Sohrab Modi – Interview
Sohrab Modi’s worst subject in school was history. Yet, the little boy who hated his history classes is today renowned as India’s foremost producer of historical films.
But a deep love and study of Shakespeare gave Sohrab Modi a taste for history. He found that a historical theme invariably gave dramatic force to a film and he went on to make a series of memorable historicals, culminating in “Jhansi-ki-Rani,” the most spectacular of them all.
Born in Bombay on November 2, 1897, Sohrab Modi spent his childhood in Rampur, at the home of his maternal uncle. It was here that the foundation was laid of his mastery of Urdu. It was here, too, that young Sohrab received religious instruction from his stern uncle who used to insist on his nephew wearing the Parsi “topi” when sitting down to a meal.
The senior Modi had been a motorman on the Uganda Railway and he later drove the first train into Ratlam station.
The Modis were early associated with the cinema through the ownership of a theatre in Gwalior. Young Sohrab joined his father in the show business, but, right from the beginning, he was more inclined towards acting.
Around this time, the eldest of the Modi brothers, Rustom, started a travelling cinema show. The enterprise was a success and, when Rustom came to Poona as joint owner of the Apollo Cinema, Sohrab carried on with the cinema show tours.
Destined to be connected with films, Sohrab settled in Deolali during the first World War, and made hay during the boom period, buying and selling theatres. In 1923, he bought four cinema houses for two thousand rupees and sold them for eighteen thousand. Meanwhile, brother Rustom had started a new venture: a touring dramatic company.
Later, when Rustom fell ill, Sohrab took charge of the dramatic company. For ten years, Sohrab ran the company which switched over from Marathi to Urdu plays (mainly translations from Shakespeare) in which he played the leading roles.
In 1935, Sohrab returned to Poona and converted the dramatic company into a film producing concern. Known as the Stage Film Company, the unit made films of the plays which they had successfully presented on the stage.
It was in the film version of “Hamlet,” that Sohrab Modi presented to movie audiences a magnificent beauty — Naseem, who was cast in the role of Ophelia.
Meanwhile, Rustom had bought the site of the old Chotani Saw Mills at Sewri, Bombay, and laid the foundation of Minerva Film Company. In course of time, Rustom settled in Hyderabad and, as in the past, Sohrab came over from Poona to run the film comany in Bombay.
Of his enterprising brother, Sohrab says: “I owe him everything.”
Sohrab Modi’s first attempt in film production in Bombay — “Atma Tarang” — proved an utter flop. The company closed down, but within four months, on April 1, 1937, Sohrab revived it under the new name of Minerva Movietone.
Came a series of outstanding films, “Meetha Zaher,” “Jailor,” “Pukar”, “Sikandar,” “Prithvi Vallabh” and “Sheesh Mahal,” and the Modi trademark came to be irrevocably associated with quality.
A brilliant stage actor, renowned for his interpretations of Shakespearean characters, Sohrab Modi brought his unique histrionic talent and superb speaking voice to many an outstanding screen roles. A successful producer, intelligent director, grand actor and a great gentleman, he combines in himself qualities which many would envy.
Modi himself considers “Sikandar” to be his best picture, although he says, “Nothing will ever touch `Jhansi-ki-Rani’ in production values.” Yet, critics and picturegoers seem to be agreed on the fact that “Pukar” is the greatest film Modi has made so far.
Systematic in his approach to historical subjects, Modi, who had dealt with only kings so far, began to look round for a queen around whom he could make a film. He thought of Padmini, the Queen of Chitor, but, wary of Hindu-Muslim friction, he gave up the idea. It was then that Mehtab, his wife, suggested the valiant Queen of Jhansi as a suitable subject, and thus was launched India’s most ambitious film project.
Started as a black-and-white production, it “took on color” when Modi noticed that the lavish sets and costumes were too beautiful to be in mere black-and-white. He spoke to his brother Keki about it and “Jhansi-ki-Rani” became India’s first Technicolor film. As Sohrab smilingly put it, “Once the Modi brothers decide on something, God helps them to do it.”
An enormously expensive project, “Jhansi-ki-Rani” was not quite the success it ought to have been in India. In foreign countries, it has been receiving favorable notices which made Modi remark: “A prophet is never known in his own country.” (This interview was conducted in 1955).