As a new series, Prithvi Vallabh, is premiered on television, we revisit Sohrab Modi’s grand old film which, incidentally, turns 75 this October.
75 years of Prithvi Vallabh: In love and war with Sohrab Modi, Durga Khote
Mumbai - 28 Jan 2018 7:00 IST
Once upon a time in Indian cinema, historical dramas and mythological films thrived. There was a keen audience for them during the silent and early talkie era. Slowly, as the nation changed and grew, the genre faded away and now only a handful of such films are made.
Last weekend, a new series titled Prithvi Vallabh – Itihaas Bhi, Rahasya Bhi began airing on SET. The show stars Ashish Sharma as Prithvi and Sonarika Bhadoria as Mrinal. However, the 80-episode series is not entirely based on the original source material.
Sohrab Modi, who passed into the ages this day 34 years ago (28 January 1984), adapted KM Munshi’s 1920 Gujarati novel Prithvi Vallabh into the 1943 film. It was previously made into a silent film in 1924 by Manilal Joshi which was criticized by Mahatma Gandhi for its subject matter. Sandow, Fatma Begum and Zubeida all starred in the silent version.
Modi, the actor-filmmaker, was known for his grand period and costume dramas. It was no surprise then that he was drawn to Munshi’s novel. Naturally, he produced and directed the film under his banner Minerva Movietone.
Prithvi Vallabh is the story of the long-standing rivalry between king Munj (Modi) of Avantipur and king Tailap of Tailangan. The neighbouring countries have gone to battle numerous times. On the 16th occasion, when Tailap is defeated and made to wash Munj’s feet, he vows he will finally have his revenge.
Tailap’s sister Mrinalvati (Durga Khote) taunts him relentlessly when he returns home, defeated again. She is haughty and absolute in her views and rules over her brother with an iron fist. Together, they hatch a plan to imprison Kavi Dhananjay (Sadiq Ali) and his young associate Rasnidhi (Al Nasir) so this time Munj will have to come to their kingdom to be defeated.
Their plan works and the brother-sister pair are elated. There is a grand parade to celebrate their victory. Throughout this, king Munj, who is widely known as Prithvi Vallabh for his brave and benevolent nature, holds his head high as he is marched through the streets of Tailangan and later jailed. He comes from humble beginnings; he was an orphan who rose to be king.
The two kingdoms have very different rulers — Mrinalvati has taken a vow of abstinence and forbidden singing and dancing amongst her subjects. In contrast, Munj, even while imprisoned in an iron cage in the town square, leads the Tailangan into a song.
Mrinalvati doesn’t believe in love, but Munj believes he can woo and charm her. The first time Mrinalvati sees him up close, in his jail cell, she inadvertently smiles and then frowns to assert her power over Munj.
But this story does not have a happy ending. Even though Mrinalvati falls for Munj’s charms and spends the night with him, she is insecure and has a change of heart about eloping with him.
It turns out that Rasnidhi is actually Rajkumar Bhoj, Munj's son, and has an escape plan in place with help from king Bhillamraj (KN Singh) from a neighbouring kingdom. But Munj wants to wait for his love. The wait is in vain. He is ordered to be executed, crushed underfoot by an elephant.
Though Munj had defeated Tailap 16 times in battle, he had spared his life. Tailap isn’t so accommodating when it is his turn as victor. But Prithvi Vallabh (Sohrab Modi in fine monologue form) brings the kingdom to tears as he goes bravely to meet his maker.
Modi risked his life to film the execution scene without a double. Reportedly, the filmmaker was quite fond of elephants and took special care of the animals on set.
Prithvi Vallabh’s finale is surprisingly moving. Khote and Modi excelled in this genre and their performances are top-notch. Their love story, of an older couple, is mentioned about a few times in the film. Usually, there aren’t many romances to explore love after the first flush of youth.
Besides Khote and Modi, the cast included Jahanara Kajjan, Meena Shorey, KN Singh and Sankatha Prasad as king Tailap. Most of female characters in Prithvi Vallabh are shown to be infinitely wiser than their male counterparts.
Singer Amirbai Karnataki had an interesting role as Charini, a female ascetic, who has an ominous vision for Mrinalvati’s future. She also sang a few songs in the film, the soundtrack of which was composed by Saraswati Devi and Rafiq Ghaznavi. The lyrics of the songs were written by Pandit Sudarshan, who pitched in to write the dialogues as well.
However, those grandiose lines seemed majestic at times and downright silly at others. Rajkumar Bhoj flirts with Bhillamraj’s daughter princess Vilas (Shorey) and they have a juvenile exchange. “Har samay geet [Every time a song]?” she says. “Main kavi hoon [I'm a poet],” he replies and asks in turn, “Har samay hasi [Every time a giggle]?” To which she laughingly retorts, “Main ladki hoon [I'm a girl].”
Despite that, the big-budget Minerva film was ambitious and highly entertaining. The black-and-white film was released on 10 October 1943 at the New West End theatre in Mumbai (then Bombay). Nowadays, barring exceptions like Bajirao Mastani (2015) and the Baahubali films, historical and period dramas are few and far between. And with films like Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat (2018) coming under fire for what is historical and what is fiction, it is unlikely that many makers would delve into exploring that genre as past filmmakers did.