Sohrab Merwanji Modi-From stagecraft to filmcraft

Sohrab Merwanji Modi-From stagecraft to filmcraft-Bollywood Legend
Sohrab Modi (a.k.a Sohrab Merwanji Modi) won the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1980. Join Calcuttatube in an EXCLUSIVE tribute to the Bollywood Legend who has shaped the nature of Indian Cinema. A revolutionary journey from the excellence in stage performance to the glowing silver screen. Article by Mithi Chinoy.
Sohrab Modi - A Tribute

Sohrab Modi - A Tribute

There was a time many decades ago when Parsi theatre had some of the best talent of the times in each department of stagecraft. As time passed and films became popular, one artiste towered over all the others. He was Sohrab Merwanji Modi. He had an exceptional ability to combine the theatrical elements of Parsi theatre with the demands of film in such a way that they were remembered for the next many generations.
  • Born:       2 November 1897, Gujarat, British India. [now India]
  • Died:     28 January 1984, Bombay, Maharashtra, India (aged 86)
  • Also Known As:     Sohrab Merwanji Modi/ Sohrab Modi
  • Years Active:     1935 – 1983
Adapting Shakespeare
However, this was but a small part of his fantastic contribution to Hindi films. The reality was that he did much more than this. In fact, he was the first to adapt Shakespeare to the Hindi film screen. He is widely remembered for making historicals, replete with trademark period costumes. Being an exponent of Urdu, he wrote prolifically in the language and was a master director to thespians. Of course, he was also a very outstanding actor.

Early years
He was born in Mumbai in 1897 and began his working life as an exhibitor in Gwalia with his brother K.M. Modi. But he took to the stage as an actor when his elder brother Rustom Modi, a partner in Ittefaq, launched a theatre group called Arya Subodh Natya Mandali. It was here that he first adapted Shakespeare to a mix of Urdu and Hindi. Though this had been tried earlier by other writers, it was Modi’s distinctive ability that helped adapt Shakespeare’s blank verse powerfully and suitably into Urdu dialogue.

He scripted Hamlet under the title of Khoon Ka Khoon, where he played Hamlet (Jehangir) opposite Ophelia (Naseem Banu). This effort transformed him overnight to a great stage actor and this adaptation, brilliant in all ways, was one of the 20s’ biggest stage hits. In the next 10 years, Khoon Ka Khoon was adapted to film, and was as successful as its stage counterpart. Its success paved the way for other Shakespearian plays. With the success of these plays and films, Modi’s vision and style grew leaps and bounds unlike his contemporaries, who stuck to the demands of the stage. Modi, however, went far beyond it.

He continued to use the basic Parsi theatrical elements such as visual space, dialog delivery, posture and formal structure. Now, he also combined all these elements with his chaste Urdu dialog and his sense of drama. And the result was fantastic in terms of grandeur, sophistication and style.

No wonder, film history regards him on a par with K. Asif and Kamaal Amrohi as the third master of historical dramas. Films such as Sikandar, Khan Bahadur, Prithvi Vallabh, Jhansi Ki Rani, Sheesh Mahal, Nausherwan-e-dil and Mirza Ghalib are proof of this.

Actor, director, producer par excellence
Acting wasn’t his only forte—he also wrote scripts for all his films. He acted in Bimal Roy’s Yahudi and won a lot of praise for it and then went on to work for other directors, and last of all in Kamaal Amrohi’s Razia Sultan, for which he is best remembered.

Before this, he had worked in silent films, but when sound became an integral part of films, he returned to be actor, producer and director of Hindi films. His films, apart from the history and chaste Urdu dialogs, always had a social message linked to Indian national and social issues.

The coming of sound to films marked the death of theater. To revitalize this art, Modi set up the Stage Film Company in 1935. His first two films, Khoon ka Khoon (1935) was an adaptation of Hamlet, and Saed-e-Havas (1936) was based on Shakespeare’s King John. Both these were filmed versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Despite their obvious brilliance, both films flopped.

Minerva Movietone
In 1936, he launched Minerva Movietone. Around this time, his films always dealt with a social theme. So, his 1938 film, Meetha Zaher, dealt with alcoholism just as Talaq dealt with Hindu women’s right to divorce (1938).

These films did well, but Modi was still in love with historical films. Soon, Minerva Movietone produced the famous historical trilogy—Pukar (1939), Sikandar (1941) and Prithvi Vallabh (1943)—three fantastic opportunities for Modi to show off his talent for eloquent dialog delivery that evoked another age, another time.

Pukar tells the story of Emperor Jehangir’s sense of justice and is set in his court. The film was shot mainly in the palaces and imposing Mughal courts, lending the film more authenticity than a studio could. The combination of Kamaal Amrohi’s oratory, the charisma of stars such as Naseem Bano, the film’s literary milieu and the tehzeeb of the times were the film’s high points.

According to critics, Modi’s best film to date is Sikandar, which had Prithviraj Kapoor playing the epic role of Sikandar or Alexander the Great. This historical epic was set in 326 BC when King Alexander the Great, reaches the river Jhelum on India’s borders and encounters King Porus (Modi) who repulses his advances. But Sikandar, flushed with his recent success of conquering Persia and the Kabul Valley, and defeats and imprisons Porus.

In prison, Sikandar asks Porus how he would prefer to be treated. Porus replied he would like to be treated in the same way as a defeated king is treated by a winner. Impressed by his answer, Sikandar set him free.

This film is remembered even today for its lavish sets and mounting, and production values next only to the best of Hollywood, especially in its battle scenes. Years later, this movie was rated by a British writer as being “well up to the standard of that old masterpiece The Birth of a Nation.” The power of the dialog and its wide scope gave both Modi and Prithviraj Kapoor the opportunity to explore this genre further.

Historically, this film was released in India at the height of World War II. At this time, India was very tense, as this coincided with Gandhiji’s call for Civil Disobedience. At such a sensitive time, this film served to arouse nationalistic feelings among the people. Due to this, it continued to be popular among the masses for years to come and was revived in 1961 in Delhi in 1961 when the Indian March into Goa took place.

The third of the film trilogy was Prithvi Vallabh, a film based on K.M. Munshi’s novel by the same name. Here, Durga Khote played Queen queen Mrinalvati, whose attempts to humiliate him in public only ends with them falling in love.

Social themes
Modi also made other films on social themes such as Jailor (made in 1938 and remade in 1958), a film based on illicit passion and Bharosa (1940), a film on incest. Despite this, his approach to films remained theatrical. He still had the same stagecraft as Parsi theatre, so he used compositions from the front and staged the narrative in spatial layers with a generous dollop of Urdu dialog.

In 1946, his relationship with Naseem came to an end, though professionally they were still together. She worked with him in Sheesh Mahal (1950) and Nausherwan-e-Adil (1957). He married Mehtab, an actress younger than him by 20 years and whom he had directed in his Parakh (1944).

An incident is recalled when in 1950, Sohrab Modi’s Sheesh Mahal was screened at Minerva Theatre in Bombay. At the time, Modi was also in the theatre. He watched a man sitting in the front row, his eyes closed. Hurt at his reaction, Modi asked the usher to let the man leave the theatre and return his ticket money. The usher returned with the news that the man was blind but had come to the movie just to listen to Modi’s rendition of his dialog.

In 1953, Modi made Jhansi Ki Rani, a film that is best remembered for being India’s first technicolour film. For this movie, the director had specially flown in technicians from Hollywood. Mehtab played the title role of the young rebellious queen who took on the might of the British during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Modi played her chief advisor, Rajguru.

This film was renowned for recreating the period with all the historical events in the minutest detail—the battle scenes, palace intrigues, etc. Mehtab’s excellent performance and the ball scenes in the palace were the highlights of this film, though the audience did not take to it and so proved to be a costly mistake for Modi.

Undeterred, Modi returned to the filmscape with his Mirza Ghalib (1954), based on the life of perhaps the greatest Indian poet who lived during the reign of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. One of its many distinctions is that it won the President’s Gold Medal for Best Feature Film in 1954. It also won the Golden Lotus Award for Best Film at the National Film Awards in 1955.

As always, Modi captured the social-economic ethos of the times in his film, apart from the pleasure-seeking pursuits of the people and the magnificence of the court fast losing its importance. Poets such as Momin, Zauq, Shefta, Tishna and Ghalib met here to recite their poems.

Modi made Kundan in 1955 and Nausherwan-e-Adil and Jailor (1958), and though all these movies were good, it was Jailor in which Modi portrayed the role of a sane man who turns into a despot. After this, none of Modi’s films ever reached the stature of his earlier films. In 1959, he made Pehli.

Awards and recognitions
Sohrab Modi was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1980, the 10th recipient of this prestigious honor. The thespian died at the age of 86 of cancer in January, 1984.

Article by: Mithi Chinoy

Filmography:

  • Razia Sultan – Vazir-e-Azam      1983
  • Rustom – Actor      1982
  • Meena Kumari Ki Amar Kahani – Director      1981
  • Ghar Ki Laaj – Actor      1979
  • Ek Nari Ek Brahmachari – Raisaheb Surajbhan Chaudhary      1971
  • Jwala – Actor      1971
  • Veer Chhatrasal – Actor      1971
  • Samay Bada Balwan – Director      1969
  • Woh Koi Aur Hoga – Actor      1967
  • Mera Ghar Mere Bachche – Director      1960
  • Pehli Raat – Actor      1959
  • Jailor – Director, Dilip, Producer      1958
  • Yahudi – Ezra      1958
  • Nausherwan-E-Adil – Director, King Nausherwan-e-Adil      1957
  • Raj Hath – Director, Raja Babu      1956
  • Kundan – Director, Kundan, Producer      1955
  • Mirza Ghalib – Director, Producer      1954
  • Jhansi Ki Rani – Director, Raj Guru, Producer      1952
  • Sheesh Mahal – Director, Thakur Jaspal Singh, Producer      1950
  • Daulat – Director      1949
  • Narasinha Awtar – Director      1949
  • Manjhdhar – Director      1947
  • Ek Din Ka Sultan – Director      1945
  • Parakh – Director      1944
  • Prithvi Vallabh – Director, Munja      1943
  • Phir Milenge – Director      1942
  • Alexander the Great – Director, King Porus, Producer      1941
  • Bharosa – Director      1940
  • Pukar – Director, Sardar Sangram Singh, Producer      1939
  • Jailor – Director, The Jailor, Producer      1938
  • Jailor – Director, The Jailor, Producer      1938
  • Meetha Jahar – Director      1938
  • Talaaq – Director      1938
  • Atma Tarang – Director      1937
  • Khan Bahadur – Director      1937
  • Said-e-Havas – Director      1936
  • Khoon Ka Khoon – Director, Hamlet      1935

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