Screen

Epically Epic: Sikandar (1941)

 

It’s not terribly high in historical accuracy, but Sikandar is wonderful to behold and thoroughly thought-provoking about empire and political virtue from pre-Independence India. Sikandar manages to be completely entertaining while still indulging in lesson-dispensing from Aristotle, who as the film opens is in Persia with Sikandar and Rukhsana, and from Porus (director and producer Sohrab Modi), who debates the value of war with various other kings. 

It’d be so easy for a film like this to be ponderous, with too much throne-room ego-clashing and not enough fighting, but Sikandar rolls along merrily. It helps greatly that the music (both songs and the background score, by Rafiq Gazhnavi and Mir Saheb), sets, and costumes overall are a delight. Both Porus and Sikandar have capes that could double as tents for their armies. Backdrops are clearly painted, but the palatial architecture and furniture are lush and full.

The lighting and other effects are super too, in particular the lightning flashing during a thunderstorm as Sikandar prepares his troops to cross a river, illuminating the soaked soldiers in all their armor and huge plumed helmets while the wind whistles and fires roar in the background. This is surely filmed in actual darkness with strategically placed lights, which on its own seems tricky enough, but Modi adds in dozens and dozens of horses, tents, rocks, and a forest.

Historical dramas on this scale are one of my favorite sub-genres of Indian films, and I don’t think they’ve really improved overall in their presentations of historical battle scenes in the 70-odd years since this film was made.* For starters, the staging of the Greeks vs Hindustanis is clearly full of actual people, horses, and elephants, since there is no CGI. The actors and the camera are in the thick of things. Trained elephants very carefully lying down to indicate they’ve been felled is not convincing (and hooray for that), but the clouds of dust and giant roars of the crowd are. Sikandar’s armor looks just as realistic as, if not better than, anything in more recent films like Jodha Akbar (2008) or Veer (2010), perhaps because old black and white film doesn’t have enough detail for us to see the costuming tricks but perhaps because these wardrobe wizards are actually combining materials intelligently instead of relying on pre-molded pec-shaped spray-painted plastic.

Also key to the film’s success, I think, is star Prithviraj Kapoor as Alexander. For starters, his physical presence is absolutely perfect: not just because he’s beautiful and has Greek god wavy hair but because he’s simultaneously imposing and dynamic. The writer gives the character some important complexities. He’s obedient to his teacher and the gods yet clearly considers himself the rightful ruler of the known world. He’s imperious yet makes sure to remember the lowliest member of his troops when gifts are distributed. He bellows in front of armies yet stomps around in juvenile snits when things don’t go his way, flinging his cape here and there. Prithviraj somehow rolls all these things up into a very flawed but likable character. Says film critic Sukanya Verma in Rediff: “Almost every sentence coming out of his mouth reeks of narcissism. But Prithviraj Kapoor humanizes his pomposity, turns him into someone who isn’t self-indulgent on purpose, he just doesn’t know better because he is the best. Such arrogance is almost naive.”

Because Sikandar is from such a different era of filmmaking, Verma reminds us of just how much our preferences and methods have changed. “Spontaneous, natural acting wasn’t the trend back then and it takes about 10 minutes to adjust to Sikandar’s verbose theatrics. Once you get used to it, there’s much to appreciate in the marriage of booming baritone and vigorous physicality.” I’d agree firmly with that too: no one in this film is easy to watch by today’s standards, but they’re all powerful and compelling. If the style puts you off, try to hold out a little bit longer until you’re swept up in all the action and ideas.

Another aspect of Sikandar with which I am utterly smitten is how it challenges what I think is going to happen. It is a blast of surprise against my hubris in thinking I know what a Hindi film is going to do. No major feature film should be expected to narrate the story of Alexander the Great as that era’s historians understood it, but I really didn’t expect Aristotle to show up in the Persian capital with Alexander and remind him how important it is not to be distracted by women when you’re planning battles in foreign lands. “He who would conquer the world should stay away from women,” he advises. Putting aside the refusal by the narrative to acknowledge anything other than married heterosexuality even when depicting ancient Greek culture, this little detour into the risks of romance establishes a theme about the power of love. Alexander eventually accepts that Aristotle is right, and he vows not to see Rukhsana again until he has conquered India. As he goes, she says “Peace of mind comes not from war or victory but from peace and love.” That’s a suitable Hindi-film battle cry, especially since these troops are invading rather than defending the motherland. In a move that will surprise historians everywhere, the Greeks gallop off towards the subcontinent on their clip-clopping horses singing “Life exists because of love, so let it be spent in love. At the feet of beauty, give up your heart, give up your life…. Life is a gamble; don’t look at it from afar. Step up to it, and put your life on the line.” (See “Zindagi Hai Pyaar Se” here.)

Rukhsana, for her part, is visibly inspired by that last little bit of lyrics and enacts the holiday Raksha Bandhan: sisters tie a bracelet on their brother’s wrist as a symbol of protection and responsibility. In current films, it shows up as a heart-warming way for a female character to label a male character as her friend rather than her romantic partner. In 1941 CE/320s BCE, she does exactly what any good filmi girlfriend or sister would, though the historical record may not bear this out: she goes hundreds of miles to India to tie a bracelet on Porus in order to oblige him not to harm Sikandar in the looming battle. 

That’s the kind of ruler Porus is. A promise made to a total stranger who forces herself upon him as a sister is enough to stop him from the ultimate victory on the battlefield. He doesn’t want to fight but he knows he must, because stopping a power-hungry land-grabbing egomaniac is the right thing to do, even though he’s such a jovial fellow. Porus’s dilemma seems a clear statement of contemporary events the year the film released.

A prince at Porus’s court proposes that Hindustan is sure to triumph over Sikandar (unspoken: whereas Persia did not) because so far Alexander has not yet met anyone who values self-respect. It’s really too bad Darius is dead by this point because I’d love to hear his contributions to these discussions of conquest and right. “I think we’ll have to agree that Persia drools while Hindustan rules,” proposed the Gutter’s own Carol as we watched this film.

One of the fascinating things about Sikandar is what it says about British rule of India at the time. I’m wondering if the fact that it was released at all indicates the British were either not terribly involved in the censor board or just didn’t have the energy to bother much, given what else was on their international plates. Perhaps they saw Sikandar as a European hero and didn’t think much about the film beyond that? Or did they see him as representing Germany, with wise Hindustan inspiring in him better behavior and being theonly place where he listened to the gods telling him to turn back his relentless drive for conquest? (The fact that his troops are about to mutiny because they desperately want to go home has less impact on the cinematic emperor.) An article in The Hindu a few years ago says that the film was later banned in some cinemas for its power in inspiring nationalism, and indeed it has significant conversation about the dangers and indignities of having a foreign ruler.

Sikandar as an invader is more complex than most filmi villains. I don’t even think it’s fair to call him a villain. He’s the threat to and opponent of Hindustan in the film, but he’s not evil. Still, it’s interesting that we can read different contemporary empires into him, and it’s downright amazing to see a film this patriotic that has such an empathetic and engaging enemy. While thinking about Sikandar’s status as more of an equal than an enemy, it occurred to me that it’s almost possible to read Sikandar as a typical love triangle in which neither of the heroes (monarchs) competing for the girl (India) is bad, and they have similar status or backgrounds and might even be friends (peers). Their interactions and competition might illuminate virtues and ideologies, but in the end one of them must emerge as wiser or more virtuous and therefore satisfy us as the champion.

Before I watched Sikandar, I happened to catch Michael Wood’s BBC documentary In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, in which he and a crew follow Alexander’s whole path, key segments of it on foot just as the armies did. It’s worth a watch just to see the breathtaking terrain and distance, but for me the highlight was getting a sense of just how many cultures are involved in this incredible period of history. In fact, it is this documentary that finally spurred me to watch Sikandar, because Michael Wood discusses the film and there is footage of him watching it in a theater near the Indus. To me, Wood’s film stacks up plenty of evidence to indicate that Alexander was profoundly out of touch with reality (or even mentally ill), whether with just delusions and narcissism or also, later, with sociopathic revenge.

That background makes this film’s portrayal of him all the more interesting, as it manages to constrain his contradictions of character into a sympathetic whole. There’s nothing admirable in the real Alexander when his whole history is considered, but Sikandar shaves off his ruthlessness and presents him as driven by exuberance and hunger that can be redirected by sound arguments from worthy rivals. I wonder what this film’s portrayal of Alexander says about the general Hellenistic legacy in Indian history and culture—he is decidedly not of Hindustan in this film, but he is alike enough that he respects its leaders, and in fact his life is spared because of Rukhsana’s use of an Indian tradition. He is foreign yet not as “other” as we might expect. He’s not right for India, but he’s worthy of it.

Watch the restored version of Sikandar (with English subtitles) by Edu Productions on their youtube channel. The BBC documentary is available on the Internet Archive in four parts, starting here.

* Very notable exception: on Netflix, go to the 2015 Telugu film Baahubali and fast forward to about 2 hours 9 minutes in. And then go back and watch the whole film and its sequel, because they’re mind-blowing.

~~~

Unlike Alexander, Beth Watkins untangled the Gordian Knot without cheating.

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