Sohrab Modi – The Lion of Minerva
With the advent of sound in the beginning of the thirties in India, a new vista had suddenly become open to the young art of the cinema. The audio-visual culture in our literature, drama, poetry and music was invited to partake of the new possibilities of expression offered by this young art. Many were hesitant to step forward. Proud, traditional artistes looked down upon the talking film and doubted its capacity to absorb their art forms.
Into this dormant yet potential field stepped a tall handsome young stage actor who was to leave behind the mark of his magnetic personality and booming voice. He explored the wealth of the field with the passion of a lion and elevated our films to a grand height of dramatic expression.
His name was Sohrab Modi (02 Nov 1897 – 28 Jan 1984). Through his towering talents, the essence of Indian stage and drama evolved to paint, on films, the glowing picture of our history and cultural heritage in a remarkable fashion.
“My first love was the stage. My brother Rustomjee and I travelled all over the country staging ‘Hamlet’. But times were changing fast. Films were gradually displacing the theatre. Stage theaters all over the country were being converted to cinema houses.”
The travelling Modis were now forced to settle down and change over to films. And, in Poona, their Arya Subodh Natak Mandali was transformed into the Stage Film Company. The first film production, Khoon ka Khoon (1935) was an Urdu adaptation of Hamlet. The presentation in the film was exactly in the manner of the stage – Flat frontal compositions in master shots with not much discernible camera movement.
Playing Ophelia, this newcomer had only one asset then – a pretty face. So that the frail, shy and timid girl may have confidence in herself, I invited her mother, Shamshad, to play the role of Hamlet’s mother. A well-known singer. Shamshad, too, had no acting experience. With her mother around, Naseem (Saira Banu’s mother) did well as Ophelia. This was the modest beginning of her notable screen career.
His second stage-play film was Saede Havas (1935) written by Agha Hashr Kashmiri from an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King John and followed by Khan Bahadur.
Moving to Bombay, his studio Minerva Movietone was established in 1936. Beginning with ‘Jailor’ (1938) came a series of highly purposeful socials laced with strong drama, based on topical themes of the time.
Modi’s performance in Jailor as the frustrated warden, who is deprived of the affections of both his wife and the blind girl he loves, will remain in memory as one of the most multifarious character portrayals on our screen.
“The title role of Dilip in ‘Jailor’ brought out my histrionic ability. The ungainly Dilip turns vindictive when his wife deserts him. Then a blind girl comes into his life. He looks after her and ultimately falls in love with her. He is anxious that she should regain her eyesight but is afraid that she might not like him when she sees his ugly face. All the while l was in the grip of this complex character.”
After this came ‘Talaq’ (1938, on divorce), ‘Meetha Zeher’ (1938, on alchoholism) and ‘Vasanti’ (based on unwed mothers).
1939 kick started a period of transition from ‘Socials’ to ‘Historicals’. Modi revealed that in either form the common factor was the essentials of powerful drama which was capable of moving the hearts of audiences, “What matters most in drama is its capacity to grip the emotions of the spectators through human elements and move them. However perfect a drama may be if it is incapable of doing this, it fails in its purpose.”
The three major historicals which he made – ‘Pukar’ (1939), ‘Sikandar’ (1941) and ‘Prithvi Vallabh’ (1943) brought about the ultimate refinements of Sohrab Modi’s talents both as a director and actor. The theatrical style of the stage-drama was able to build the grand image of an era and people whose life and emotions were shown to be larger than the reality of the present. Recollecting these films, Sohrab Modi made important revelations about the basic creative procedure by which he built his great dramas on film.
“I have always believed that great drama was born through conflict; not between opposing qualities like good and evil or strength and weakness, these gave rise only to common place inferences but conflict between qualities of higher virtues – like conflict between patriotism and love or between the principles of justice and love for one’s own kith and kin.
The clash of these superior values tested the weight of one against the other. Each value then emerged from the conflict purified from the experience. The tension that ensued from this clash involved the spectator in a gripping participation of the drama.”
Sohrab Modi’s historicals when seen in this light, display the working of the very theory of conflict in the plot. In ‘Sikandar’ we had the clash between Porus’s patriotic love for his land and Alexander’s admiration and respect for his enemy.
“I gave myself the role of Porus in ‘Sikander’. Though defeated in battle, his dignity and courage won him the respect of Alexander the Great, played by Prithviraj. Years later when it was released in London, the British press described it as a great motion picture and ‘The Manchester Guardian’ compared it with D. W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’.
ln ‘Pukar’, several lines in the drama, linked with one another, built up the contest between passion for justice and love for one’s own kith and kin. Emperor Jehangir’s love for his wife, Noorjehan, clashed with his passion for justice when he found her accused of murdering a dhobi (washerman).
The scene where Jehangir, played by Chandramohan, balancing the scales of justice commands the dhobi’s wife (Sardar Akhtar) to take the Emperor’s own life by shooting him with the same arrow that killed her husband, is one of the great moments in Indian cinema.
‘Prithvi Vallabh’ was built on a somewhat different pattern with the combat between opposing forces of haughty pride and free, unbound love. The scenes in the cells where the arrogant queen (Durga Khote) succumbs to the affections of her captive would today be a censors nightmare.
“In ‘Prithvi Vallabh’ that I played the lover for the first time, A great patron of the arts and letters, the valiant and just Malwapati Munj (affectionately called Prithvi Vallabh) is taken prisoner by his sworn enemy Taileb. The captive falls in love with Taileb’s sister who is a sanyasini. Enraged at this, Taileb orders that Munj be trampled to death by an elephant. But Taileb’s sister joins her lover and shares his fate.”
“My historical films may not have been authentic to the last detail but history, if adhered to, can only be a dry documentation of facts. Drawing facts from history, I improvised and highlighted the drama. And when, from the strong conflicts of the drama emerged the right image of great personalities and times, the aim of the film was successfully accomplished.”
In the play of friction between men and men, men and situations, the potent dialogue of Urdu and Hindi drama has never found a better vehicle of delivery than the powerful and deep permeating voice of Sohrab Modi. The words of Agha Hashr and Kamal Amrohi were literally used by Modi as weapons directed against human sentiments, social and moral order. In this field of dialogue delivery, Modi employed what was exclusively his own technique of the ‘throw of words’ with a voice laced with fire and virility. The higher concepts and satires of Urdu drama were imparted qualities of ‘throw’ and penetration through Modi’s own remarkable style.
Between Pukar and Sikandar came ‘Bharosa’ (1940), a social with a sensational story on incest. Other successful gripping dramas like ‘Shama’ (1946) and ‘Sheesh Mahal’ (1950) followed. Through the years a decadence in public taste vis-a-vis good drama was gradually takin g place. Frivolous and light entertainment began to rule our cinema screens.
Modi’s most ambitious historical ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ (1952), made in collaboration with foreign technicians on a grand scale in Technicolor suffered a terrible fate at the hands of the public. Poor box-office response and the great financial loss suffered by the film dealt a severe blow to Modi’s existence as a creative producer.
“Anxious to make the film authentic, I spent large sums of money on correct costumes, settings, location shooting, and on foreign technicians and colour equipment. The project was riddled with difficulties which gave me many sleepless nights.”
Several films followed thereafter like ‘Mirza Ghalib’ (1954) which won the President’s Gold Medal for the best film, ‘Kundan’ (1955) and ‘Mere Ghar Mere Bachhe’ (1960). But Modi could not recover from the fate of “Jhansi Ki Rani,” a fate which led him to retire from active film-making in 1953.
Sohrab Modi’s works have made a tremendous contribution to the artistic culture of our films. They have to be preserved as documents depicting our best efforts to adapt the traditions of the stage and drama to the film form. Students of the cinema — as also our future audiences — should view them from time to time to experience the grand inter-play of drama and study their construction of form. Especially in periods of decadence in the cinema, audiences and film-makers can look back to superior films made in the past to draw inspiration and lessons from them.
Modi was honored with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1979.
For your viewing pleasure, here is Sohrab Modi’s historical trilogy:
3) Prithvi Vallabh