The lion on the logo of his banner, Minerva Movietone, could well symbolize Sohrab Modi’s own personality. The Minerva lion’s stentorian roar was respectfully heeded for more than two decades.
Actor-filmmaker Sohrab Modi, made history even as he reinterpreted it for a modern audience. In his midas-touch trilogy of historical spectaculars — Pukar (’39), Sikander (’41) and Prithvi Vallabh (’43), Modi made the most of his gift for grandiloquence, and gave inspiring facsimile recreations of palaces and courts to encapsule all that is grand about the Indian historical heritage.
Strangely, Modi grew up with an acute dislike for history. The son of a Parsi civil servant, Modi spent his childhood in Rampur, UP, where he developed a flair for Hindi and Urdu. After making a name in theatre, he started his own banner, Minerva Movietone, in 1936.
Modi took the industry by storm with his superhit quasi historical —Pukar(’39). Set in the Moghul king Jehangir’s court and studded with Kamaal Amrohi’s poetic dialogue, Pukar explored the ethical ramifications of the supposedly immutable laws of justice. In a moving denouement, Jehangir (Chandramohan) asks the washerwoman (Sardar Akhtar) to take his own life in reparation for that of her husband, who had been inadvertently killed by his queen (Naseem). As the loyal Rajput Sangram Singh, who is willing to sacrifice his son in the name of justice, Modi gave free rein to that rich voice which captivated the audience with its power and pathos.
Later, in the role of the proud Indian king Puru, he drew applause for bandying crackling lines with his conqueror, Alexander, in Sikander (’41). It was said, that even the blind came to Modi’s films to hear his incredible dialogue delivery.
Besides historicals, he also made throbbing dramas of illicit passion, albeit with less spectacular success. Modi’s Bharosa (’40), tackled incest for the first time (Sardar Akhtar’s daughter is fathered not by her husband, Mazhar Khan, but by her lover, Chandramohan. Unfortunately, the daughter chooses to fall in love with Chandramohan’s son!). In Jailor; the tyrannical hero Sohrab, locks up his young wife after she is caught eloping with her lover. In his Prithvi Vallabh (’43), an ageing queen (Durga Khote), falls helplessly in love with King Prithvi (Sohrab Modi) after sadistically torturing him.
His relationship with the famed beauty, Naseem, having come to naught, in 1946 Modi married actress Mehtaab at the late age of 48. Mehtaab was 20 years younger than him but she was still too old to play the title role in Modi’s most ambitious historical, Jhansi Ki Rani (’53). Made in expensive technicolour at a tremendous cost, JhansiKi Rani flopped miserably. Though Modi returned the very next year with Mirza Ghalib, which went on to win the coveted President’s Gold Medal, the subsequent decline proved irreversible.
When he was 86, Modi surprised all by launching a film, Guru Dakshina. But it remained incomplete when cancer intervened. In his last days, even Modi’s signature boom was muffled, but the spirit remained indomitable till the end.