Love and renunciation in Amrapali

Period films set in ancient India have seldom succeeded at the box-office in Hindi cinema. While many of them have not been A-graders to start with, even the ones made by an A-list team have seldom created any ripples. The 1960s saw two such big budget productions ending up as damp squibs at the box-office. Lekh Tandon’s Amrapali (1966), starring Vyjayanthimala and Sunil Dutt was one of them (the other being Kidar Sharma’s Chitralekha, starring Meena Kumari, Ashok Kumar and Pradeep Kumar).

A leaf from another era
Vyjayanthimala owned the film as Amrapali
I saw Amrapali for the first time during my school days and even before that, I had seen an impressive tele-serial by the same name, directed by Hema Malini, in which she had played the title role herself. There was also another serial on DD in 2002, which failed to run beyond a few weeks. But the biggest and best production of all on this theme was the magnum opus directed by Lekh Tandon. The story begins with Ajathasatru (Sunil Dutt), the emperor of Magadha, declaring a war on the Republic of Vaishali. Defeated and wounded in the war, he runs into the dwelling of Amrapali (Vyjayanthimala), a citizen of Vaishali, who nurses him back to health, without knowing that he is the emperor of Magadha, whose effigy she has burnt in the post-victory celebrations. The Lichchavis (the ruling members of the republic) are choosing a new nagarvadhu for Vaishali and through a quirk of circumstances, Amrapali floors the pandits with her unmatched dancing skills and is declared the new nagarvadhu of Vaishali for the next three years.
M R Achrekar’s art direction lent a visual splendour to the film
This scene was later used in Om Shanti Om in the song Dhoom tana
She falls in love with Ajathasatru, who stays back in Vaishali, not only to plot the next attack using an intricate web of spies, but to also relish the company of Amrapali, to whom he is irresistibly drawn. But a point comes when Amrapali discovers the truth behind his identity and banishes him from her life. Wounded from within, she requests the Lichchavis to relieve her from the responsibilities of a nagarvadhu. But word soon spreads in Vaishali that the soldier whom Amrapali was romancing all these days was their sworn enemy. Lichchavis assume that Amrapali is stepping down to get married to Ajathasatru (since a nagarvadhu is not allowed to get married) and sentence her to death for treason. In a bid to save his love, Ajathasatru attacks Vaishali and destroys an entire civilization. Disillusioned with the devastation around her, Amrapali spurns his love and moves in search of peace. She reaches the abode of Gautam Buddha and surrenders herself at his feet, renouncing a life of name, fame, glamour and glory, which brought about the destruction of one of the earliest republics of India.
At her sensuous best in Tumhe yaad karte karte
Tadap yeh din raat ki
The first thing that arrests your attention while watching the film is the visual splendour created by the Art Director M R Achrekar.  Forces from infantry and cavalry of the Indian army were borrowed to shoot the battle scenes in the beginning of the film. Bhanumathi Athaiya’s costumes were well-researched and the Amrapali costume was imitated a zillion times later in films. She spent a lot of time studying the paintings at the Ajanta caves to get a hang of the style of dressing during the Buddhist era. The film was launched with a lot of pomp and show at the Ajanta Caves with leading names from the film industry and politics, including Indira Gandhi, attending the mahurat shot.
 Lekh Tandon wisely restricted the number of songs to three in the movie and the other dance sequences were aided by wonderfully created instrumental music pieces by Shankar Jaikishen, who otherwise known for their commercial ventures, got a chance to prove their mettle in a period film as well. Each song is a gem and even the ones which were edited out later, such as Jao re jogi tum jao re, display signs of a genius. All the songs were sung by Lata Mangeshkar.
Surrender at the feet of Buddha
Sunil Dutt, with plenty of bare chested scenes as Ajathasatru, oozed charisma and aggression in equal measure.  In 2007, his shots from Amrapali were used in Shahrukh Khan’s Om Shanti Om, where Vyjayanthimala was edited out and replaced with Deepika Padukone in the song Dhoom tana. But the show belonged to Vyjayanthimala, who became the soul of Amrapali. Perhaps, she was born to do this role, which not only reinforced the fact that she was the greatest dancer Hindi cinema has ever seen, but also a fabulous actress. Watch her at her sensuous best in the songs Tumhe yaad karte karte and Tadap yeh din raat ki and you will realise she puts every glamour doll to shame. In the last couple of scenes, she lends a lot of gravity to her performance as the wronged nagarvadhu trying in vain to defend herself. As Amrapali, torn between her love and duty, she owns the film. 
Choreopgraphy by Gopi Krishna proved to be a high-point
The climax scene
Amrapali was India’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 39th Academy Awards. But for all these high points, Amrapali failed at the box-office. Watching it today, one can hardly attribute a solid reason to this failure. The movie had many historical inaccuracies. As per Buddhist texts, the emperor who fell for Amrapali was not Ajathasatru, but his father Bimbisara. The brutality of Amrapali’s punishment was also skipped to an extent in the climax of the film.
Lekha Tandon returned to making run-of-the-mill commercial films (he had previously made the musical hit Professor, with Shammi Kapoor) and his next venture Prince (1969), starring Vyjayanthimala and Shammi Kapoor was a hit. The failure of this film is said to have deeply hurt Vyjayanthimala and it hastened the process of her retirement, who despite later success like Jewel Thief, Saathi and Prince, lost interest in films.
Arjun Dev Rashk, who had previously written Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, contemporised the drama of another era with his gritty dialogues. He infused the film with a newness, which not only glided through the silken notes of romance, but also highlighted issues of war and peace. A few dialogues stand out for their simplicity and brilliance. When Amrapali hesitates to remove an arrow that has struck Ajathasatru, he says Jis baan ke lagne se main nahi mara, uske nikalne se kya marunga?
When Ajathasatru asks his mother as to why he is unable to defeat Vaishali, she says, Vaishali ki sena apni swabhimaan ke liye ladti hai, kisi raja ke aham ke liye nahi.

The crux of the movie highlights the futility of war and the message holds true even today, as it did during the Buddhist era. With its sweeping storyline, inimitable performances and grandeur, Amrapali stands tall as a work of art.

10 thoughts on “Love and renunciation in Amrapali

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  1. i think these movies did not get their due because the Congress party succeeded in killing the cultural self-esteem of Hindus after years and years of neglect of Hindu cultural studies in the educated class. However, these movies are going to have a life far beyond their original release, so in that sense, they are resounding successes, and help far more than other more ordinary movies, to keep the memory of wonderful actors like Vijayantimala and Meena Kumari alive.

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