The biggest surprise that this film has to offer is that rap was invented in India! Oh, yes. Here is incontrovertible proof, given us by two guys who had the outfits a bit wrong but all the hand movements just right. Listen to this (it’s short)!
Seriously though, this movie is so much fun to watch (thanks again Muz!). It reminded me of Pukar in its wealth of detail, the ringing oratory, and the deft insertion of much-needed humor through vignettes of village life—easy informality and jokes in contrast to the rigid protocol of court and battle campaign. Unlike Pukar, there weren’t subtitles so a lot of the discourse (“room talk” as Raja puts it) went over my head; luckily, though, I could follow most of the action, thanks to finding this scene by scene synopsis on the net (although it wasn’t entirely accurate!). And also unlike its predecessor, this has lots of spectacularly mounted battle scenes (which are a little too realistic at times). Sohrab Modi spent a pretty paisa on this, and it shows. Lots of extras, both human and equine (and elephantine!), elaborately rich costuming, awesome sets and outdoor scenes.
And of course: Prithviraj Kapoor. What a man. The beauty of him and Chandramohan in one weekend was almost too much for my poor heart. Dazzling! He IS Sikandar, investing him with an arrogance and stature that is magnificent—although not entirely likable. Sikandar’s temper is quick, but his charisma leaps off the screen in scenes both small and large—his laughter and (often quite fey) movements in moments of relaxation, and his commanding presence in front of his army. Prithviraj doesn’t have the rich baritone yet that he did in his later years, but he matches Modi in his theater-trained projection! Shashi really is a carbon copy of him. His way of speaking, his laugh, his mannerisms and his incredible good looks—all reminded me strongly of his youngest son.
Here’s what I mean by fey: he is almost campy at times, but it gives Sikandar an otherworldly and unconventional quality that works.
The film opens after the conquest of Persia, with Sikandar’s tutor Aristotle (Shakir) lamenting his absence at a large gathering of troops. Sikandar is busy romancing Rukhsana (Vanamala), a Persian woman with whom he’s fallen in love. Aristotle chastises him for being distracted, and warns him that beautiful women will be his downfall. Sikandar reassures an upset Rukhsana that he loves her, but the invasion of India is uppermost in his priorities at the moment.
Off he goes with his army, soldiers singing and winning battles as they march inexorably on towards the river Jhelum and India. Rukhsana follows after them surreptitiously.
As they near the Jhelum river, an Indian scout spots them and rides hell for leather home to warn King Porus. This little sequence is a great example of Modi’s visual mastery. The horse gallops furiously through the countryside, arriving in a cloud of dust at the Indian court. The rider flings himself off and races inside, and we get a closeup of the horse’s heaving sides and blowing nostrils. It perfectly conveys the urgency of it all.
Plus, I want that blanket or shawl or whatever it is covering the horse.
King Porus (Sohrab Modi) hears the messenger out, and confers with his sons Tamar (Sadiq Ali) and Amar (Zahur Raja). They encourage him to fight; Tamar says that Porus’ strength can defeat Sikandar and Porus contradicts him: God’s strength, not his. (I am v. proud that I understood that exchange!)
Porus sends his senapati to round up the neighboring kings. One of them is King Ambhi (KN Singh!), and he declares his intention to cooperate with Sikandar to his disapprovingly patriotic sister Ratna (Meena Shorey).
She accuses him of cowardice and praises the bravery of King Porus (lots of room talk here, but that’s the gist of it I am pretty sure).
Ambhi sends a load of gifts to Sikandar anyway, offering friendship and cooperation which Sikandar accepts.
Meanwhile, Rukhsana has arrived in India disguised as an Indian woman. She comes across a group of villagers celebrating Raksha Bandhan. Sukhmani (Sheela) sings as they tie rakhis and play dandiya around a Maypole (wait, Indians invented that too?). Sukhmani explains to Rukhsana that it’s a day where sisters tie rakhis on their brothers in exchange for their protection and gifts.
One little boy sobs on his father’s lap—he has no sister, Sukhmani tells Rukhsana, which makes him sad. Nor, she adds, does King Porus. This gives Rukhsana an idea, and she somehow wangles an audience with Porus (the details on this escape me, although he seems to let pretty much everybody in).
Meanwhile in the palace garden Ratna is flirting with Tamar, refusing to tie him a rakhi. As she leaves Amar enters and gently teases his brother about his romance. The word “bhabhi” is flung about and Amar laughs while Tamar looks suitably embarrassed (and pleased.) Cute!
Porus meets Rukhsana, and agrees to let her tie a rakhi on him, although he points out to her that the bhai-bahen relationship is mushkil—which I think maybe means complicated more than difficult in this case? He then gives her some money and her own rooms in his palace, which astonishes her. I’m not sure exactly what follows, except that she says something about Sikandar, which in turn surprises him. He won’t let her untie the rakhi, however (he’s never had one tied before, he says).
At his camp, Sikandar (he is called Alexander by his troops throughout, by the way—only Sikandar by the Indians) meets with two of his generals and there’s a lot of room talk which also escapes me. According to the synopsis, they are telling him that Porus is ready for battle. Doesn’t matter though, I’m happy just to stare.
Porus now meets with the neighboring Kings—except Ambhi, who is ensconced at Sikandar’s camp.
Porus’ fabulous pony-tailed (literally) turban-crown thingy definitely makes him numero uno though.
They all agree to fight against Sikandar’s unnecessary aggression, and there is a bhajan while everyone prays at the mandir for victory (at least, that’s what I assume).
Sikandar is angry when the monsoon rain stops his troops from crossing the river, and judging from what follows decides to go and see Porus in disguise. His generals are horrified, but you can’t stop Alexander the Great! First, he talks lovingly to a portrait of Rukhsana—I guess he’s missing her.
Then he goes to Porus’ court disguised as one of his own messengers, to bring the declaration of war. As it is read out loud in his court, Porus realizes that it is Sikandar himself in front of him; he announces it to the crowd, startling everyone—especially the smug Sikandar.
Sikandar acknowledges that he’s caught, and takes off his fake beard. There is a long exchange between the two (oh! for some subtitles!) where I guess Porus points out that he could kill Sikandar but that he won’t, which wins him a grudging respect from Sikandar before he’s sent off back where he came from.
In a moonlit garden, Ratna sings and Tamar romances her on a swing.
This time they are caught by both little brother Amar and the Rajmata, who tease Tamar when Ratna runs off shyly. Very sweet indeed! This lull before the storm continues in the village with another Sheela song, as the villagers go about their routines, baking bread and feeding their cattle. Old men sit by a game smoking a hookah, discussing the upcoming war and joking with one another. I really really wish there were subtitles for this—judging from scenes that were like this in Pukar, it’s probably pretty funny.
I know this post is going on and on, but there’s so much to share! That night, accompanied by pouring rain and crashes of thunder (but no day-night continuity issues!) Sikandar and his army sneak across the river Jhelum to attack the Indians. Porus sends his son Amar to lead their troops through the first skirmish; Amar addresses his men from his chariot, Sikandar his from horseback, and the battle begins.
I fret about the horses, and Amar is killed by a spear to the throat. When Porus is informed, he and Ratna comfort the Rajmata and he readies himself and his remaining son for another battle. On the field, Sikandar stands by Amar’s body and chastises a soldier who calls him the enemy, saying that they should salute him for his bravery instead.
As he prepares to depart, Porus is met by Rukhsana, who pleads with him not to kill Sikandar. This makes Tamar and Ratna pretty angry, but Porus reminds them that he and Rukhsana are brother and sister now, and she has a right to ask him. Meanwhile some big-ass drums are being beaten throughout the kingdom (by Moolchand?!—ha, just kidding…although it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me if it were him!).
Porus has war elephants! and I’m thinking that elephants trump horses as the two armies face off.
It’s gruesome. Hand-to-hand combat is just not pretty, and neither are spears stabbing elephants. I cover up Gemma’s eyes so she can’t see (she is barking like a mad thing at all these horses and elephants). I think: War is just so DUMB. Honestly, men! what are you thinking?!
Porus kills Sikandar’s poor horse, and Sikandar sprawls on the ground beneath him.
Porus is poised with a second spear, but remembers Rukhsana’s plea and hesitates:
just long enough for Sikandar to scramble to his feet. He leaps onto another horse and vanishes into the raging hordes. Eventually, Porus and the Indian army are defeated; Porus is captured, and brought in front of an elated and victorious Sikandar. He is beaten but not bowed, and there is a long conversation which of course I don’t get, although the synopsis I have says this, which I love:
Alexander says to Porus: “Did you not realize how great I am?” Porus answers: “I have never seen a king more deceitful than you.” [A general] interferes, but Porus says: “This is a discussion between kings. Shut your mouth.”
Oh, for some subtitles…the film goes on for some time more, but I have gone on long enough I think. Suffice it to say that there is good reason to consider this a classic, and more than good reason to preserve it and make it available! (That’s *my* giant drum beating!)
I liked Pukar better, maybe because I could understand it all, and the dialogues were so great. I am sure they were equally good here, but I couldn’t understand the nuances, and the scenes of battle were a bit disturbing for this animal lover and pacifist. War really IS hell! But putting that aside: this is epic entertainment at its best. Wah! Sohrab Modi! Wah!
You too, Prithviraj. It’s really no wonder your sons are such charmers.