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28 June 2016

Chandralekha (1948)

Directed by: SS Vasan
Music: S Rajeswara Rao
             MD Parthasarathy
Lyrics: Papanasam Sivan
              Kothamangalam Subbu
Starring: TR Rajakumari, MK Radha, Ranjan,
MS Sundaribai
I've wanted to review this film for a long time now. Like many of the movies I watched in my childhood, this too was courtesy my father. When Chandralekha was re-released in Bangalore, he wanted me to see the famous drum dance  – he'd described it so often, and so vividly that I remember sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for the dance. 
The 'theatre' was a ramshackle tent, and the seats were not exactly comfortable. Once the film began, however, I completely forgot how uncomfortable the seat was, or how dingy the theatre.

Chandralekha was a typical raja-rani film, set in a vague historical period. It had two brothers who fought for the throne, a beautiful heroine with whom both the brothers fell in love, attempted fratricide, fabulous sets, gorgeous handwoven silk and gold costumes, political machinations, espionage, exquisitely staged battle scenes, the longest sword fight captured on film, circus animals, song and dance... the works! 

So... are you ready for the magic?

A young man (MK Radha) is on his way, accompanied by a soldier, when he runs into a beautiful village girl (TR Rajakumari). The chance meeting (his horse splashes mud onto her face, causing her to drop the water she's carrying) bedazzles the youth so much that he cannot think of anything else but her. The young woman, Chandra, is equally struck by the handsome young man.
Chandra lives with her father, a sculptor. When Chandra, having refilled her pot, returns home, she finds her father putting the finishing touches to a statue - hers. Her father explains that one day, she will leave him to set up her own house; he cannot go and live at his son-in-law's house every time he misses his daughter. He'll take comfort in the sculpture then. 
While this conversation is taking place, the young man's companion is questioning why he had given the young woman a false name. The young man laughs. If the girl had known who he was, she would not have spoken so freely to him. They ride on to the palace, where the young man goes into his chambers.
In another wing, the king is being confronted by his younger son, Prince Shashank (Ranjan), who demands to know if his father will confer the kingdom and the throne upon him. (He has the papers all drawn up.) The king demurs – when there is an elder son, how can he hope to be the ruler? His quietness angers the prince. When he insists upon an answer, the king quietly burns the documents. The prince is angry enough to draw a dagger on his father, but is cautioned by a soldier. Better sense prevails and the prince follows the king to demand that if his father will not make him the king, then the kingdom should be divided into two. 
The king is taken aback. Divide the kingdom? The kingdom does not belong to him, or to his sons! They belong to the citizens. Shashank doesn't care. If his father will not give him what is his by right, he has the guts to take it by force. And he will! 

The sight of his older brother, Prince Veerasimhan (the young man we met before), is like a red rag to the already enraged Shashank. As he leaves his parents' presence, Shashank vows that they haven't heard the last of this. The king warns Shashank that if he ever sets foot in the kingdom again, his life will be in danger. Shashank blusters: he knows how to take care of himself; perhaps his father should figure out how to take care of the kingdom! 

As the king sends his soldiers after his wayward son, Veerasimhan tries to make his brother see sense. He wants the kingdom? It's his. He, Veerasimhan, will convince their father to hand the reins over to his brother. Shashank is furious – he doesn't need his brother's charity. 
It turns out that Shashank has been laying his plans for a long time now. His men are hiding in the caves on the outskirts of the town. Now that his father has refused to bestow the kingdom upon him, it is time for them to make their move. While it's true that Veerasimhan is beloved of the people, he, Shashank, has a trusted man in the palace's inner apartments. With the help of that spy and the bravery of his followers, he is sure to attain his goal. 
While Shashank is plotting and planning, Veerasimhan is meeting Chandra, and vowing his eternal love to her. Chandra, obviously in love with him, is quite circumspect. He is in love with her? He only met her the day before. Veerasimhan persists and Chandra tells him he should be talking to her father. As they stand talking, Veerasimhan notices that the village is ablaze. Chandra refuses his offer to take her home, and the prince, cautioning her to be careful, quickly makes his way back to the palace to bring reinforcements. 

Shashank is at the forefront of his gang of thieves, exhorting them to arson. Chandra's father, anxious for his daughter's safety, goes out into the chaos to look for her, and loses his life in the mêlée. 

Shashank doesn't stop with looting villages. He lets loose a crime spree, preying on traders who travel through the kingdom, on unwary travellers, etc. On one such raid, he comes across Chandra who, orphaned, is travelling with a band of musicians to her aunt's house in a neighbouring village. 
Her reluctance to dance for him angers him, and he whips her, until she does. The performance is interrupted by Chandra falling unconscious, and almost immediately afterwards, one of Shashank's men informs him that Prince Veerasimhan has just entered the forest, accompanied by his soldiers. After asking one of his men to take Chandra to their cave, Shashank sets forth to confront his brother. Chandra, however, is more ingenious than either Shashank or her guard gave her credit for; she manages to give him the slip.
Meanwhile, Veersimhan has set up camp in the forest, and is discussing ways of infiltrating his brother's gang. Shashank, however, is one step ahead. His spy overhears their discussion, and before Veerasimhan can put his plans into action, Shashank and his men ambush the camp. The battle is quick, and brutal. As Veerasimhan is carted away to his brother's hideout deep in the forest, Chandra sees them, and follows. She can only watch helplessly as Veerasimhan is tied up in a cave, its entrance sealed by a boulder. 
As Shashank and his men leave the forest and make their way to the capital, a distraught Chandra wonders how to rescue her beloved. But help is on the way. 

A travelling circus troupe is making its way through the forest on their way to the next town, when Chandra flags them down. Coaxed by one of their own artistes, the circus troupe agree to help Chandra save the prisoner.

Back at the palace, Shashank proclaims that his brother's untimely death had caused his parents to take sanyas, and he's therefore forced to take over the reins of the kingdom. Voices of dissent are quickly silenced, and the courtiers are forced to proclaim their fealty to their new ruler. Not satisfied with the kingdom, and furious that Chandra escaped his guard, Shashank sends that same guard, on pain of death, to search for the girl. Meanwhile, Veerasimhan and Chandra have sought refuge in the circus. While Veerasimhan remains disguised, and in hiding, Chandra becomes a part of the troupe. However, the guard manages to track her down. With Veerasimhan's help, Chandra once again escapes. 
They are not out of danger, but for the moment, the runaways find sanctuary in a gypsy camp. Leaving Chandra in relative safety, Veerasimhan goes off to try and find transport. Unfortunately for them, the guard and his cohort have managed to track Chandra down to the gypsy camp. 
Chandra cleverly evades capture for some time, but Veerasimhan returns too late. Despite the gypsies endeavouring to keep her safe, Chandra is captured, and taken back to the palace. Confronted with Shashank, who is hell bent on making her his own, Chandra faints. And continues to remain unconscious, despite all his efforts. 
Just when he's at his wits' end, comes a gypsy healer, who promises a cure for any malady. And so it comes to pass. Chandralekha is more than ready to marry King Shashank. But she has one condition. Her family tradition includes a spectacular dance before the nuptials.
Why has Chandralekha changed her mind? Where is Veerasimhan? Will Shashank get his just desserts? 

Of course, these are rhetorical questions. Long-time viewers of this sort of cinema know that villains have to get their comeuppance, and that the hero and heroine have to live happily ever after. Good is rewarded; the bad is punished. But the journey to this end is a fantastic one, in the literal meaning of the word. 
With a sword-fighting sequence that yet holds the record for the longest such sequence in cinematic history, the film hurtles towards its wholly satisfying climax. There's virtually no background music during this epic clash –just the sounds of the swords as they cross, the odd furniture being overturned as the brothers traverse the palace, intent on killing or being killed, Chandralekha's reaction shots as she watches them with bated breath, her fate hanging in balance... 

I see no reason to repeat what's known about the film; it's all there on Wikipedia how Chandralekha was the most expensive film ever made at the time; how Vasan spent almost Rs25,000 on publicity alone; how the climax sequence cost him Rs5 lakh, the cost of making a full-fledged film at the time...

What didn't I like? The circus sequence, which went on for too long, in my opinion. The romance, which could have done with fewer songs, and a little more elaboration. Removing the comic side plot completely, even though it wasn't as painful (or as long) as these sequences usually tend to be. These are minor peeves, however.

What I liked however are the simple things the dialogues, for example. This was the early to late 1940s. Films made after that period were still guilty of being influenced by the theatre. Here, in Chandralekha, there's very little declamation. The spoken dialogue here is relatively free of rhetoric and theatricality, and sounds (almost) natural. 
The heroine is not horrendously coy, and while she does get 'rescued' by the hero a couple of times, she is intrepid enough not only to save him once, but also to take care of herself. There are very few tears, and even less melodrama. No striking up a hundred violins, for instance.  
The villain is not a caricature, despite being black as pith. It says much for Rangan's talent (except for a propensity to scowl) that he transcended what was surely a two-dimensional depiction on paper, to imbibe his character with a certain amount of dramatic panache. It's hard not to like a villain who's so unapologetically evil. 

MK Radha, who was initially offered the role, but took on the role of the 'heroic' elder brother instead, must have rued the day he decided to play safe. [He was ostensibly scared of going 'against' his image.] His role, though that of the hero, paled against that of the charismatic villain. 
Rajakumari was a revelation. I'd only seen her in one other film before Gul-e-Bakavali, an MGR starrer (it was produced by Rajakumari and her brother), that had its genesis in the Arabian Nights. Since she was there only to provide the glamour, and I watched the film when I was a kid, I didn't really pay much attention. Here, I was enraptured by her performance, especially in the dances. For the rest, it was great to see her   – in 1948  – play a very unusual sort of heroine. 

What else did I like? The drum dance, definitely. Four hundred dancers, a fantastic set with giant drums, six months of rehearsals, and an expense tag of Rs5 lakh.
Choreographed by Jayashankar, this dance sequence will forever be remembered in the annals of cinema. The battle scenes withstand the scrutiny of time, and indeed, are much more 'realistic' than similar scenes enacted today.  The music. Rajeshwara Rao (songs) and MD Parthasarathy (background) did their best to complement the story telling. I particularly applaud the latter for his efficient use of silences. The songs, drawing inspiration from folk, classical and western music, took nearly a year to compose.

The grandeur of SS Vasan's vision began the trend of cinema as a spectacle. If ever a film deserves to be remastered today, it is Chandralekha. A clean print of the Hindi version of this film is available on Tom Daniel's channel on YouTube. A huge shoutout for his yeoman service in preserving our cinematic heritage.

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