The fantastical world of Bollywood has been a mystery for outsiders for decades. Curious spectators have stood on the sidelines of this larger-than-life industry and watched in wonder. Happenings have been hushed, hidden behind closed doors and protected by those who exist within its four walls of Bollywood but Life Magazine’s Photographer James Burke was lucky enough to be invited behind the velvet curtain in 1951, and his stunning photo series of a Screen Test for Kardar Productions gives us a very real insight into the Bollywood of that ultra glamorous era.
A. R. Kardar of Kardar Productions was a pioneer of the Indian film industry. 40 distinct works marking his lifetime represent the gradual, mesmerising evolution of Bollywood right from the silent era of films in pre-partition India, to the young, newly independent India of the 1970’s, his career archives the entire, beautiful journey. Not only time, but Kardar’s range of films spanned genres too, from historical films to social dramas and family entertainers. Dil Diya Dard Liya (1966), Yasmin (1955) and Baghban (1938) were classics that put Miyan Ji (his nickname) on the map, along with iconic songs like Suhaani raat dhal chuki (Rafi’s first hit) from Kardar’s Dulari.
Naturally, Kardar’s box office legendary hits thus had the privilege of featuring some of Bollywood’s most gifted talent. And, as it happens in life, all big stars had to start somewhere. This gripping photography series captures the grind of showbiz all aspiring actresses were subjected to, with not-so-subtle undertones of objectification, sexism and reinforced class hierarchies. Step into a monochromatic 1951 Bollywood, and you can almost smell the misuse of power. Have things changed today? Possibly only in the colours these same photos might have had injected into them, but as even the best photoshop artist of our time would admit, you can’t edit reality.
Scroll on for a glimpse into 1951 Bollywood.