The historical film is one of the oldest genres of Indian cinema, often closely linked with themes of nationalism and the freedom struggle. Favourite periods include the Mughal era (the most popular film being Mughal-e Azam) and, less often, classical India, often used to evoke the glory that was India or highlight how the Indian nation and its unity are rooted in the mists of time. The historical’s popularity waned from the early 1960s but several have succeeded in the 2000s (including Lagaan and Gadar), experimenting with new periods (partition and even the 1960s).
Sohrab Modi, a Shakespearean actor, and his production company, Minerva Movietone, were always associated with this genre. His major historicals include Pukar (1939), which almost ousted Sikandar for its performances by Chandramohan and Naseem Bano, with able support from Sohrab Modi and others, its lavish sets and high drama; Prithvivallabh (1941), based on the novel by K. M. Munshi; Jhansi ki Rani (1953), documenting the fight by Queen Laxmibai against the East Indian Company; and the life of the great Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib (1954), if only for Suraiya’s songs. However, Sikandar is held to be his greatest film.
326 BCE. Sikandar (the Indian name for Alexander the Great) (Prithviraj Kapoor) has reached the Jhelum and is set to conquer India but has to defeat the Indian King Porus (Sohrab Modi). Sikandar’s Persian lover Rukhsana (known in the west as Roxanna) (Vanamala), though shunned by Sikandar’s tutor Aristotle (Shakir), pleads with Porus to spare Sikandar but Porus’ only son (Zahur Raja) is killed in battle, and Porus is captured. However, the two heroes recognize kindred spirits and become friends. Sikandar releases Porus and begins his journey back home.
The film was epic in all senses. Its sets and battle scenes were lavish and no expense seemed to have been spared in creating the grandeur of ancient India. However, it must have been a great risk to make a film in 1941 (at the height of the freedom struggle) in which leaders debate nationalism and defeat. Nevertheless, apparently it managed to evade censor cuts, although it was not shown in cantonment towns (towns where the army was based).
The film is also remembered for the performances of these two imposing Shakespearean actors. Modi had worked in the Parsi theatre, specializing in Shakespeare, and Prithviraj Kapoor had also acted in Shakespearean touring companies. Both men began their careers in silent cinema. Prithviraj remained only an actor, starring in the first talkie, Alam ara (1931), and worked in New Theatres before returning to Bombay to appear in films such as Phool. From a generation who preferred theatre to cinema, he discovered that the latter paid the bills. His sons Raj (whose films include Awaara, Shree 420 and Bobby) and Shammi (Junglee, Teesri manzil, among others) worked almost entirely in cinema, while a third, Shashi (Waqt, Jab jab phool khile, Deewaar, Kabhi kabhie and Silsila), despite a good film career, subsequently devoted his energies to the theatre.
Year – 1941, Genre – Historical, Country – India, Language – Hindi, Producer – Mohan Pictures, Director – Sohrab Modi, Music Director – Mir Sahib, Cast – Prithviraj Kapoor , Sheela, Sadiq Ali, K. N. Singh, Meena, Shakir, Yakub, Jilloo Maa, Vanmala, Sohrab Modi, Zahur Raja, Abu Baker