The persona of Sohrab Modi - the producer, director and actor - comprises many facts of Indian film history that need to be taken note of. His career spanned an eventful half a century (1934-1983) that narrates great stories about the man who had definite views about the cinema as well as life. He is a model to many a filmmaker and artiste engaged in art, craft or commerce today.
This volume evokes the period of early filmmaking, including the Parsee Theatre and the early Indian penchant for Shakespearean plays that continues to this day. Sohrab Modi occupies a special place in the history of Indian cinema for his grand cinematographic creations and interpretations of the medieval and later history of India.
"For me the good director is one who can translate the script well on to the screen. The script is the written word and if that is well translated audio-visually on the screen, so as to hold the public pulse, he is a very good director. "
Amrit Gangar has authored/co- authored several books on cinema in English and Gujarati. As the founder-director of Datakino, he set up the database for the Films Division's production of documentary, short and animation films from 1949 to 1993. Through his persistent research and efforts, he restored a significant documentary called India's Struggle for National Shipping, directed by Paul Zils, a German filmmaker working in Bombay. This film chronicles the development of Indian shipping and mercantile marine and features several of India's national leaders and eminent nationalist entrepreneurs. It was shown nationwide soon after India attained Independence on 15 August 1947 and was the only national film to be released during Independence Week. Recently, Gangar presented the Cinema of Prayoga programme at the Tate Modern, London.
Chronicler of history, producer, distributor and director, the actor with the velvet voice that was the passionate, larger than life Sohrab Modi, aptly named 'The Great Mughal of Historicals'.
Coming into his own at the beginning of the struggle for freedom from the British, he had a heightened sense of time and of history. Through his filmmaking career, he determined to recreate history in a grand manner. Perhaps to compensate for his regret at not having taken history as a subject seriously enough through school or, perhaps, to show how history should be brought alive to students. Even when he adapted Shakespeare, it was the historical plays he was attracted to.
Hamlet became khoon ka khoon whle king John became Saeed-e-Havas. Success or failure - came and went, but Modi treated them equally. He made films, set up companies Minerva Movietone became his legendary studio. He acted, directed and produced through a momentous period of Indian cinema history. In his long career which started when he was 16 and ended with his death in 1964 when he was 58, he was involved in different ways with literally hundreds of films. His abiding concerns were with society, and with history and he created memorable films and memorable characters. The opulence and spectacle remain unmatched in films like Pukar or Sikandar. The attention he paid to sets, costumes, music resulted in some of the most lavish films made in the history of Indian cinema. Never one to take the easy way out, he brought in the cameraman Ernst Haller, who had shot Gone with the Wind, as director of photography for Jhansi ki Rani. But some of the films he is remembered by today, Jhansi ki Rani and Mirza Ghalib, were box-office disasters, though critically acclaimed. For once the critics were proved right!
Passionate about acting, he was just as passionate about society as about India. When acting alone did not always bring him the sort of roles that matched his interests, he turned to directing. When that also brought some constraints from the producers, he turned a producer himself. For him, it was the film that mattered, not himself. With his prodigious talent and immense generosity, Sohrab Modi enjoys pride of place among the legends of Indian cinema.
Amrit Gangar is a writer, an archivist, a chronicler himself, and as passionate about preserving the heritage of Indian cinema as Sohrab Modi was about putting his concerns on the screen. They make an eminently well-matched pair and it was only appropriate that we ask Amrit Gangar to write this book about Sohrab Modi, one of the giants of Indian cinema.
The success of the first Indian talkie Alam Ara, made in 1931, gave birth to various genres of films among which the 'historical' finds a significant place. During the silent era too there were a few films that could be classified as 'historical'. One of the most prominent films in this context was a 1923 silent film called Sinhagad, directed by Baburao Painter. It was based on a classic Marathi novel, Gad Aala Pan Simha Gela by Hari Narayan Apte, one of the best-known early 20th-century novelists. The film re-enacted a famous episode in the military career of the 17th-century Maratha king, Shivaji, and his lieutenant, the folk-hero Tanaji Malusare. It featured Tanaji's invasion of Sinhagad fort in the dead of night, using his pet lizard to run up the wall with a rope, and his death in victory.
In Indian cinema the word' genre' is not used as strictly as it is in the West. But still, considering the dominating theme and concern, our films could broadly be classified into different genres. The 'historical', for instance, mainly conceptualised the national heroes who fought either against the British colonialists or other aggressors - whether Mughal, Greek or whosoever. Interestingly, the 'historical' also included in some ways the 'mythological' that alluded to the British rulers, like V. Shantaram's Amritmanthan (The Churning of the Ocean, 1934), wherein the asuras or demons were meant to be the British who were forced to succumb to the suras or divine beings. Even the illiterate could decode the mytho-histories that the producers underlined. Sometimes, the British authorities did grow suspicious about such films. Bhakta Vidur (1921) was an early silent film directed by Kanjibhai Rathod, and it attracted British censorship because of its Gandhian message of freedom wrapped in mythology. However, Sohrab Modi, as he once said, felt quite distant from mythology even though he believed that the present was rooted in the past. His approach was more spectacular and direct.
Modi always regretted the fact that while at school, he didn't take the subject of history seriously. He said, "I gave more weight age to historical pictures because when I was in school, I hated the history classes. Whenever there was a history class, under some pretext or the other, I would go away to the library. I always told myself that what was the use of knowing why Charles-I was beheaded or what Shivaji or Aurangzeb did? I thought the meaning of school education was to teach students what they should do in the future. But when I entered the film line and began to study history, I realised how much knowledge there was in history and how we can mould our life on the basis of historical personages. On this understanding, I thought there must be many students like me who hate history, so why don't I make historical films and give them something of our history, which will make them understand our past and how we can build our future keeping the characters of the past before us."
When Modi made some of his famous films, India's freedom struggle, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, was at its peak. Though Gandhi was averse to cinema for various reasons, his persona and his message inspired many a filmmaker across the country. Their films became part of contemporary film history. When one talks about the so-called historicals, Sohrab Modi (1897-1984) stands tall as he tried to recreate and interpret the history of India in a grand manner. It wasn't easy for him to make such films because they required long and arduous research and lavish budgets that matched his perceptions. And the perfectionist in Sohrab Modi always made this task more difficult for he was also the conceiver and author of his films. Modi was an idealist who would take risks to fulfil his dream of translating inspiring chapters from Indian history on to celluloid.
Sohrab Merwanji Modi was born on 2 November 1897 in Bombay in a large orthodox Parsee family. He was the eleventh child of his parents. With a Parsee touch of humour, he would recall later, "I was born when there was nothing like family planning." Modi's childhood was mostly spent in the Rampur state of the Central Provinces, where his father was the local Nawab's superintendent. In the Nawab's fabulous library, young Modi would spend long hours studying Urdu. He acquired an excellent flair for the language. His maternal aunt brought him up because he had lost his mother when he was barely three-years old. His father used to work in Africa and hence was often away from home. In 1914, he obtained his matriculate degree from the New High School at Parel in Bombay. One day he went to the school principal, Mr Murzban, to seek guidance on what career to pursue. The principal told him, "Sohrab, looking at the quality of your voice, I think you should either be a politician or an actor."
And as Modi said later, "Thank God, I didn't become a politician but an actor." Throughout his life, Modi often recalled this anecdote very fondly.
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