Sikandar (1941)

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.

Prithviraj Kapoor in and as Sikandar

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.

Alexander with Rukhsana

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.

Arastu gets annoyed and gives Alexander a pep talk

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 vows to bring Arastu to his knees

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? 

Arastu has the last word

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.

What transpired

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 scoffs at her brother Aambhi and leaves him

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:

  1. Rukhsana, now dressed as a woman, has arrived in a small Indian village and has befriended a young boy.
  2. 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.

... to fall in love with Puru's elder son Samar
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.

Rukhsana is accepted as 'rakhi sister' by Puru

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.

Sikandar ne Porus se ki thhi ladaayi

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.

Prithviraj Kapoor as Alexander

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).

Sohrab Modi as Puru

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.

A scene from the Battle of the Hydaspes as shown in Sikandar (1941)

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.

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44 thoughts on “Sikandar (1941)

  1. Beautiful review Madhu didi! I did happen to see a scene from this movie on YouTube, and though i was impressed by the dialogue delivery and all, I was put off by the rather static camera which was so popular during those times. I think it was only with the coming of Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy in the 50’s when we started moving the camera around a little (though having seen the song Balam aaye baso from the 1935 Devdas movie, I did appreciate the zoom in shots and all. Incidentally Bimal Roy was the cameraman for that movie.)
    And wasn’t the music director for this movie Rafiq Ghaznavi didi? I remember reading in a Manto book where he mentions the recording of this song… You should read this book didi its called Stars from another sky.
    But lovely review didi!

    • Interesting. I didn’t actually notice the static camera… though, looking back, yes, I suppose that is there. I think for me what really stood out were the battle scenes, which put even later films to shame. They’re very real, and very impressive.

      Yes, Rafiq Ghaznavi (along with Meer Saheb) was the music director for Sikandar. I’ve heard of Stars From Another Sky, but have never got around to reading it. I must. :-)

      Glad you liked the review, Rahul – thank you for commenting!

      • By static didi, I meant something like this. If in a shot a man has to walk a particular stretch of road, either the camera can be placed at a distance or it can be zoomed in to actually follow the movement of the man. The latter ensures fluidity and makes the movie appear a bit fast also.. :) i read about this in the book Deep Focus I’d mentioned earlier didi.

        And Rafiq Ghaznavi was supposedly a big time Casanova didi.. He once married an upcoming actress, divorced her, and then married her sister! All this, apart from having numerous flings in the red light district of Lahore..
        And thank you for that information about the Rani of Kolhapur didi… Made me realize how old this movie actually is.

  2. What an apt description -shashi with the build of shammi-
    Remember thinking something like first time I saw young prithviraj on dd

    • Yes, it’s uncanny. I remember, the first time I saw that clip from Sikandar on DD, I did a double take: wasn’t that Shashi Kapoor? (I only saw a head shot first, so one couldn’t really see his build). I think my father was the one who told me it was Prithviraj Kapoor.

  3. We cannot make a film without throwing in elements of romance in it. A dry Sikandar without a girlfriend would not appeal to a moviegoer here. Also, I think an excuse was ‘invented’ for Puru losing the battle.

    I loved Shiela as the Malaan. She sings a couple of songs. She is a symbol of the Indian citizenry I think. A malaan, a lady-gardener who tries to protect her ‘Garden’ (India?). She was such a natural actress that she caught my eye.

    I adore this song that she sings when Puru ‘wins’

    • Yes, Ava – Sheila as the maalan also appeared to me as being very representative of the citizenry, the general public. As did her fellow villagers. One scene that really touched me was when the men come back to the village after the war – the joy and relief of everybody, those who had been waiting for them as well as the men themselves – was well picturized.

      Aayi aayi sajanwaa jabaan ratiya is a nice song.

  4. I read this review yesterday quite soon after you posted it, but my spotty Internet connection gave up when I tried to comment. :(

    I rather liked Sohrab Modi’s films, even though he declaimed his way through most of them, because he usually had something interesting to say. I watched Sikander at a friend’s house when they showed it on DD. (We didn’t have a television then.) I remember being initially bored by all the dialogue baazi but then getting caught up in the story.

    Haven’t watched it since, so my memory had blocked out most of the songs/ unimportant stuff that you brought out in your review. Now I have to watch this again. :)

    Thanks, Madhu.

    p.s. Agree with you about ‘Shashi’s face, Shammi’s build’. :) At different times, Prithviraj alternately also looked like his younger two sons. I remember one scene from Shama Parwana, I think, or was it Laila Majnu? where Shammi was a dead ringer for his father.

    • I agree with you re: Sohrab Modi’s films, Anu. Even though the first few I recall watching – like Yahudi – had him (as my father puts it) “declaiming to the skies”, I’ve begun to like his films more and more over the past few years. Especially when you compare his films to other ‘historicals’ being made around the same time, which played even more fast and loose with history. And, as you mentioned, he did have something to say through his films (Nausherwan-e-Aadil, for instance).

      If you get the time, do watch this again, Anu. I thought it was really pretty good. And, when it comes to overall acting and direction, probably ahead of its times.

      “I remember one scene from Shama Parwana, I think, or was it Laila Majnu? where Shammi was a dead ringer for his father.

      Oooh! I’d like to see that. Shama Parwana I have pretty much blanked out of my mind (that end!), and Laila Majnu I haven’t seen, but I think I should watch the latter, if for nothing than to watch yet another Shammi Kapoor film.

  5. If there are K, N . Singh , Sohrab Modi ( mulk ki tvaarik sey pyaar karney waley ) and duplicate shashi prithvi raj ji. so the movie can be watched any day. I remember a poem with context to sikandar . they are may be best lines when it comes to rhythm of words while speaking. it is famous among non hindi people due to rhythm only. himadri tung shrung sey by jai shankar prsad ji. aambik sister says to him that help chandrgupt against alexander. he knew sanskrit , pali , English , persian was interested in Indian mythology and history so used to write on these themes. wonder he learnt all at home and then by self study. sharing the link. http://kavitadhara.blogspot.in/2014/07/himadri-tung-shring-se-prabudha-sudha.html

      • Jai shankar prasad great hindi poet and learned man whose poem i shared. knowing Sanskrit and all languages were common in poets. may be in old times these were common. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaishankar_Prasad. all hindi poets used to write on historical and mythological base. there creativity of concepts can be questioned but their thoughts and poetry are awesome. Aambhi was king of taxila contemporary of Alexander, porus and Chandragupt. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxiles

        • I know who Jaishankar Prasad was, and of course I know who Aambhi was (have you read my review?). It’s just that your comment was confusing – in one sentence you mentioned Aambhi’s sister telling him about Chandragupta helping Alexander, and in the next you mentioned that ‘he’ knew Persian, Sanskrit, English, etc. Who ‘he’, was my question, since there were three ‘hes’ in that previous sentence, and it seemed highly unlikely that either of them would know any of those languages…

          • yeah di my comment was ambiguous in nature which led to confusion. off course you know who are these people. i read the review and i royally liked it as i like always. aambhi is mentioned. Sir told us the context like Ambhi sister says to him support chandrgupt against alexander . thus this poem advocates freedom.

          • di as you said it was unlikely that either of them knew these languages. i am wondering from many years that in which language they talked , read and write ?? and how did they talk to foreign kings ?? may be old history text books can help .

            • Not absolutely sure, but the languages in use in India may have been Sanskrit (used more for literary/official purposes than as an everyday language) and possibly Prakrit. I suppose – as in the case whenever enemies or ambassadors or other foreigners came into contact with Indians, they used interpreters.

              • what prevents me to study history is historical dates in BC. how they are counted like I am born 2000 years after Christ left Earth. so my DOB will be 2000. then if i am born before him then my age will be 2000 BC. it confuses me likes king who were born earlier shows date like 900Bc. But who was later will show 300BC. they are counted backward or forward.

  6. It has been a long time since I have watched Sohrab Modi’s movie but I do have great memories watching those movies back in DD days. I can’t recall this movie completely but I do remember great stage presence of both Prithivi and Sohrab.. Especially the dialogue delivery of Sohrab with his characteristic poetic style. I love it.

    As many already pointed out – your description of Prithvi as a combination of Shammi and Shashi was spot on!

    Thanks for the refresher.. I should watch these some day..

    • Thank you, Ashish. I actually don’t remember watching any Sohrab Modi films (unless there were some I watched but didn’t realize were Sohrab Modi…) in the good old days of DD. Most of Sohrab Modi I’ve watched has been over the past 15 years, and I do think he was perhaps one of the very few directors who did know how to make historicals well. Not completely historical (how could a Hindi film be that?!), but just generally better-researched and better-crafted. If nothing else, his films tended to be at least impressive; not the sort of film you’d forget in a hurry.

      • Yes, not only I remember watching them on DD but I also distinctly remember some of the dialogues as we (siblings) often imitated Sohrab to the extent of annoying our parents..one of his famous dialogue was .. Agar tum mujhe Marna chahte ho… delivered withave utmost politeness yet firm demeanor..

        He did have a gift..

        Some of the movies on DD I remember besides sikandar – Pukar and Sheesh Mahal and may be Yahudi.. it’s all blurry in my head now nearly four decades later…but Sohrab is unforgettable..

        • Ah, I’ve heard a good deal about Pukar as well. If I remember correctly, it starred Chandramohan. Quite an amazing actor, that. Such mesmerizing eyes.

          Sohrab Modi is certainly unforgettable. Even when he’s ‘declaiming to the skies’.

          • Based on a cursory search on internet, it looks like Chandramohan was in Pukar. I have to admit that I have very little if any recollection of the story line.. I found a version that seems to be better quality than some other videos of the same movie on YouTube. I plan to watch it as well…

  7. I enjoyed this film a lot, when I saw it on Bombay DD sometime in 1981 or 82 in a series, which was called “Atit Ke Jharokon Se”, where they showed films of a certain filmmaker. Unfortunately they didn’t extend the series beyond Sohrab Modi and Bimal Roy. The other Sohrab Modi films, they showed were, Pukar, Prithvi Vallabh, Jailor and Kundan. Bimal Roy films, which were aired, were Madhumati, Sujata, Bandini and Parakh. We couldn’t watch Parakh, because there was electricity failure at our place.

    • “We couldn’t watch Parakh, because there was electricity failure at our place.

      Ah. That sounds familiar. Didn’t happen with Parakh (I actually saw that film pretty late – maybe when I was in my 20s), but I remember a lot of films of which I was only able to watch a few scenes, and then wonder what happened because the electricity had gone. And, while we were in Srinagar, I remember there was the additional problem of ‘transmission difficulties’. So being able to watch a movie from start to finish, without any hiccups, was quite an achievement.

  8. I think I mentioned sometime back how my father was huge fan of Prithviraj Kapoor’s physique, he used to always talk about Sikander. I remember my father telling us about his muscles and so on. As a youngster I guess he too dreamt of a physique like that.
    Here is a bit of trivial info, you know my love for trivia. When this film was telecast by Doordarshan, Shashi Kapoor did not have a TV set in his home. I believe he and his wife were not interested in owning one. I read this in a film magazine, when Sikander was to be telecast, he was keen to see it, so he got hold of a TV and sat down to watch it with his family. His daughter was a kid and as she saw her grand-dad on the TV, she got confused and kept looking at her father.

    • I didn’t know that bit of trivia, Shilpi! Thank you for that – so much fun to know. (P.S. I must thank you for one thing in particular: all the trivia you post is so relevant to the topic, and never gossipy). Incidentally, in a comment some weeks back, you had mentioned that your father was very impressed with Prithviraj Kapoor’s physique in Sikandar, and that was what reminded me that I still had to watch the film. So I have you to thank for my watching this film, too.

      • Gossipy! I wouldn’t dream of doing that. I guess it comes from being the daughter of a well-known personality, we ourselves wouldn’t like to be victims of gossip so although I am privy to a lot of info, I never talk about those. I have noticed you too dislike gossip, like you I feel it is none of our business, let everyone lead their lives the way they would like to. As a journalist too, I always double-checked before writing anything.
        Talking of giving the wrong info, here is something funny, before he succumbed to heart attack my father was playing badminton. Some journalists spoke to some of our family friends who told them my father was playing tennis and that was what those journalists published. My father never held a tennis racket in his hand excepting for a film – I think it was Benazir. My father was however fond of the game and keen to learn it. As a journalist I did not
        want to make the same mistake.

        • I agree with you completely, Shilpi – it really is none of our business. A fellow blogger and friend – who seems to love gossip – once told me, in the course of something utterly innocuous – something else that was really private and most unsavoury about the personal lives of one of my favourite actresses. I wished I could have had some sort of foresight and changed the topic before she could say what she did, because that horrible piece of information (which could well have been rumour) was not something I wanted to know. Even if wasn’t rumour, I’d have been happier living without it.

          At least getting confused between a tennis racquet and a badminton one isn’t too bad – someone published a bio of mine some months back which was so fictitious that it was laughable! :-D

  9. Nice review. Agreed with Prithviraj looking like Shashi Kapoor.
    Have been wanting to see ‘Sikander e Azam’ for a long time but haven’t found it on video yet.

    This is something irrelevant to the post but I couldn’t stop myself from posting it.
    Have a look at this and the following ep. in this old series from the late 90s. Did Ashutosh Gowariker get inspired from this and make ‘Swades’?

    http://www.ozee.com/shows/yule-love-stories/video/yule-love-stories-episode-49-full-episode.html

    • Yes, I haven’t been able to find Sikandar-e-Azam either, not even on VCD. Must be there, somewhere…

      My net connection is horrible right now, so that video isn’t loading. Will check it out later sometime.

  10. I had the good fortune of watching this movie some months ago. Prithviraj Kapoor was nothing if not majestic, not to mention his fine acting. To his credit, Sohrab Modi was equally brilliant, albeit comparatively understated. If, as I suspect, the dialogues were shot in a single take (due to war time rationing, films were restricted to a maximum of 10,000 feet at the time), it must have been an incredible effort on the part of Kapoor and Modi to pull off such long dialogues.

    As for the war scene, it must surely rank as one of the greatest war scenes ever shot in the history of Hindi cinema, given the technology available in that era.

    • It hadn’t occurred to me that the dialogues might have been shot in a single take. If that is so (and I am inclined to think, like you, that it would be), it’s certainly extremely creditable – on par with Spencer Tracy’s superb 11-minute summing up in Judgment at Nuremberg.

      The war scenes are superb. I haven’t seen anything as good and as believable in Hindi cinema, at least.

  11. As a history buff, I also found it mildly amusing to see soldiers in 327 BC chanting ‘Bharat mata ki jai’- a rallying call that was coined over 2000 years later! Nonetheless, it was a lot less seditious when compared with the ‘Aaj Himalay ki choti’ song in Kismet!

    • Oh, yes. I remember being irritated by that Bharat Mata ki Jai business, too – not just because the phrase was coined so much later, but because Bharat as a concept still didn’t really exist – it was still more each state for itself, or sometimes in alliances.

      Aaj Himalay ki choti se is delicious. So brilliantly worded that though the lyrics name the Axis powers as the enemy, it’s clear to the meanest intellect who is really meant. :-D

      • For sure! It was a brave decision to include that song- Kismet was released in January 1943, when the Quit India Movement was still going strong! Chunilal Kohli (then General Manager at Bombay Talkies) must have enjoyed some clout to get it past the war time censors! If only some of that clout would have aided the career of his son…

        • My father (who was a boy at the time, and remembers that song from then) and my sister (who’s a historian, and fond of Hindi cinema too) have a different take on that, which has nothing to do with clout. Their theory is that the British were just too terribly busy at the time to really care – what with the Quit India movement, what with WWII, and the realization that Indian independence was now definitely just a matter of time, they probably couldn’t care less, especially as on the surface, the song does not suggest sedition at all. It’s just so brilliantly tongue-in-cheek that you know whom the enemy is, even though someone else is explicitly mentioned as the enemy!

          BTW, I’m curious. Who was Chunilal Kohli’s son?

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