Celebrating the actor-filmmaker’s 120th birth anniversary today (2 November), we revisit his grand historical and period films from Pukar (1939) to Mirza Ghalib (1954).
Commemorating Sohrab Modi’s epic historical films
Mumbai - 02 Nov 2017 8:00 IST
Updated : 11:06 IST
Some of the most opulent historicals were undertaken by Sohrab Modi’s banner Minerva Movietone and he is rightfully remembered as one of the giants of Indian cinema. Growing up in the Rampur state of the central provinces, the young Sohrab spent numerous hours in the library of the local Nawab where his father worked as a superintendent. From thereon, he had a strong command of Urdu.
In 1935, Modi launched his first film, Hamlet aka Khoon Ka Khoon, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play with newcomer Naseem Banu. It was a grand success with critics who appreciated Modi’s sense of style and grandeur but Khoon Ka Khoon (1935) and Saeed-e-Havas (1936), based on Shakespeare’s other play King John, did not do well at the box office.
Both these films were produced under the Stage Film Company banner. Modi established Minerva Movietone, with the emblem of a roaring lion (a nod to the Hollywood studio MGM perhaps), in 1936.
Pre-Independence, Modi made the social film Atma Tarang (1937) which became his biggest disaster at the box office and he contemplated giving up filmmaking forever. However, as Modi sat outside a screening of the film which had only around 20-25 attendees, four men came out and complimented him on the film and asked him to make more films like it. He found out later that they were judges of the Bombay high court. That encouraged him to continue making films.
The early films of Minerva Movietone dealt with social themes of alcoholism in Meetha Zahar (1938), divorce in Divorce (1938) and incest in Bharosa (1940). But the banner became known for its lavish historicals from Pukar (1939) to Mirza Ghalib (1954).
Pukar (1939), starring Naseem Banu as Noorjehan and Chandramohan as Jehangir, was completed in eight months. In the film, Noorjehan accidentally kills the husband of a washerwoman and the widow addresses the Emperor Jehangir to give her justice. Written by Kamal Amrohi, the film was actually shot in real courts and Mughal palaces to give it authenticity.
The film released during a key point of the Indian Independence struggle and the film highlighted “the theme of the citizen’s right to seek an equitable justice” according to Amrit Gangar’s book on Modi. He wrote, “Indirectly, Modi emphasised the nationalistic aspirations of the time through this historical.” He showed the fairness of the Emperor who didn’t let the religion and class influence his decisions.
With Sikandar (1941), Modi cast another thespian with a booming voice, Prithviraj Kapoor, as Alexander/Sikandar while he played the antagonist, Porus, ruler of India at the time of the Macedonian invasion. Set in 326 BC, the film employed high production values for the costumes and props of that era even though the film used a single camera to capture the warring empires.
Foreign publication Motion Picture Magazine praised Modi and wrote that "producer-director Modi is to the Indian Motion Picture industry what that great Cecil B De Mille is to America!" Modi was diligent in his research to the point where he knew the exact weight of Sikandar and asked his actors to maintain a fitness regime and diet to keep in shape.
The memorable exchange between Porus and Sikandar is the highlight of the film when the Macedonian leader asks Porus about his fate after capture. The proud Kshatriya replies, “The way one king should treat another.” The film released when India herself was pulled into World War II and endorsed pacificism more than actual violence.
Another big period film, Prithvi Vallabh (1943), was the adaptation of KM Munshi’s novel published in 1920. Modi played Munj, the kind, just king of Avantipur who is also known as Prithvi Vallabh (beloved of the world). Tailap, the cruel king of the neighbouring kingdom of Tailagan, imprisons him.
Munj tries to escape with Mrinalvati (Durga Khote), Tailap’s sister, who he loves but he is betrayed instead and given a death sentence. For Prithvi Vallabh (1943), Modi enacted a dangerous stunt of being trampled to death himself by an elephant.
For Jhansi Ki Rani (1953), Modi chose his wife and Parakh actress, Mehtab, in a role of a lifetime. The historical film hired the best Hollywood technicians and went all out to portray Mehtab as the queen of Jhansi who took on the British during the Mutiny of 1957. Modi played the queen’s Rajguru (advisor) in the film.
Unfortunately, this big budget film didn’t work at the box office. Mehtab, in a critically acclaimed performance, couldn’t connect with the audience playing a character half her age. But the film’s technological achievements were lauded. It was shot directly on 35 mm, technicolour and director Modi borrowed real weapons from the Indian Defence Department for scenes.
Modi made a comeback with the biopic on the great poet Mirza Ghalib (1954). It was the first Hindi film to win the President’s Gold Medal (known now as the National Award) for best feature film.
Starring Suraiya, the actress-singer, the film was also a musical hit with such ghazals as ‘Nukta Cheen Hai Game-E-Dil’ composed by Ghulam Mohammed. The film also won the Filmfare award for best art direction in black and white for Rusi Banker. The art director made an elaborate set of an underground sewage system, similar to 20th Century Fox’s film, Les Miserables (1952).
However, the great filmmaker lost his studio paying off debts he occurred over the years. His productions after Mirza Ghalib including Nausherwaan-e-Aadil (1957) did not fill the studio’s coffers and his grand plans for further historicals came to an end.
Editor Manju Gupta writes in Gangar’s book that “through his filmmaking career, he determined to recreate history in a grand manner.” The actor-filmmaker attributed his later interest in history to informing future generations of their past.
Modi said, “When I entered the film line and began to study history, I realised how much knowledge there was in history and how we can mould our life on the basis of historical personages. On this understanding, I thought there must be many students like me who hate history, so why don’t I make historical films and give them something of our history, which will make them understand our past and how we can build our future keeping the characters of the past before us (sic).”