In 1950, when Sohrab Modi's Sheesh Mahal was being screened at Minerva Theatre in Bombay, the actor was present at the hall. Mr Modi noticed a man sitting in the front row with closed eyes. Upset with such a reaction, he asked an attendant to let the viewer out and return his money. The employee came back to say that the person was blind but had come just to hear Sohrab Modi's dialogues...
Born in Bombay in 1897, Sohrab Modi was a stage actor of the Parsee stage, who had done some work in silent films but returned with the advent of sound as actor, director and producer. In the middle period he had earned quite a reputation as a Shakespearean actor. He travelled throughout India with his brother's theatrical company enjoying the tremendous sense of fulfillment every time the curtain came down and the audience clapped. However since 1931 with the advent of the sound film, theatre was declining. To rescue this dying art, Modi set up the Stage Film Company in 1935. His first two films were 'filmed versions' of plays. Khoon ka Khoon (1935) was an adaptation of Hamlet and marked Naseem Banu's acting debut. The second, Saeed-e-Havas (1936) was based on Shakespeare's King John. Both Films failed.
He then launched Minerva Movietone in 1936. His early films at Minerva dealt with contemporary social issues such as alcoholism in Meetha Zaher (1938) and the right of Hindu women to divorce in Divorce (1938). Though the films did well, what attracted Modi was the historic genre. Minerva Movietone was famous for it's trilogy of historical spectaculars that were to follow - Pukar (1939), Sikandar (1941) and Prithvi Vallabh (1943), wherein Modi made the most of his gift for grandiloquence to encapsule all that is grand about Indian History.
Pukar was set in the court of the Mughal Emperor Jehangir and is based on an incident ,which is perhaps historically untrue, to highlight Jehangir's fair sense of justice. Many of the key scenes were staged in the magnificient courts and palaces of the Mughals that gave the film an authenticity that studio built sets could never achieve. The charisma of its stars Chandramohan and Naseem Banu and the oratory dialogue by Kamal Amrohi with its literary flourish and innate grace ensured the film's popularity.
Perhaps Modi's greatest film was Sikandar which immortalized Prithviraj Kapoor playing the title role. This epic film was set in 326 BC when Alexander the Great, having conquered Persia and the Kabul Valley, descends to the Indian border at Jhelum and encounters Porus (Modi) who stops the advance with his troops. Sikander's lavish mounting, huge sets and production values equalled the Best of Hollywood then particularly for its rousing and spectacular battle scenes and was rated by a British writer as...
"well up to the standard of that old masterpiece The Birth of a Nation."
Its dramatic, declamatory dialogues gave both Prithviraj Kapoor and Sohrab Modi free reign to their histrionic proclivities. The release of the film coincided with World War II at its peak and in India too the political atmosphere was tense, following Gandhiji's call to Civil Disobedience. Sikandar further aroused patriotic feelings and national sentiment. Thus though Sikander was approved by the Bombay censor board, it was later banned from some of the theatres serving army cantonments. However its appeal to nationalism was so great and direct, it remained popular for years. It was revived in Delhi in 1961 during the Indian March into Goa.
Prithvi Vallabh was based on KM Munshi's novel of the same name. The films major highlights were the confrontations between Modi and Durga Khote, the haughty queen Mrinalvati who tries to humiliate him publicly but then falls in love with him.
Although Modi went beyond the Parsee theatre for his choice of themes and even tackled such themes as illicit passion (Jailor (1938), remade in 1958) and incest in Bharosa (1940), his formal approach remained tied to it and evokes the way Parsee Theatre looked and sounded - using frontal compositions and staging the narrative in spatial layers with copious use of Urdu dialogue.
In 1946 after his relationship with Naseem had run its course (though she still worked with him in Sheesh Mahal (1950) and Nausherwan-e-Adil (1957)), he married actress Mehtab who was 20 years younger than him and whom he directed in Parakh (1944) and India's first film in technicolour, Jhansi ki Rani (1953).
For Jhansi ki Rani, Modi had technicians flown in from Hollywood. Mehtab starred as the young queen of Jhansi who took up arms against the British during the Mutiny of 1857 with Modi essaying the role of the Rajguru, her chief advisor. The film was notable for its authenticity in creating the right period and delineating historical events, its spectacular battle scenes and Mehtab's stirring performance even if she was far too old for the role. She achieves stirring dignity in the role as she vows to protect Jhansi from all enemies both within and outside. The ball sequence in Jhansi's palace was superbly shot and Modi achieves great emotional appeal with his characters. Sadly, the film failed to connect with the audience and was a costly misfire for Modi as it crashed at the box-office.
Modi however bounced back with Mirza Ghalib (1954). The film, based on the life of the great Indian poet who lived during the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last of the Mughal Emperors, won the President's Gold Medal for Best Feature Film of 1954. The film beautifully captured the mood of the period, its hedonistic pursuits and the fading magnificence of the court of the last Mughal where poets like Zauq, Momin, Tishna, Shefta and Ghalib assembled to recite their verse. Mirza Ghalib also saw Suraiya's finest dramatic performance as she made alive and vivid the role of the married Ghalib's lover, a courtesan. Ghalib also saw some of her finest singing - Aah ko Chaihiye Ek Umar, Nuktacheen Hai Gham-e-Dil, Dil-e-Nadaan Tujhe Hua Kya Hai, Yeh Na Thi Humari Kismet etc. Her singing is till date regarded as the definitive Ghalibin Hindi cinema. In fact India's then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru paid her the ultimate compliment by telling her she had brought Mirza Ghalib to life. (Tumne Mirza Ghalib ki Rooh ko Zinda Kar Diya).
Though Kundan (1955), Nausherwan-e-Adil and Jailor (1958) had their moments, particularly the latter where Modi gave a chilling portrayal of a rational man turned into a tyrant, Modi's decline had begun. The slide proved irreversible.
Sohrab Modi died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 86, his signature boom muffled, but his spirit remaining indomitable till the end.