The Epic For All Ages: Sikandar (1941)

Producer – Mohan Pictures, Director – Sohrab Modi, Music Director – Mir Sahib, Cast – Prithviraj Kapoor , Sheela, Sadiq Ali, K. N. Singh, Meena, Shakir, Yakub, Jilloo, Vanmala, Sohrab Modi, Zahur Raja, Abu Baker


The epic, Sikandar ( 1941), directed and produced  by Sohrab Modi  remains till date one of the most lavishly mounted  Hindi films with  its sets and battle scenes competing in grandeur and sweep with the best of Hollywood epics like Ben Hur and Ten Commandments, which incidentally followed nearly two decades later. It was the third biggest hit of 1941, and 20th biggest hit of the 40s. 


The majestic battle scenes were shot in open fields of Kolhapur with thousands of extras in costume. The deployment of tuskers, rows of cavalry and batteries of soldiers with spears, swords and shields, bows and arrows during the filming of the battle of Hydaspes makes you realize the width and depth of such a huge canvas and the strategy and discipline required especially when raging elephants stormed towards the camera!


The release of the film coincided with World War II at its peak and India following Gandhi's call was grappling with Civil Disobedience. Sikandar further aroused patriotic feelings and national sentiment and though approved by the Bombay censor board, it was banned from theatres in army cantonments. The film was great at rousing patriotic fervour even after two decades when it was rereleased in Delhi during Goa’s liberation from the Portuguese in 1961.


Sikander dubbed in Persian version reached to huge audience with one of Prithviraj Kapoor's best known roles, surpassed in popularity only by his role as Akbar in Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Rusi K Banker’s magnificent art design and backdrop settings, power-packed dialogues penned by Pandit Sudarshan, who also wrote the story and doubled up as the lyricist. The music was composed by maestros Meer Saheb and Rafiq Ghaznavi (grandfather of Salma Agha). Three of the seven songs in the film deserve mention- Menaka Bai's Uth jag jawani aati hai, Sheela's Jeete desh hamara and H Khan Mastana's Zindagi hai pyaar se.


The leading lady of Sikandar Vanmala Devi or Vanmala (1915-2007) a double graduate, began her film career when she was already a teacher in Agarkar High School of Poona. She starred in several films produced and directed by Acharya Prahlad Keshav Atre - Payachi Dasi, Shyamchi Aai and Moruchi Mavshi. Shyamchi Aai (1953), was a film she produced besides being the female lead, and received the first ever Golden Lotus Award for Best Film at the National Film Awards in 1954. Vanmala had met Sohrab Modi at the premier of Marathi film Lapandav when he was was scouting for a new face for the lead role of Rukhsana in the film Sikandar. 


Sikandar’s tremendous success propelled Vanmala into stardom. But Vanmala’s foray into films was objected maximally by her father cutting off all ties with her and he barred her from coming to Gwalior. After Sikandar, Vanmala did about 22 Hindi films. Interestingly, late Shashi Kapoor’s first ever crush at six, was on Vanmala after he saw the first film of his life, Sikander (1941) in which she was the heroine. He would go on to ask her co-star, his father, for permission to marry her!


The film heavily inspired by Parsi theatre and the dramatic over the top dialogues for Prithviraj Kapoor and Sohrab Modi gave both future Dadasaheb Phalke awardees an opportunity to showcase their histrionic abilities blow for blow. The film was also the debut of Meena Shorey,who later became famous by her moniker the Lara Lappa girl. 


Modi besides working in the Parsi theatre, specialized in Shakespeare, and Prithviraj Kapoor had acted in Shakespearean touring companies. Both men had started their careers in silent cinema. Prithviraj remained primarily an actor, after Alam Ara (1931) he was in New Theatres before returning to Bombay to appear in films such as K. Asif’s Phool. 


Sohrab Modi, a Shakespearean actor, and his production company, Minerva Movie tone, gave epics like Pukar (1939), Prithvi vallabh (1941), Jhansi ki Rani (1953), and the biopic of the great Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib (1954). However, Sikandar is held to be his greatest film. Sohrab Modi according to his actress wife Mehtab rated Pukar amongst his best, in fact so famous was he for his dialogue delivery that when the couple would return from their trips abroad, the Customs Officers never touched their bags. They would make Mehtab and Sohrab Modi sit down and would start reciting the dialogues of Sohrab Modi’s films in front of the bemused thespian!



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