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‘Amrapali’: the courtesan and the king

The sensual 1966 film 'Amrapali' is about a courtesan who both embraces and rejects worldly pleasures

Sunil Dutt plays a ruler in love with Vyjayanthimala’s courtesan in this 1966 film.
Sunil Dutt plays a ruler in love with Vyjayanthimala’s courtesan in this 1966 film.

Growing up in the 1980s, I always thought of Vyjayanthimala, mainly glimpsed at the time in Doordarshan telecasts of Sangam or Jewel Thief, as a proto-Meenakshi Seshadri: attractive and sensual, but also mannered in the way that performers trained in classical dance sometimes were—too many exaggerated eye movements and double takes, even in straight scenes.

Later, I realized that it would be a mistake to assess Vyjayanthimala on the same terms as, say, Nutan or Jaya Bhaduri. She came from a more theatrical acting tradition, centred on an exploration of rasa and bhava, and often seemed to be of another world, well-suited to playing a voluptuous apsara in a celestial court.

This quality is on view in Lekh Tandon’s 1966 Amrapali, where the eponymous actor is a performer, dancing for the pleasure of others as well as for self-expression; it accounts for the power of scenes such as the spectacular dance challenge that ends with Amrapali being anointed nagarvadhu, or royal courtesan.

Based on a nearly 2,500-year-old legend, this is one of our better-looking period films, an attempt to achieve something both grand and intimate, like some of the Hollywood epics of the time. It has something else in common with films like The Robe (1953) and Ben-Hur (1959): a cameo by a venerated religious figure. If the protagonists of those movies had life-changing encounters with Christ (never seen directly), Amrapali features a shadowy appearance by the Buddha. But here’s something funny: Though this film culminates in a major character renouncing the world to follow the Enlightened One, it understands the pleasures of the flesh very well.

Its first few scenes might put 2018 viewers in mind of Padmaavat. As the Magadh emperor Ajatashatru, who wants to conquer the nearby city of Vaishali, Sunil Dutt snarls almost as much as Ranveer Singh’s Khilji does. When we first see Amrapali—a patriotic citizen of Vaishali—we are prepared for the two central figures to be antagonists. It gets complicated, though: When Amrapali tends to a wounded Ajatashatru, thinking of him as a soldier, they fall in love.

If Padmaavat leads towards the self-immolation of its heroine, there is much fire imagery in the older film too. Amrapali is in danger of getting burnt, metaphorically and literally: In one intriguing scene, which presents love as something that can both consume and save, a large flaming statue of Ajatashatru nearly falls on her and she is rescued by the real Ajatashatru (whose identity she is unaware of). Much later, she sings “Birha ki iss chitta se, tumhi mujhe nikalo (Rescue me from this fire of separation)."

The scenes that burn brightest, though, are the romantic ones. When Amrapali’s sainik (soldier) clutches her bare shoulder, telling her she is very beautiful, she uses his distractedness to pour salve into his wound—wherein his groan of pain and the camera’s provocative framing (Ajatashatru on his back, Amrapali seen from behind as she bends over him) lend themselves to more than one interpretation. When she meets him next, she strokes his wound through his tunic, letting her hands linger for longer than required. The song Tadap Yeh Din Raat Ki has them reclining on a bed, and the film is not at all coy about the likelihood that they have slept together.

It should be said that Sunil Dutt isn’t the perfect fit for this sort of role: His heavy Punjabi enunciation of words like parantu and sheeghra can be mirth-inducing, and, in the honour roll of bare-chested Hindi-film heroes, he ranks below another shirtless hunk of 1966, Phool Aur Patthar’s Dharmendra. And yet, these scenes have an urgent eroticism that you don’t associate with the Hindi cinema of the time.

One reason for this could be that the cast and crew were freed by dealing with very old history, bordering on myth; it has long been a cliché to look back at the Kamasutra—or mythological stories about polygamous relationships—as indicative of a time when sexual mores were more relaxed. The opulent, revealing costumes that Bhanu Athaiya designed for the film were partly the result of visits to the Ajanta caves.

But the film’s tone is also linked with the nature of its protagonist. In her stimulating new book Dancing With The Nation, Ruth Vanita examines the cultural importance of the Hindi-film courtesan (a word used to cover such descriptions as nartaki, devdasi and tawaif—all terms with subtle differences in meaning, which have experienced semantic shifts over time). Looking at courtesan depictions across more than 200 films—not just in a few key works such as Pakeezah (1972) or Umrao Jaan (1981)—Vanita moves beyond the stereotype of the martyred, lonely dancing girl. Courtesans, she notes, were “the first group of single working women in films". They were unconstrained by the patriarchal family, often functioned as emblems of the nation, represented a mixed Hindu-Muslim culture and could develop unconventional relationships, in addition to expressing sexuality.

Amrapali is a fine example of a film that affirms this multidimensional view. Much as she would do in the 1968 Sungharsh, Vyjayanthimala plays a courtesan who drives the narrative with her actions, banters with a male friend (the sculptor son of Amrapali’s guru) and is unconstrained by the need to be virtuous. When she does become maudlin and regretful, it has nothing to do with her sexual life but with guilt about having possibly betrayed her land. And despite the film’s final nod to abstinence, the lasting image is that of the heroine, deep longing in her eyes, telling her lover that the hours before their nighttime meeting will feel like a hundred thousand years.

Above The Line is a column on Indian cinema and how it presents the world.

Jai Arjun Singh tweets @jaiarjun

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