Who would’ve thought that the Ramsay Brothers’ first production was a historical worthy of a Sohrab Modi [granted, it does have two far-too-chubby leading men and its fair share of violence, but still; Rustom Sohrab is no horror film, not by a long shot]? But yes, Ramsay Productions—famous for its B grade horror films of the 80s and 90s—did make this rather surprising debut, a film based on the Persian epic poem Rostam and Sohrab (part of the famous Shahnameh).
The story begins with a deathbed scene: the Shahenshah of Iran is dying, but clings to life long enough for his trusted minion Rustom (Prithviraj Kapoor in armour, looking rather pudgy, but also pretty immovable)to arrive. When Rustom storms in, the king proclaims his [the king’s, not Rustom’s] son Kaikavoos his heir, and asks Rustom to serve Kaikavoos as faithfully as he’s served the king all these years. He then kicks the bucket, and Rustom gets down to following his orders.
In the next scene, we are introduced to Princess Tehminia (Suraiya, looking beautiful as ever—she, I think, was one actress who looked lovelier in her later films; Rustom Sohrab was her last film), of the neighbouring kingdom of Samangaan. Tehminia is out in her chariot with her bodyguard-cum-general dogsbody Carmoos (Azad) and her maid, Huma (Lillian, another beauty), when they find they can’t go further because a tree has fallen across their path.
Who should turn up then but Rustom, who—with barely a grunt and a heave of his shoulders—moves the tree trunk out of the way. Tehminia is mighty impressed. She (not knowing who he is) offers him a job, but Rustom turns it down. She then gets Carmoos to toss him a gold coin, and Rustom merely grabs the coin, bends it in half, and tosses it back. He also tells Tehminia who he is, before mounting his horse and crossing the border back to Iran.
He leaves behind a lovesick Tehminia [okay, I admit I like Prithviraj Kapoor—a 1963 Prithviraj Kapoor, not a Sikandar one—but not as poster boy. Majestic, yes. Mughal-e-Azam style patriarch, yes. Romantic hero, hardly. But there’s no accounting for tastes]. Tehminia is so besotted, she decides she must lure Rustom to her by fair means or foul.
She settles for foul: she orders Carmoos to go steal Rustom’s beloved horse, reasoning that Rustom will come looking for it.
Tehminia is apparently a good judge of the psychology of the individual; one evening, Rustom turns up at the Samangaan palace, furious. Tehminia’s father (Badri Prasad) and her brother (Sajjan), both mild-mannered, genial men, reassure Rustom that they have the greatest respect for him and wouldn’t dream of stealing his horse. And, if his horse has been stolen and is in Samangaan, they will have it found. Meanwhile, will he honour them by staying the night?
His guns spiked, Rustom agrees. Tehminia and Huma, who (having overheard this conversation) are busy helping arrange the bedroom designated for Rustom—find themselves in his suite after Tehminia’s father and brother have bade their unexpected guest goodnight. Huma manages to escape without any trouble, but Tehminia, despite drawing her veil across her face, cannot [and is almost certainly not eager to] leave.
One would have expected a warrior as doughty as Rustom to have better eyesight, but he—though Tehminia’s veil is flimsy in the extreme—doesn’t recognize her, even while she sings a song of longing and love. It’s only as she’s about to leave that he sees a ring she’s wearing. It’s the bent coin he had tossed back at the Shahzaadi of Samangaan!
The next morning, just as Rustom’s preparing to leave, Tehminia puts in an appearance again, and [probably realizing she daren’t faff around any longer], tells him everything, down to the way she had his horse stolen. This affects Rustom deeply [it’s not every day a woman steals his horse in order to entice him. I can just imagine Rustom trekking upcountry and down in search of his horse every time a woman thought his muscles were quite the thing]. He tries to dissuade Tehminia—he is a soldier, the battlefield awaits him and may take him away from her—perhaps forever. But Tehminia is adamant. She loves Rustom, and she will have him, no matter what.
…while, far away, trouble is brewing. The easily-scared ruler (Murad) of the kingdom of Maazandaraan has been told by a soothsayer that he will be killed at the hands of Rustom of Iran. He is so terrified at this thought that he immediately rushes off to seek the advice of his old friend and ally, the ruler of Turaan, Afraasiyaab. [He doesn’t even stop to think of asking why Rustom would want to kill the Shah of Maazandaraan; Rustom, after all, fierce or whatever, isn’t an utter lunatic to go around killing people without any reason].
In Turaan, Afraasiyaab advises caution, but his hot-headed son, the prince, has other plans. He thinks it’s a better idea to take the offensive and get Rustom before Rustom gets the Shah of Maazandaraan. But going into Iran—into Rustom’s territory—would be suicidal: what they need is to draw Rustom out, to Maazandaraan. And how will they achieve this? By first laying hold of Kaikavoos, the Shah of Iran, whom they will then use to bait the trap for Rustom.
Trapping Kaikavoos is a cakewalk [and probably the oldest example of how dangerously seductive good advertising can be]. The prince of Turaan, disguised as a trader of sorts, turns up at Kaikavoos’s court, accompanied by a bevy of pretty young women, bearing chests full of exotic jewels and suchlike. The ‘trader’ sings of Maazandaraan: what a grand place it is, how beautiful, how perfect in every way, how very attractive.
And Kaikavoos, like a wide-eyed first-time aspiring tourist bedazzled by all those glossy pamphlets and fancy videos, gets totally taken in. Before anybody knows it [or can inform Rustom, who is beating it up in Samangaan, and would have probably had the sense to stop Kaikavoos], Kaikavoos has gone off with the ‘trader’.
Unlike your modern tourist, however, Kaikavoos’s impulsive trip to faraway lands doesn’t result merely in uncomfortable hotel rooms, steep entry fees, and odd food. When the bubble bursts and the prince of Turaan reveals himself in his true colours, Kaikavoos finds himself in chains, being battered and beaten and put through some pretty rough stuff. [He must be cursing himself. He probably doesn’t even have travel insurance, and there’s no Facebook on which to vent].
As it happens, the person who receives the scroll is Tehminia, now heavily pregnant. She reads it [did no-one ever tell this woman it’s rude to read other people’s letters?] and realises the danger to Rustom’s life if he should go off on this quest. She therefore hides the scroll—but unsuccessfully. Rustom discovers it, reads it, and tells Tehminia that he must go. It is his duty.
As he’s leaving, however, Rustom gives Tehminia something for their yet-to-be-born child: a gleaming rectangle of metal with Rustom’s family crest embossed on it. Put this on his arm, he says [how sexist. The original Persian poem, however, had Rustom providing two items, one if a girl was born and another if the child was a boy].
Rustom’s rescue of Kaikavoos—of which one shouldn’t have had any doubts—happens, after more intrigue on the part of the Turaanis to entrap Rustom. He foils all their plans with sheer brute strength and frees Kaikavoos, in the process getting rid of dozens loyal to Maazandaraan and Turaan. Many are killed, among them the king of Maazandaraan [that long-ago soothsayer has finally been proved right], and—a huge blow to Afraasiyaab, the Shah of Turaan—the prince of Turaan [no more singing advertising jingles]. Afraasiyaab had, till the very last minute, gone on advising his son not to go up against Rustom, but he was not heeded; and now this has happened.
Afraasiyaab, good father that he is, doesn’t think of how he’s missed an opportunity to say “I told you so!” Instead, he vows that he will avenge his son’s death by killing Rustom, and by killing Rustom’s son, too, so that Rustom may feel the pain Afraasiyaab has felt.
Rustom is a tougher nut to crack, so Afraasiyaab goes after Tehminia and Co. first. He attacks the palace at Samangaan, and Tehminia’s father is just about able to hide Tehminia, Huma, and little Sohrab in something like a priest hole. Afraasiyaab has to return empty-handed and looking foolish, while Tehminia’s father, for the safety of his daughter and grandson, sends them off to a villa in the forest.
Here, tutored in sword fighting, wrestling and other manly sports by the faithful Carmoos, Sohrab begins to grow up. Because they’re terrified that the infant Sohrab may blurt out his father’s name to someone—and just about anybody may be a Turaani spy in these troubled times—Tehminia’s father deems it best that Sohrab not even be told who his father is. Na rahega baans, na bajegi baansuri, is his idea. A good one, agrees Tehminia.
So Sohrab grows up (to be Premnath), as powerful and warrior-like [if somewhat rotund] as his father, but completely unaware of who his father is. His mother and her brother refuse to answer his questions on that topic, and he’s frustrated and angry as a result.
Not angry enough to not fall in love with the plump, pretty Shahroo (Mumtaz, who must have been only about 15 when this film was shot), and spend some idyllic hours in her company.
…Until the Shah of Turaan, still smouldering (and with Rustom still leading the Persian armies against him in a war which has gone on far too long), discovers who Sohrab is. Ah, thinks Afraasiyaab. Here is his chance for revenge. A dish best served cold? Bring it on. And what will his revenge be? Not quite so straightforward as killing off Sohrab and sending his head on a charger to Rustom. No; this is going to be far more cruel.
What I liked about this film:
To be honest, despite the impressive cast, I had no very great hopes of Rustom Sohrab. Too many historicals—especially those which centre round war and political intrigue—end up being, for me, either too long-winded or just too ludicrous (Rustom-e-Hind, Rustom-e-Rome, I’m thinking of you). This turned out to be a pleasant surprise: it was well-scripted, and though the political drama was there, it was well-plotted and not too convoluted to cause confusion.
The music. Rustom Sohrab was one of the few films to be scored by the underrated but excellent (also eccentric? Or merely irreverent?) Sajjad Hussain. My absolute favourite song from this film—in fact, one major reason for my wanting to watch Rustom Sohrab—is Phir tumhaari yaad aayi ae sanam. Another favourite of mine is Yeh kaisi ajab daastaan ho gayi hai, and the lilting Ae dilruba ae dilruba nazrein mila is lovely, with a pleasing Middle Eastern touch to it.
… and Prithviraj Kapoor’s last dialogue in the film. I don’t easily cry while watching films, but this brought a lump to my throat, it was so poignant. A beautiful dialogue, a moving scene, and very well acted.
What I didn’t like:
The casting of the two leading men. Prithviraj Kapoor is an actor I respect immensely, and he does do a superb job as the older Rustom (especially in that last scene), but as the young Rustom, he’s not very convincing. It’s the same with Premnath. Both these men were, to me, far too old to be in those roles (and far too out of shape to be playing warriors. They look tubby, not muscular, and it’s painful to see them waddling about in armour: not soldierly at all). I thought Shammi Kapoor might have made a convincing young Rustom, with Prithviraj Kapoor appearing as the older Rustom.
But, all said and done: a good film. At least for a one-time watch. And for multiple listenings of its songs.