New Delhi, Nov 2 (IANS) Among the titans of the Indian film industry, his forte was the grand epic that brought various phases of the subcontinent’s history – ancient, medieval, and early modern – to vivid life and enabled him to use his booming baritone, which even drew blind people to cinema theatres just to hear his grandiloquence.
Be it as the Rajput nobleman Sangram Singh in “Pukar” (1931) set in the times of Mughal Emperor Jahangir, Raja Porus in “Sikandar” (1941), in the title role of the Parmar king in “Prithvi Vallabh” (1943), as the Rajguru of Rani Lakkshmibai in “Jhansi ki Rani” (1952), or the bitter persecuted Jew Ezra in “Yahudi” (1958), Sohrab Modi strode the silver screen with his imposing presence, boundless histrionic abilities, and thunderous voice.
He delivered a trailblazing performance as a kind and rational man turned domestic tyrant – and twice over – in “Jailor”, made first in 1938 and remade in 1958, with totally different casts save him in the title role.
Sohrab Merwanji Modi, who was born on this day (November 2) in 1897 and was still seen onscreen in his mid-80s as he essayed the role of Hema Malini’s shrewd yet prudent, axe-toting wazir in “Razia Sultana” (1983), left his undeniable stamp on Indian films as a producer and director too, where comparisons with the likes of Hollywood’s D.W. Griffiths and Cecil B. DeMille were often made.
In this, his contribution was not only for entwining the bombastic flamboyance of Parsi theatre with Hindi films as the sound era transformed the industry – a tradition that still lives in dialogues, songs, and the “confrontation” trope across the entire spectrum of entertainment medium, but also, like his contemporary V. Shantaram, realising the potential of films to dwell on and deliver a powerful message on social issues.
Even in the 1930s, Sohrab Modi’s films, made under his Minerva Movietone banner, had broached issues like alcoholism and the right of Hindu women to divorce, but did not stop there and moved on more taboo subjects like illicit love, incest, patriarchy, and the stultifying influence of tradition and social status in a new egalitarian age.
But, he did not remain confined to one kind of cinema focused on the vicissitudes of modern life as his oeuvre went on to span a number of genres, from the historical epics to costumed swashbucklers like “Raj Hath” (1956), and “Nausherwan-E-Adil” (1957), religious films like “Narasinha Avatar” (1949) – one of the few not to feature Jeevan as Narad Muni – and remakes of literacy classics, like “Kundan” (1955) based on Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”.
And in the midst of this, he had the fortunate responsibility of reviving the image of one of the greatest Indian poets in public consciousness, with “Mirza Ghalib” (1954), where the golden tones of Suraiya provided an unforgettable interpretation of his verse – be it in the elegantly-choreographed “Aah ko chahiye ek umar”, “Nukta cheen hai”, or “Yeh na thi hamari qismat”, or that evergreen “Dil-e-nadaan tujhe hua kya hai”, with Mohd Rafi.
Till his demise in 1984, Sohrab Modi was engaged with the film world though his powerful voice had weakened due to illness and age. As his wife – and frequent co-star – Mehtab once revealed, he had no other interests apart from film-making.
And in this too, he had his own quirks. Filmmaker Kamal Amrohi, who got his break in Hindi films as a scriptwriter with “Pukar”, reveals when he wangled an appointment with Sohrab Modi to pitch a story idea, the filmmaker was taken aback to see a youth barely out of his teens, but began listening politely, then with growing attention and interest, and finally, opened his desk drawer, took out some halwa and offered it to Amrohi.
As a mystified Amrohi sat eating it, Sohrab Modi went to the next room and typed a contract for Amrohi. Amrohi later learned from the staff that the habit of sharing halwa signalled Sohrab Modi’s full approval.
But it was with his powerful voice that he left his mark – sparring with Prithviraj Kapoor, whose Grecian looks fully fitted the title role in “Sikandar”, with haughty Durga Khote in “Prithvi Vallabh”, with the Roman Emperor (Murad), a forthright Meena Kumari, and a characteristically understated Prince Marcus (Dilip Kumar) in “Yahudi”, and placating a range of increasingly exasperated and outspoken nobles, like Balban (Ajit) in “Razia Sultan”.
As the tale goes, Sohrab Modi was in a Bombay theatre to check the audience’s response to his latest film and saw a man sitting with his eyes closed. Irritated, he asked an aide to usher him out and refund his ticket money. The aide came back to report that the man was blind and came just to listen to Sohrab Modi,
What greater tribute can be paid?
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at email@example.com)