of 1931 and ini­ti­at­ed a ven­er­a­ble tra­di­tion with its sev­er­al songs, includ­ing the first major fil­mi music hit.

The movie was so pop­u­lar, one his­to­ri­an notes, “police aid had to be sum­moned to con­trol the crowds.” Its direc­tor Ardeshir Irani was inspired by anoth­er ear­ly Hol­ly­wood part-talkie musi­cal, 1929’s Show Boat, which, like his film, used the Movi­etone sys­tem to record sound, rather than the Vita­phone sys­tem used in The Jazz Singer. Movi­etone, or Fox Movi­etone, as it came to be known after William Fox bought the patents in 1926, was also respon­si­ble for anoth­er ear­ly film devel­op­ment, the sound news­reel, a tech­nol­o­gy that made its way to India almost as soon as it debuted in the U.S.

The first sound news­reel, show­ing footage of Charles Lindbergh’s tak­ing off in the “Spir­it of St. Louis,” debuted in 1927 in New York. In Novem­ber 1929, Fox opened the first exclu­sive news­reel the­ater on Broad­way, and in Jan­u­ary of that same year, a Movi­etone cam­era cap­tured the street scenes of Bom­bay (now Mum­bai) that you see above, over 13 min­utes of footage com­plete with live audio record­ing of bustling crowds, busy ven­dors and laun­dry work­ers, honk­ing auto­mo­biles, and clip-clop­ping hors­es.

This incred­i­ble doc­u­ment pre­serves the sights and sounds of a sig­nif­i­cant Indi­an slice of life from 90 years ago, and shows how ear­ly the tech­nol­o­gy for mak­ing sound films arrived on the sub­con­ti­nent. When Ardeshir Irani began film­ing his ground­break­ing musi­cal the fol­low­ing year, he would use exact­ly this same tech­nol­o­gy, shoot­ing all of the dia­logue and music live, on a closed set late at night to avoid unwant­ed noise like the street sounds you hear above.

Learn more of the Fox Movi­etone news­reel sto­ry here, and here, learn how Indi­an cin­e­ma began in Mum­bai in 1899 when Indi­an pho­tog­ra­phers, writ­ers, the­ater impre­sar­ios, and entre­pre­neurs like Irani took the new tech­nol­o­gy and used it to build a cul­tur­al empire of their own.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

India on Film, 1899–1947: An Archive of 90 His­toric Films Now Online

100 Years of Cin­e­ma: New Doc­u­men­tary Series Explores the His­to­ry of Cin­e­ma by Ana­lyz­ing One Film Per Year, Start­ing in 1915

Immac­u­late­ly Restored Film Lets You Revis­it Life in New York City in 1911

Down­load 6600 Free Films from The Prelinger Archives and Use Them How­ev­er You Like

Free: British Pathé Puts Over 85,000 His­tor­i­cal Films on YouTube

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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