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.


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.


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 “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.”

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Advice from an ex-robber on how to keep your home safe

Tips on a more hands-on approach of keeping your house secure.

Home, a space that is entirely ours, holds together our entire world. Where our children grow-up, parents grow old and we collect a lifetime of memories, home is a feeling as much as it’s a place. So, what do you do when your home is eyed by miscreants who prowl the neighbourhood night and day, plotting to break in? Here are a few pre-emptive measures you can take to make your home safe from burglars:

1. Get inside the mind of a burglar

Before I break the lock of a home, first I bolt the doors of the neighbouring homes. So that, even if someone hears some noise, they can’t come to help.

— Som Pashar, committed nearly 100 robberies.

Burglars study the neighbourhood to keep a check on the ins and outs of residents and target homes that can be easily accessed. Understanding how the mind of a burglar works might give insights that can be used to ward off such danger. For instance, burglars judge a house by its front doors. A house with a sturdy door, secured by an alarm system or an intimidating lock, doesn’t end up on the burglar’s target list. Upgrade the locks on your doors to the latest technology to leave a strong impression.

Here are the videos of 3 reformed robbers talking about their modus operandi and what discouraged them from robbing a house, to give you some ideas on reinforcing your home.


2. Survey your house from inside out to scout out weaknesses

Whether it’s a dodgy back door, a misaligned window in your parent’s room or the easily accessible balcony of your kid’s room, identify signs of weakness in your home and fix them. Any sign of neglect can give burglars the idea that the house can be easily robbed because of lax internal security.

3. Think like Kevin McCallister from Home Alone

You don’t need to plant intricate booby traps like the ones in the Home Alone movies, but try to stay one step ahead of thieves. Keep your car keys on your bed-stand in the night so that you can activate the car alarm in case of unwanted visitors. When out on a vacation, convince the burglars that the house is not empty by using smart light bulbs that can be remotely controlled and switched on at night. Make sure that your newspapers don’t pile up in front of the main-door (a clear indication that the house is empty).

4. Protect your home from the outside

Collaborate with your neighbours to increase the lighting around your house and on the street – a well-lit neighbourhood makes it difficult for burglars to get-away, deterring them from targeting the area. Make sure that the police verification of your hired help is done and that he/she is trustworthy.

While many of us take home security for granted, it’s important to be proactive to eliminate even the slight chance of a robbery. As the above videos show, robbers come up with ingenious ways to break in to homes. So, take their advice and invest in a good set of locks to protect your doors. Godrej Locks offer a range of innovative locks that are un-pickable and un-duplicable. To secure your house, see here.

The article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Godrej Locks and not by the Scroll editorial team.