I remember my very first glimpse of a scene from Sikandar. It was years ago, probably sometime in the mid-80s, and in some Doordarshan programme or the other, a snippet appeared from Sikandar. All I recall is a closeup of Prithviraj Kapoor, dressed as an ancient Greek, plumes flowing from a gleaming helmet as he led his troops into battle. He looked startlingly like Shashi Kapoor, though with the build of Shammi. This film, I thought back then, I must see.
And last weekend, I finally did manage to watch Sikandar—and that too a good print, thanks to Tom Daniel, who’s done a brilliant job of cleaning it up. (It’s here, if you should want to watch it; far, far better than the horrible Friends Video production, which is half-obscured by their virulent logo).
Sikandar begins in the year 327 BC, in a Persia which had been subjugated by the Greeks. Alexander (Prithviraj Kapoor) is in love with a Persian woman named Rukhsana (Vanmala) and is so besotted by her that he spends all his time with her—even to the extent of not being on attendance when his teacher and mentor Arastu (Aristotle, played by Shakir) arrives in the open-air court.
A miffed Arastu calls on Alexander later and admonishes him: woman and love are the downfall of man. In order to prove himself worthy of the throne, in order to fulfill his destiny, Alexander must move ahead, conquering new lands. Heading east.
Consequently, when Rukhsana next meets Alexander, is obviously distant and abstracted demeanour leads her to question him. Alexander tells her the truth, and Rukhsana is indignant. How dare this Arastu try and mislead Alexander? The old man has it all wrong. Man is completed by woman, not undone by her.
To prove her point, Rukhsana boasts that she will enchant Arastu himself. Alexander should position himself by the garden and watch on as his teacher is made to swallow his own words.
Rukhsana seems to succeed: drawn by her singing, Arastu arrives, and goes so far as to allow Rukhsana to sling a length of cloth about his shoulders and play pretend horse-and-rider. Alexander, looking down from a window, is disgusted and disappointed to see Arastu fallen thus. When he faces Arastu, however, the old philosopher has an insightful comment to offer: if this is the state to which a woman can reduce a man of experience, years, and wisdom, how much more harm can she cause to a young and inexperienced man?
I think this is horribly sexist, but not so the two lovers. Rukhsana sees the light [enough to kiss the hem of Arastu’s robe] and Alexander goes off to conquer India. Oddly enough—and this must have made Arastu tear his hair out in frustration—as they march off, Alexander’s armies sing a song of love: Zindagi hai pyaar se, pyaar mein bitaaye jaa. In the course of this song, we see Rukhsana too disguising herself as a soldier and leaving in the wake of the armies.
The scene now shifts to the kingdom of Takshila (Taxila), where King Aambhi (KN Singh, who looks exactly as he looked in just about every film I’ve seen him in) has decided to throw in his lot with Alexander. Aambhi has sent envoys and bearers of expensive tributes to Alexander, along with assurances of his fealty. This has got Aambhi’s younger sister Praarthana (Meena—later to be Meena Shorey) all riled up. Praarthana is brutally blunt in telling her brother what she thinks of him: a worthless coward, a traitor.
Praarthana is so angry with Aambhi that she leaves him and goes off to seek shelter with the man she knows will hold out against Alexander: King Puru (Sohrab Modi).
At this point some scenes have either disappeared over time, or writer/director/producer Sohrab Modi probably just decided there was no point wasting precious film on unnecessary scenes. When we catch up with the story next, two things have happened:
- Rukhsana, now dressed as a woman, has arrived in a small Indian village and has befriended a young boy.
- Praarthana has arrived in Puru’s court, is now staying in his palace, and has fallen in love with Puru’s elder son Samar (?) Samar is equally besotted with her.
In the village, Rukhsana sees rakshabandhan celebrations, and, discovering what this festival is all about, goes to Puru’s court carrying a raakhi to tie on Puru’s wrist. Puru is welcoming: there have been ties of friendship between Persia and India for a long time now, and any daughter of Persia is also, by extension, a daughter of India.
When this daughter of Persia reveals that she is the girlfriend of Alexander, Puru’s warmth cools a bit. He rallies around, however, and even when she offers to remove the raakhi she’s already tied onto his wrist, Puru refuses. A woman can make a man her brother by tying a raakhi; that relationship cannot be undone, he says. Rukhsana manages to wangle a boon out of him: he will not, by his own hands, kill Alexander. Puru gives his word, and insists that now that Rukhsana is his sister, she should stay in the palace.
And that is the setting in which Alexander arrives, metaphorically banging at Puru’s door. If you know about the Battle of the Hydaspes (and its outcome), you’ll know what happened. How Alexander used stealth to cross the Jhelum on a dark and stormy night, when Puru was least expecting it. How, during the decisive battle, Puru found himself in a position to kill Alexander but did not do so. How Alexander, having defeated Puru, was so impressed with the man’s valour and integrity that he appointed Puru a satrap in India. And how Alexander, after fourteen years of fighting battles all across Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, finally headed back home.
This, since it’s a Hindi film, does not leave it at that. Woven into it are a bunch of songs, and some digressions with scenes set in the village where Rukhsana had first lived in India, and from where men have been called up to fight for their country.
What I liked about this film:
The casting of Prithviraj Kapoor as Alexander and Sohrab Modi as Puru. Both, in their own way, fit their assigned roles to a T. Prithviraj Kapoor, dashing and young, has the physique of a warrior, and there’s an amused defiance, a self-confident swagger about him that fits in with the concept of a young and hugely ambitious man who sometimes lets his ambition blind him to other matters. Yet, a man who has the maturity to recognize worth and courage.
Sohrab Modi as Puru is equally good (and equally nuanced, which is also a sign of good writing, of good characterization): a man true to his word, brave and intensely patriotic, but also not letting that get in the way of his humanity. (Look at the way he accepts Rukhsana as sister even though he knows her heart is with Alexander, and that when push comes to shove, she will side with the Greek. Or the way he lets Alexander live during the past critical moment in battle).
The battle scenes. The Maharani of Kolhapur provided assistance for the shooting of Sikandar, and it shows. The presence of such large contingents, and the overall feel of it—the cinematography, the no-holds-barred violence of warfare—is what makes the Battle of the Hydaspes come alive. There aren’t too many Hindi films, especially old ones, where battle scenes don’t look staged; Sikandar is one of those. The dust, the armoured elephants thundering through, scattering men and horses left—all very real.
What I didn’t like:
The dilution of the main plot with songs (of which there are far too many) and side plots, some of which are anyway too briefly touched upon anyway. For example, the romance between Samar and Praarthana is an element in the story, but it contributes little: there are only two or three very brief scenes between them, so it’s not as if this helps provide relief from the political/martial angle of the rest of the film. And it’s not even a pivotal point for the enmity between Puru and the traitorous Aambhi, since Puru seems to be quite happy to accept Praarthana as a daughter-in-law, irrespective of whose sister she is.
The other shortcoming (and this should come as no surprise) as far as I was concerned was the fictionalisation of history. True, in its essentials, the main incident—the Battle of the Hydaspes—is more or less correct. But the rest, the romanticization of it all, is a flight of fancy. History, for instance, says little about Puru (other than the rudimentary mentions provided by Greek chroniclers and historians), and while is true that his younger son was killed in the battle (as is shown in the film), there’s nothing to suggest that his elder son married a firebrand sister of Aaambhi’s. And while Rukhsana (or Roxana, as she was known in the west) was indeed a Persian wife of Alexander’s, it’s highly unlikely that she was in any way responsible for his giving up the India campaign and heading back home.
Still, all said and done, an enjoyable film. I like that the focal relationship, between Puru and Alexander, is the highlight of the film, and that the chemistry between Prithviraj Kapoor and Sohrab Modi is so very watchable. Certainly one of the better historicals I’ve seen in Hindi cinema, even if some of the acting (especially of the minor characters) could’ve been better.
P.S. Interestingly, Prithviraj Kapoor was to go on to star, 24 years later, in a retelling of this same story: he was Puru to Dara Singh’s Alexander in Sikandar-e-Azam, 1965.