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Sikandar (1941): Masterful meeting of titans Sohrab Modi and Prithviraj Kapoor

On Prithviraj Kapoor's death anniversary, we revisit one of his legendary roles as Alexander the Great in Sohrab Modi’s historical classic.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Prithviraj Kapoor, patriarch of the illustrious first family of Hindi cinema, the Kapoors, is where it all began. From making his mark on stage and in silent films to becoming the reigning star of the talkies, Kapoor’s career spanned an impressive time period and left a rich legacy that is still being ably carried on by the current generation of the clan.

Born on 3 November 1906 in Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province, now in Pakistan, Prithviraj Kapoor started acting in school plays at an early age and gravitated towards theatre and later, cinema, beginning his career as an unpaid extra in October 1929. He soon got acting roles and worked in several silent films.

His first film as a leading man was Cinema Girl (1930) opposite Ermeline. A spate of successful films followed, many of them with Calcutta's New Theatres. Rajrani Meera (1933), Seeta (1934), Manzil (1936), Vidyapati (1937) and President (1937) were a few of his early successes. He also worked in the first talkie, Ardeshir Irani’s Alam Ara (1931), in which he played a small role of the sipah salaar (general), a scene of just eight lines, which required the young actor to play an older man.

However, with his background in theatre with the Grant Anderson Theatre Company, his commanding voice and impressive good looks, Prithviraj Kapoor was, in many ways, the ideal choice to play magnificent, imposing characters and it was many such roles that immortalized him.

Sohrab Modi’s training as an actor was similar to Kapoor’s. Also a product of the stage, Modi was known as a Shakespearean actor, but the coming of sound films in 1931 led to a sharp decline in theatre audiences. In 1935, Modi formed the Stage Film Company, with the intention of filming his plays, enabling them to reach a wider audience. The following year, having gained knowledge about the popular cinematic arts, he set up his production company, Minerva Movietone.

While Modi's early films dealt with social issues, it was the historical genre that really attracted him. Sikandar (1941) then, in many ways, became a meeting of the titans of Hindi cinema. Revisiting the historic Battle of the Hydaspes, or the river Jhelum, between King Porus aka Puru and Alexander the Great, the film was released when the Second World War was well underway and makes manifest its anti-imperialist sentiment and feelings of patriotism.

Set in 326 BCE, the film features a rather content Alexander or Sikandar (Kapoor), who has conquered Persia and is gambolling with an Iranian woman, Rukhsana (Vanmala). His teacher, Aristotle, warns him that to conquer the world, he must conquer himself and not fall for the wily, all-consuming ways of a woman. Although Rukhsana resists this idea bitterly, Alexander realizes what he must do and marches forth towards the Indian subcontinent, determined to conquer the land.

The Indian king Porus (Modi) prepares to meet him in battle though tales of Alexander’s prowess on the battlefield strike fear in the hearts of many other rulers.

Prithviraj Kapoor in a still from Sikandar (1941)

After establishing both Sikandar and Porus as formidable rulers in their own right, the film builds up to the point where the two stalwarts coime face to face. One such scene is when Alexander uses stealth and, disguising himself as a messenger, wishes to see Porus for himself. The next is when the two meet after the battle and Porus is Alexander’s prisoner. Both scenes are deeply satisfying as Kapoor and Modi are at their best, with Alexander being the victorious but generous one and Porus being the sensible and proud ruler who sets his terms despite being on shaky ground.

All-powerful and arrogant in part, Alexander is an imposing figure and Kapoor brings a playfulness and innate likeability to the character. His enthusiasm and physicality are a foil to Porus’s restrained and dignified maturity. There are several scenes reminiscent of theatre in both their staging and the actors’ performances, and with punchy dialogues by Pandit Sudarshan, the figures come alive on screen.

Mounted on a lavish scale, the attention to detail in the film is staggering, so much so that there is even a tiny scene that shows the military tents being rolled up and moved, a detail not seen in many films! The costumes of both the armies are intricately designed, incorporating elements from the respective countries that they represent.

At the beginning of the film, Modi expresses his gratitude to Her Highness Maharani Tarabai Saheba of the princely state of Kolhapur and state officials for the battle scenes. Hundreds of elephants, horses and cavalry come together in the battle scenes that enact the historic moment, bringing it alive on screen, and 80 years after the film’s release, these scenes remain impressive. YD Sarpotdar's cinematography captures the enormity of the clash in its fullness, transporting us to the battlefield.

With its production values, the film was a visual treat. But it also struck a chord with the audience with its patriotic fervour. Several dialogues by Porus are about how a foreign invader must be stopped at all costs. The idea of sacrificing oneself for the nation in a just battle resonated deeply in the country at a time when India's fight against the colonial rulers was intensifying. Anticipating trouble, the censors banned the screening of the film in army cantonment areas.

Described in advertisements as a 'million rupee spectacle', the film was released on 30 September in three theatres simultaneously and went on to become the biggest hit of the year.

In an interview to the Filmfare magazine years later, Prithviraj Kapoor remarked that he had learnt a great lesson early on in his career: “It is not all we do in this world for which we deserve credit, only the best.” Sikandar has certainly stood the test of time as one of the best, going down in the annals of film history as a landmark in Hindi cinema.

The thespian died on 29 May 1971. The following year, he was honoured posthumously with the Dadasaheb Phalke award. Click here to watch Sikandar.