Films that are 50

Films that are 50: History, dance, and high fashion in ‘Amrapali’

Lekh Tandon’s period drama, starring Vyjayanthimala, was one of the glorious failures of 1966.

Vyjayanthimala showed off her dancing talent in scores of films but few showcased her skills – or her entire self – better than Lekh Tandon’s Amrapali.

Dressed in strapless blouses and fitting draped dhotis (the veil is optional) and shot in lambent tones that accentuate her classical features and her gem-like eyes, Vyjayanthimala makes for an unforgettable dancer in the period romance. As it turns out, the film was one of the glorious failures of 1966. But like many movies that were ignored in their time, it has gained greater flavour and meaning over the years. Its pleasures started on the surface (the “Amrapali outfit” created by the brilliant designer Bhanu Athaiya, MR Achrekar’s yellow-hued sets, Shankar Jaikishan’s classical score) but emanated from the core themes (Vyjayanthimala’s proto-feminist character, the pacifist message).

Amrapali’s private quarters.
Amrapali’s private quarters.

Based on history and legend and previously filmed in 1945, Amrapali features Vyjayanthimala as a spirited court dancer from Vaishali who loses her heart to Ajatashatru (Sunil Dutt), the ruler of the rival Magadha kingdom. Ajatashatru sneaks into Vaishali in the guise of a wounded soldier. As Amrapali tenderly dresses his wounds – the first of many encounters between the beautifully matched leads – love blossoms. Amrapali gives her heart and body to the disguised Ajatshatru, but his intentions, at least initially, are less than honourable. A symbolic sexual encounter on a boat marks the union of the lovers, but political rivalry, war and statecraft set off Amrapali on an unconventional journey away from romance and towards renunciation.

Play

The movie opens with Ajatashatru fuming at the defiance of the neighbouring kingdom Amrapali. The king sets off to tame Vaishali despite a stern warning from his mother (Sulochana), but he is unsurprisingly bowled over by Amrapali’s grace and beauty. The sequences between Dutt and Vyjayanthimala crackle with the erotic frisson that was unique to the Indian historical genre, as if to celebrate a time when Indians were less puritanical about their sexual desires. One can only guess what audiences at the time made of Vyjayanthimala’s costumes, inviting though never vulgar, and the combustible sensuality of her character.

Amrapali is a public woman – she is the court dancer and therefore belongs to the highest bidder – but is treated with dignity, in keeping with the movie’s depiction of Vaishali as a just kingdom. Amrapali has a mind of her own, and is firm in her loyalties to the kingdom that gives her identity and respect. No wonder, then, that Ajatashatru, who is conniving to gut the kingdom from within, gazes upon wonder at this perfectly formed female during a contest to name the best dancer of the court.

Play

Lekh Tandon had made his debut as the director of the comedy Professor in 1963 after serving as an assistant director on several productions. He was fascinated by a book he had read on the period, and aimed for a movie that would depict “the language, the culture and the unity of the time”, he told Scroll.in. “Shammi Kapoor was supposed to star in the film, but he turned it down,” the 88-year-old actor and director said. “But the producer, FC Mehra, told me to go ahead and make it.”

Mehra’s act of faith resulted in fine collaborations between the director and the technicians, who worked hard on combining authenticity and spectacle. “I remember going to the director of the Princes of Wales museum at the time, and he said that Indian filmmakers cannot make an authentic film,” Tandon recalled. “This provoked us.”

The Vaishali court, as imagined by MR Achrekar.
The Vaishali court, as imagined by MR Achrekar.
A statue of Ajatashatru.
A statue of Ajatashatru.

Athaiya, who won an Academy Award in 1983 for Richard Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi, famously conducted research for the costumes by visiting the heritage site of Ajanta and Ellora in Aurangabad. The movie was meant to be shot on location, but was eventually made on sets constructed in Mumbai. Special care was taken for the lighting by cinematographer Dwarka Divecha, who has such films as China Town and Sholay to his credit. “Dwarka Divecha understood the period,” Tandon said. “He used three sets of lights for Vyjayanthimala, one for her face, another for her the middle body, and a different set for her whole body.”

Among the reasons for Amrapali’s failure was its use of classical Hindi dialogue, Tandon said. “Urdu was more prevalent among audiences at the time, and this was the movie’s downfall,” he said. “Audiences didn’t understand the language.” The movie’s advocacy of Buddhism, which the dancer embraces in the manner of Asoka after being horrified by the ravages of war, also worked against the movie, Tandon theorised.

Despite its poor showing in 1966, Amrapali remains one of Tandon’s best-known films, one for which he is commended to date. The movie is also one of the highlights of Vyjayanthimala’s career, and Tandon has only words of praise for her dedication. “She was too good and too great,” he said. “She took on the movie as a challenge. She had 104-degree temperature while working in the [lovemaking] pond sequence. No wonder she was disappointed.”

Play
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Not just for experts: How videography is poised for a disruption

Digital solutions are making sure it’s easier than ever to express your creativity in moving images.

Where was the last time you saw art? Chances are on a screen, either on your phone or your computer. Stunning photography and intricate doodles are a frequent occurrence in the social feeds of many. That’s the defining feature of art in the 21st century - it fits in your pocket, pretty much everyone’s pocket. It is no more dictated by just a few elite players - renowned artists, museum curators, art critics, art fair promoters and powerful gallery owners. The digital age is spawning creators who choose to be defined by their creativity more than their skills. The negligible incubation time of digital art has enabled experimentation at staggering levels. Just a few minutes of browsing on the online art community, DeviantArt, is enough to gauge the scope of what digital art can achieve.

Sure enough, in the 21st century, entire creative industries are getting democratised like never before. Take photography, for example. Digital photography enabled everyone to capture a memory, and then convert it into personalised artwork with a plethora of editing options. Apps like Instagram reduced the learning curve even further with its set of filters that could lend character to even unremarkable snaps. Prisma further helped to make photos look like paintings, shaving off several more steps in the editing process. Now, yet another industry is showing similar signs of disruption – videography.

Once burdened by unreliable film, bulky cameras and prohibitive production costs, videography is now accessible to anyone with a smartphone and a decent Internet bandwidth. A lay person casually using social media today has so many video types and platforms to choose from - looping Vine videos, staccato Musical.lys, GIFs, Instagram stories, YouTube channels and many more. Videos are indeed fast emerging as the next front of expression online, and so are the digital solutions to support video creation.

One such example is Vizmato, an app which enables anyone with a smartphone to create professional-looking videos minus the learning curve required to master heavy, desktop software. It makes it easy to shoot 720p or 1080p HD videos with a choice of more than 40 visual effects. This fuss- free app is essentially like three apps built into one - a camcorder with live effects, a feature-rich video editor and a video sharing platform.

With Vizmato, the creative process starts at the shooting stage itself as it enables live application of themes and effects. Choose from hip hop, noir, haunted, vintage and many more.

The variety of filters available on Vizmato
The variety of filters available on Vizmato

Or you can simply choose to unleash your creativity at the editing stage; the possibilities are endless. Vizmato simplifies the core editing process by making it easier to apply cuts and join and reverse clips so your video can flow exactly the way you envisioned. Once the video is edited, you can use a variety of interesting effects to give your video that extra edge.

The RGB split, Inset and Fluidic effects.
The RGB split, Inset and Fluidic effects.

You can even choose music and sound effects to go with your clip; there’s nothing like applause at the right moment, or a laugh track at the crack of the worst joke.

Or just annotated GIFs customised for each moment.

Vizmato is the latest offering from Global Delight, which builds cross-platform audio, video and photography applications. It is the Indian developer that created award-winning iPhone apps such as Camera Plus, Camera Plus Pro and the Boom series. Vizmato is an upgrade of its hugely popular app Game Your Video, one of the winners of the Macworld Best of Show 2012. The overhauled Vizmato, in essence, brings the Instagram functionality to videos. With instant themes, filters and effects at your disposal, you can feel like the director of a sci-fi film, horror movie or a romance drama, all within a single video clip. It even provides an in-built video-sharing platform, Popular, to which you can upload your creations and gain visibility and feedback.

Play

So, whether you’re into making the most interesting Vines or shooting your take on Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’, experience for yourself how Vizmato has made video creation addictively simple. Android users can download the app here and iOS users will have their version in January.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Vizmato and not by the Scroll editorial team.