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15 April 2012

Amrapali (1966)

Directed by: Lekh Tandon
Music: Shankar-Jaikishen
Lyrics: Shaliendra, Hasrat Jaipuri
Starring: Vyjayanthimala, Sunil Dutt, Premnath, Premnath, 
KN Singh, Bipin Gupta, Gajanan Jagirdar
I love period films, I love the pageantry involved. I will happily lap up the beautiful princess/handsome prince/devious minion films, especially if they have lovely songs and dances, with a few swashbuckling fights thrown in. So, an especially well-made historical is right up my alley. Especially when it is based on a story that I have read before. Amrapali fits the bill, though this is not a tale of star-crossed lovers, but a tale of a clash of ideologies. And what a riveting tale it is.

Ajatashatru, Emperor of Magadha, is livid. The empire's might has been unable to humble the neighbouring kingdom of Vaishali. His commander-in chief, Veer (Premnath) cautions him - the Magadhan army is weary of battles. The soldiers haven't had a moment's respite, and cannot fight the Lichchavis. His court astrologer warns him that the stars are not favourable; the rajmata is against a war that can only lead to bloodshed and misery. She warns him that the Lichchavi army has never been defeated; the people of Vaishali do not fight for their king's throne; they fight for freedom, for self-respect.
Ajatashatru pays no heed. His senapati is weak; his mother must remember that though she was a Lichchavi princess, she is now the queen mother of Magadha. He is determined to bring Vaishali under the Magadhan yoke, whether they like it or not.
In Vaishali, the town herald proclaims the news of the proposed invasion, and every able-bodied man in Vaishali readies for war. A tense battle ensues on the banks of the Ganga. The Magadhan army is routed and Ajatashatru is wounded. Senapati Veer manages to rescue his emperor and escape from the battle field.

Wounded and weary, Ajatashatru disguises himself in the armour of a wounded Lichchavi soldier, and manages to stumble into the temple precincts before he collapses. Ironically, it is from him that Amrapali learns of Vaishali's victory. She's beyond herself with joy, but spares a thought for the wounded soldier of her realm, as she thinks him.
As she pulls out the arrowhead, she asks him his name. 'Sainik', he says. He spends the night in a feverish doze, and wakes up thinking himself back in his palace, much to Amrapali's amusement.

Ajatashatru cannot bear to hear the happy voices outside celebrating his defeat. But he has an ally in the enemy stronghold -- Badbhadrasen (KN Singh), the commander-in-chief of Vaishali's army. Ajatashatru and he plot to weaken the Lichchavi army from within. Then, Magadha will attack.
Meanwhile, outside, the celebrations are continuing. There is dancing, an effigy of the Magadhan emperor is burnt, there is an announcement that the new court dancer of Vaishali will be chosen at the public sabha  that same night. The contenders for the court dancer's position begin their performance, and Amrapali, who is in the audience, points out a mistake. Now she has to prove it was a mistake. Amrapali rises to the challenge. With the position of court dancer at stake, the other dancer (Madhvi) does not give in. Then begins a competition that decides the contest in favour of Amrapali. She is proclaimed the court danseuse.
It is the night of Amrapali's first performance as the rajnartaki. She is sure that her 'Sainik' will come. When she doesn't see him, she is distraught, much to the discomfiture of her guru and her friends. Sainik fights his way through the guards who block his way, and comes in at the end of her dance. She introduces him to the king as the soldier who pursued Ajatashatru to the banks of the Ganga, and who saved her life the next day. She doesn't know his name, but she has given her heart and soul to him.
He is not immune to her either. However, just as he is about to declare his affections, Veer stops him. The emperor has duties to fulfil; he cannot allow himself to be entangled in the love of a danseuse. Ajatashatru is confident that his Amrapali will learn to love Magadha as much as he does, as much as Veer does. The latter is not that confident. As a patriot, the safety of the kingdom is paramount, and for that, Amrapali must die.
Before that, however, the Rajmata of Magadha will die; and Som, who has overheard the conversation between Veer and Ajatashatru, will unveil the truth.
Will Amrapali be able to bear the truth? In the conflict between her love and her duty, what will she choose? The girl who proclaimed proudly, in open court, that Vaishali is her mother, and her father - will Vaishali treat her as a daughter? What about Veer? And Ajatashatru, himself?
Amrapali was Vyjayanthimala's tour de force. She was the epitome of beauty and sensuality; one can believe that the noblemen of the various clans would fight over her. Her confidence, her independence, her beauty, her power - oh, she knows it, and she uses it. When Ajatashatru is warned by Badbhadrasen to keep away from everybody including Amrapali, it is she who goes in search of him. When he warns her that she is playing with fire, she retorts - "If I was scared of fire, would I have brushed social norms aside to come here?"
And the film doesn't shy away from the intimacy that follows. It is reiterated later when Veer begs her to reconsider her stance. Vyjayanthimala is a wonderful actress, and switches like quicksilver between the proud danseuse with the world at her feet, the lovelorn young damsel, and the patriot who agonises over her Vaishali's fate. And lord, she can dance!

Sunil Dutt provided perfect foil. One has to admire the man for agreeing to play second lead to heroines in so many  films. He makes a good Ajatashatru, arrogant and cruel at one point, softened by love at another, though his idea of love is to grab at what he sees as his happiness. He is also perfectly capable of seeing only what he wants to see. How does he think that the girl who celebrates his defeat by burning his effigy is going to stand aside while he destroys her country?
He doesn't understand her anguish until the last moment; he doesn't understand that love has to be selfless. Sunil Dutt brought out the conflict beautifully.

They were ably supported by a whole host of others - Premnath, Mridula Rani, KN Singh, even the actors who played the guruputr, the rajpurohit, and the wounded soldier who recognises the emperor. Deftly directed, with a gripping plot, it's a shame that this film failed while others that weren't half as good, became box office successes. It hastened Vyjayanthimala's retirement, though director BR Chopra tried his best to make her change her mind.

Amrapali clocked in at two hours though the original VHS tape I saw had almost another hour. However, this is surely not a case of the DVD makers doing their usual hatchet job. My educated guess is that the DVD is the shortened version that was sent as India's official entry to the Oscars. It is intelligently edited without any 'Whaa...?' 'How...?' 'Why?...' moments. The story flows cohesively, and there are no jumps.

I do wish the song Jao re jogi hadn't been one of the casualties. Shankar-Jaikishen's music was one of the highlights of the film, with each of the four Lata solos being the perfect mix of (minimal) instrumentation and vocals. Considering the subject matter, I'm also surprised that there were only four songs. Lata sounded wonderful, making one wish more than ever that she had stopped singing by the end of the decade so we could remember her like this.

It was wonderfully shot (by cinematographer Dwarka Divecha), the colour palette ranging from the reds and yellows in the beginning to the darker colours as the story moves from the palaces to the battle fields. The sets (MR Achrekar) were beautiful in their very simplicity, even the palace settings looking rich and elegant without suffering from a surfeit of garish colour and gaudy beads.
The battle scenes were also well-taken, overlaid montages, with few scenes of hand to hand combat. They still managed to bring out the arrogance of a despotic ruler and the futility of war.
The costumes, similarly, were more authentic than usual, with a very young Bhanu Athaiyya using the Buddhist frescoes in the Ajanta Caves as her inspiration.

My *small* (very small, because the movie was so well-made I forgot about history) peeve with the film -  it went totally against recorded history. It was Bimbisara  who was Amrapali's lover, not Ajatashatru. Amrapali even gave birth to Bimbisara's son. The background as I knew it: Amrapali (or Ambepali - in fact, there are many scenes where Ajatashatru calls her 'Ambe') was so named because she was found abandoned under a  mango tree. She grew up to be so incredibly beautiful, graceful, and charming, that the noblemen of Vaishali, the capital city of the eight Lichchavi clans, began to fight amongst others for her favour. To avoid the consequences of such infighting, the king had her declared nagar vadhu, or the courtesan of the state. 

Stories of her beauty and her prowess at dance spread, and finally came to the ears of Bimbisara, the mighty ruler of the Magadha empire. He invaded Vaishali, and, wounded in battle, takes sanctuary in Amrapali's house. She does not know that he is the Magadhan emperor, the mortal enemy of her country and people. Bimbisara is an accomplished musician; during his extended convalescence, their shared love for music and dance leads to Amrapali and he falling in love. However, Bimbisara cannot remain hidden for long; Magadha is anxious about their ruler's whereabouts. Bimbisara is forced to reveal his identity to Amrapali, and the proudly patriotic danseuse bids him leave the country. 

Bimbisara leaves, but not before the people of Vaishali learn that their enemy had been living in their court dancer's house. Incensed at what they see as her treachery, she is stoned as punishment. They leave her to die of her wounds, but she is rescued by a Buddhist monk; when she recovers, she renounces her previous lifestyle and joins the Buddhist order.  

Another version states that when the Budha visited Vaishali, every nobleman in the kingdom fell over himself offering the Enlightened One hospitality. They scorn Amrapali when she expresses a wish to feed the Budha at least once. However, the Gautama follows her to her house, where he and his revenue are fed with humility and joy. He also agrees to her request to reside in her mango grove during his sojourn in Vaishali. Soon after he leaves, she renounces her position and her wealth and joins his order. 

The film deviates from this story, interchanging Bimbisara's son Ajatashatru for Bimbisara, which, if you think about it, makes the whole tale rather icky. Though I must say that that view is a more 'modern' view of relationships. Historically, I suppose it was not only possible, but, since Bimbisara was never married to her, and because she was a courtesan, it wouldn't really matter that Ajatashatru also fell in love with her. Besides, she could have been his age or just a few years older. 

The rest of the story follows the same trajectory with Ajatashatru invading Vaishali in order to teach it a lesson - the Lichchavis had excoriated Bimbisara as a coward for failing to conquer Vaishali. Considering that history records that Ajatashatru imprisoned, and later murdered his father in order to ascend the throne of Magadha, I wonder how motivated he must have been to salvage his father's reputation.

Or it could be that power-crazed as he was, he was only looking for a reason to invade Vaishali, hitherto unconquerable. (It was said of Vaishali that once the kingdom's gates were closed, not even an ant could crawl inside.) Ajatashatru razes Vaishali to the ground in his bid to win Amrapali; when she sees the devastation around her, she scorns his love and joins the Sangha.

That 'little' plot deviation aside, if you are in the mood for a well-directed, well-acted historical, with a strong plot, and good songs, and realistic don't miss this film. 


  1. Very long since I saw this film, but I do recall Vyjyanthimala as being simply awesome in it - so luminous, and such a fine dancer and actress (another movie where she really got to show off her skill as an actress was also opposite Sunil Dutt - Sadhna. And I love Tumhe yaad karte-karte! So sensual.

    Thanks for that review, and for the detailed real historical background - I didn't know that.

    By the way, I seem to remember reading in the credits that the Indian army had provided actual troops for the battle scenes. Makes sense, I guess. 

  2. Your review makes me want to watch the film.
    the original story is the one that I had in mind. Am also a bit disturbed by the substitution of father with the son.
    Vyjyanthimala looks absolutely gorgeous her. I think she shed some weight for this film. She looks here slimmer than the films of that period.
    I had read somewhere or heard that Amrapali was a vish-kanya. That would contradict with her being a nagar-vadhu.

    In Bombay there was (is?) a Amrapali Saree Emporium. Everytime I read Amrapali, their ad rings through my mind. Effective advertisement strategy, eh?:-D

  3. She put her heart and soul into this role, and it showed. I liked the fact that most of the dances were really instrumental pieces rather than songs.

    Yes, the infantry was borrowed from the Defence Ministry. There was a lot of thought put it into this movie; it's sad that its commercial failure led to the heroine leaving films, and the film maker making films like Prince.

  4. I was surprised when I picked up the DVD and saw 'Ajatashatru' - for some reason, my mind had insisted it was Bimbisara (even though I had watched the film before). Recorded history states that Ajatshatru was enamoured of Amrapali; whether she returned his affections is a matter of conjecture. After all, she was the mother of his half-brother (who, later, also  joined the Sangha.) It is true however, that he destroyed Vaishali. The Lichchavis were decimated after the battle.

    LOL at the Amrapali Saree Emporium. :)

  5. I think this movie made more news due to Vyjayanthimala's "dare-bare" costumes in those days.

    It was a very good movie though.

    One of the reviews that I read says its historically inaccurate. Apparently, common people of the kingdom could never lay an eye on Amrapali, though its depicted that she mingled very freely with the village folks.

  6. common people of the kingdom could never lay an eye on Amrapali, though
    its depicted that she mingled very freely with the village folks.

    It was historically inaccurate, alright, but not for the reason you gave. She's *never* shown mingling with the villagers after she becomes the rajnartaki. All her interaction with them is when she is merely the gurushishya.

    It's a beautiful film.

  7. Several great songs in this movie, have been meaning to see it; hopefully will find the time. Great review, do you have any more insight into why did this movie fail ? (I am sure you do). Were Indian audiences not into strong female characters ? Did movies have to always revolve around a male star ? (Mother India seems to be the major exception.)

  8. There are several good copies of it on YouTube. It's definitely worth a watch.

    I don't claim any particular insight, but I *think* it was because the film didn't follow the usual paths - as a hisotrical, it wasn't accurate; as a period film, it didn't have enough swashbuckling; as a lovestory, it didn't follow the 'love triumphs over every obstacle'... it just was *not* the 'usual' sort of film that people expected.

  9. I've heard of this movie before. Wasn't too big of a hit? It was referenced in Sacha Jhoota a few years later. (Not that I was intentionally watching Rajesh Khanna films - they were finally showing something decent on TV, so why not?) I'm not too big on historicals, so I think I'll skip.

    Besides, I still have to watch Amar Deep. Dev has a scarffffffff. :D Too bad my grandma won't get me one. So what if it's hot here in Singapore? I've seen a bunch of people wearing them!

  10. I like historicals and period movies but am more obsessed with the politics or intrigue of the era than romance. Chronicling the past also involves creating the era in terms of language, costumes and sticking to the truth as much as possible unless ofcourse, the writer wishes to re-interpret history.

    While taking liberties in terms of interpretation or creating a fictional movie with historical characters is fine, I find it difficult to digest when a true factual account of events is twisted for no particular reason. Ajatashatru for Bimbisara is hardly Chandu for Aromal Chekkavar, right?

    But keeping that aside, if it is a well made movie (have very faint memories of it), I think I should watch it again.

  11. It is a very well-made movie, though I agree with you about the unnecessary tampering with history - that has always been a pet peeve of mine. We do not have very many true 'historicals'. In any language. Maybe the genre frightens away people to whom 'history' is an anathema? (And that should be the majority of the population, I'm guessing.)

  12. Please stay away from Amar Deep. :( I have a great tolerance for most movies, but that is one movie which I left half way.

  13. Quite true; I don't know why we have shied away from history..

    Maybe a Perunthachan which I watched again recently and have been planning to write about but historically I don't have much of an idea on the veracity of the tale.
    Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha was also true in terms of its depiction and though MT changes the accepted plot line, it's more to do with his re-interpretation than falsifying a popular fable. 

  14. Perunthachan is a historical legend, and if I remember my story right, it held true to the original.

    Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha never strayed from the story - it just looked at what might have been from another view - and since we, as viewers, knew that, I think it was perfectly acceptable.

  15. Sharmi Adhikary18 April 2012 at 05:00

    One more now on my to-watch list! Thanks for the reco :)

  16. Calm down. It's not as if every Dev Anand film was great just because he was in it. The film was patchy, the story was a hoot (even by my levels of tolerance), the scenes looked like they were strung together just so they could have the heroines dance, and Dev sleepwalked through the movie - a monkey would have shown more animation than he did; he was that disinterested.

  17. You're welcome. :) It's a lovely film, worth watching for Vyjayanthimala alone, though all the others were equally good!

  18.  -tears in eyes-

    How could they... they... -crying- I thought only his 70's films would be like that! Why Dev, why!? WHYYYYY?! -hysterical- :((((((((

    But he has a scarf! A SCARFdustedoff
     And... and awesome songs! And... I wanted to see if their pairing here was better than the one in Jewel Thief! I mean, Dev is younger and more handsome and and that would make a difference!

    And I like him when he does that losing memory thing. It's... :((((((

  19. Arre baba, don't cry. Go watch Amar Deep. Maybe you will like it!

  20.  What turned you off anyway? >:(

    And how the heck does Dev sleepwalk through a film? I need to ask him that too.

  21. I found my interest flagging; couldn't care less whether Dev regained his memory or not; courldn't care less which heroing 'got' him; just couldn't care at all, period. When a film does that to me, and that happens very rarely, then It's difficult to continue watching. :( Sorry.

  22.  Aww, you haven't read Richard's or Bollyviewer's hilarious reviews yet, have you?

  23. I did read bollyviewer's actually. :) Stumbled upon it when I was checking to see whetherI'd missed anything - was relieved to find that I hadn't.

  24. I think I'll go ahead and see it, because of Dev. (Honestly, I watch all his films only for him but whatever) Will post a review on it and (try to keep out the gushing) let you know how I felt.

    Now. Time to beg/scream/cry/pout/throw a tantrum/convince my grandma to buy it. SHE DIDN'T GET ME BAAZI TODAY! Although she was willing to buy The Dirty Picture. -rolls eyes-

  25. I'm so happy that you have reviewed this film, Anu. It is one of my all time favourite films, and being period adds 'char chand' to it.

    I agree with everything you have written, and it really pains me to think it was not accepted by the people. Such a shame.

    Another film that I like, also period, is Chitralekha. 
    It is nothing compared to Amrapali, the sets are not elegant, Meena Kumari looks quite fat though the camera tries to focus on her upper half - but the songs are on par with this film's, acting is superb, and it's period so I love it as much as this film.

    Hope you'll review it one day....and say only nice things about it :-D

  26. Thanks, pacifist. :) It is a shame that it didn't do too well. :(

    Hope you'll review it one day....and say only nice things about it :-D

    Since it is one of my favourite films, I can safely say that you will get your wish.:D

  27. Its sad that this lovely film was not successful and Vyajanthimala terminated her acting career after this. 

    To add to your excellent analysis I wonder if there is a "republic" sentiment to this movie. As in Vaishali is a republic so the soldiers don't fight for a king but for their own country. While the monarch next door is depicted as a war mongering imperealist! 

  28. Welcome to my blog, Lucy. Yes, there definitely was more than a whiff of 'republic' vs 'imperial power'. There is a definite political statement that underlines the whole movie.


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