To a generation gone by, Sohrab Modi is the object of much love and admiration. His name was synonymous with grandeur and dignity. He was one of the pioneers of the film industry, and belonged to an era of sincerity in film making that is now extinct. Sohrab Modi’s films have their own charm and when revived evoke a feeling of nostalgia.
His wife Mehtab leads a lonely life today. However, she says that being Mrs Sohrab Modi makes life easier, for people immediately react to her with great respect and help her out. In her huge house at Cuffe Parade, she shares her thoughts on her husband. . . .
“My father was Sedee Ebrahim Khan the Nawab of Sechin, near Surat. When I was a young girl, our neighbors would always say, ‘See she has such a big nose, she is a Parsan. Give her to our family.’ Later, I became a star. I had my kerchiefs monogrammed with ME for Mehtab Ebrahim. Once it was done as MM by mistake. I told the fellow angrily ‘Go and give this to Minerva Movietone.’ Little did know I’d marry a Parsi and be Mehtab Modi one day, the wife of the owner of Minerva Movietone!
“I started working with Sohrab for ‘Parakh.’ At the time of signing the contract, I told him ‘I heard you only take your own close-ups in your films and ignore the others.’ He said ‘But I’m not acting in this film.’ Slowly I found he was getting interested in me. Others too said ‘You’re lucky, he’s the magnet of the film industry.’ But I was very proud and didn’t respond immediately. Then he became friends with my son Ismail from my first marriage. Soon my son wouldn’t eat unless Sohrab came. Meanwhile I too was attracted. But when Sohrab proposed I told him I’d never want to lose my son because of marriage. Sohrab then met my ex- husband, talked with him and everything was cleared.
‘We had a quiet civil marriage on 28th April, 1946 . It was my birthday. We told nobody. His people didn’t approve because I was not a Parsi. But somehow on May 1st, the news was published on the front page of The Times of India. That same evening, we left for Kashmir.
“Sohrab was an extremely considerate husband. He allowed me complete independence. He basically respected all women. Not once did he ask me to stop working in films. In fact, I was dying to work. But after I became Mrs Sohrab Modi, producers stopped offering me any films out of respect for Mr. Modi. So my last film was my husband’s ‘Jhansi Ki Rani.’
“Although he was a Parsi and I a Muslim, we had no problems whatsoever. He respected other religions too. We brought up our son Mehli as a Parsi. Sohrab was very good with my first son. He looked after him like his own son, gave him the best of education. But he looked after others’ children too, and paid for their education. Many are top doctors today. He was very charitable. We’d have people knocking our doors at the oddest of hours for charity. Once at dinner time, someone came to ask him for help. He left the dining table, gave the person some money and returned. I was upset and said ‘Sohrab, can they not leave us to have a meal in peace?’ He said ‘Dear, there are so many crorepatis. Nobody goes to them for help. They come to us instead. So we are kismatwallas.’
“He was obsessed with filmmaking. In fact he had no other interests. I’ll never forget how excited he was when ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ was due for release. He had made so many sacrifices for that film. It was the month of April and he was working from early morning to late night in the hot deserts of Bikaner. He was a hard worker. He had the typical big hands of a worker and he had this bad habit of pulling out his nails, even that of his feet. Sometimes, they’d bleed. I tried to stop him, but in vain!
“He rated ‘Pukar’ amongst his best. People always appreciated its dialogues. When we’d return from our trips abroad, the Customs Officers never touched the bags. They’d in fact make us sit down and start speaking the dialogues of Sohrab’s films.
“His one regret was not being able to make ‘Ashoka the Great.’ He had planned this film with meticulous care. But couldn’t go ahead because of the finance. Sadly it was his closest relatives who deceived him. He gave them power of attorney and when he wasn’t here, the property was mortgaged and we never got anything back. So much of our personal things were lost — like our precious antiques. Even my building at Churchgate which I’d got from my mother was lost. That was the only time he was really hurt in life. He had been let down by his own people. It was they who destroyed Sohrab and me.
“Even after he stopped making films, he was all the time thinking of making one. He’d think of story ideas all along. That’s how even as late as 1982, he had the muhurat of ‘Guru-dakshina’, when he was hardly able to move around. All this was planned when I was abroad. I was quite upset that people took advantage of his weakness for making a film. We lost several lakhs there by way of advance payments etc., since two days after the muhurat Sohrab fell sick and then never recovered.
“But Sohrab was not a romantic person. In fact, as far as romance was concerned, he was quite clumsy. He was not fond of dancing. I loved ballroom dancing. On New Year’s Day I’d see all the couples dancing closely and I’d pull Sohrab to the floor. He’d promptly step on my toes. Otherwise he was so thoughtful. If I played cards all night, at the club, Sohrab would wait for me, dozing in his chair. If I told him we’d go home, he’d say ‘No dear you play.’
“He did not drink or smoke. At parties, he’d call for his ‘gin’ which was just coconut water. He liked drinking tea. But would wait till his tea was absolutely cold before having it.
“Sohrab was a disciple of Vivekananda. And because of that connection, when he had to be operated for cataract he had it done at an ashram in the suburbs.I pleaded with him to go to either of the two best surgeons in Bombay. He refused. Subsequently, he lost that eye. He was sometimes very stubborn.
“I saw him really happy when our son Mehli was born. He was the first child in the Modi family. I would have loved Mehli to be in the film industry. But Sohrab sent him abroad for studies and usually when your children go abroad, they seldom return. Perhaps if Sohrab had insisted on Mehli getting interested in films, things would have been different.
“Even though his heart way completely given to film-making he never felt bitter or frustrated when he saw others making films while he could not. He’d religiously read all the reviews that appeared, but never criticized anyone. If he felt a film was not good, he’d say ‘Dear, this review is not quite alright.’ But he would get depressed. If something wrong happened, he’d say, ‘God closes one door, and opens ten more’.
“There was so much strength in his voice. I still remember it so clearly. But when he was admitted in hospital, he was so quiet. Never did he complain in spite of so much pain. He had cancer of the bone marrow, it had spread all over. I was alone here. My sons were abroad. I pleaded with the doctors to do something. But they said ‘We do not want to treat him as a guinea pig. Let him go gracefully. Just as he is now. There was no vomiting, no hair loss. When he died, he looked as though he was sleeping.
“Sohrab looked after me very well. Today I do everything on my own. I really miss him. There’s nobody to look after me now. – ( Mehtab interviewed in 1986 ).