Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The dancing girl, the king and the nation

[my Lounge column on the 1966 film Amrapali, about a courtesan who both embraces and rejects sensual pleasures -- also a recommendation for Ruth Vanita's new book Dancing with the Nation]

----------------------


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 realised 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 heroine 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, or the equally powerful "Neel Gagan ki Chhaon Mein" sequence.





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 and fumes 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 Ajatshatru, 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”, 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, sheeghra and hriday 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 came partly out 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 designations 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 two hundred films – not just in a few key works such as Pakeezah or Umrao Jaan – 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 multi-dimensional 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.


-------------------------------------
[A post about another great dance sequence - Waheeda Rehman in Guide]

7 comments:

  1. Jai, this was such a good read. I saw the movie in the days of the keenly awaited weekly movie on DD and I remember thinking she looked amazingly sexy in the movie, and yet not vulgar, which is not an easy thing to pull off in apsara costumes. And yes, what I took away was the fierce patriotism, her heart broken more that betrayal than the lover's

    ReplyDelete
  2. Completely agree with you when you say that Ms. Bali was well-suited to playing a voluptuous apsara in a celestial court. And also that Mr. Dutt was not suited for the role. In fact, the only film I liked him in was Mother India. But, then again, anybody will shine against hamming Rajendra Kumar.
    -The Alco....c guy

    ReplyDelete
  3. What's your take on Sunghursh? In my view one of the most interesting films of the 60s.

    ReplyDelete
  4. My favorite Vyjayanthimala film is the great conservative classic produced by the Bengali legend Uttam Kumar - Chhoti si Mulaqat

    Highly recommended

    The movie flopped and it hurt Uttam Kumar both emotionally and financially, in a big way

    ReplyDelete
  5. I haven’t seen ‘Amrapali’ or read ‘Dancing with the Nation’. I have read some of Ruth Vanita’s other work such as her critical commentary on the works of Premchand, which I found to be very astute and insightful. The book in question ‘Dancing with the Nation’ is also likely to contain thoughtful counter-examples and counter-arguments to what I have written below.

    The idea of the courtesan as a ‘lonely martyr’ or an unhappy figure may have become a stereotype, because it has been such a staple in films and literature across the world. The fact that it has been such a staple, to me, doesn’t merely suggest that all these writers and filmmakers, conditioned by their patriarchal assumptions, were busy peddling stereotypes. It suggests that these depictions also had a foundation in reality. Of course, this may not have been the only reality, and may not reflect the experience of other courtesans who found fulfillment in what they did. That doesn’t mean it’s not a legitimate perspective in itself which can exist alongside other perspectives. For every affluent courtesan who exercised some degree of power and influence, there were others who didn’t and who weren’t happy. Certainly, a lot of the literature of the subcontinent seems to suggest this. I think of ‘Pakeezah’ more as an affirmation of romantic idealism, rather than as a film kowtowing to what some perceive as regressive values and assumptions.

    I've never really though of Vyjanthimala as a mannered actress, or an actress whose performances veered towards theatricality. I suppose there were those rapid eye movements, but on the whole I found her performances very convincing. She was amazing in Gunga Jumna, and despite being a Tamilian played a Northern rustic village belle so wonderfully. I also thought she was very good in Jewel Thief, Madhumati, Naya Daur and Paigham.

    ReplyDelete

  6. Hi Jai, I made a comment yesterday which I think has gone into your spam. I've reproduced it below.

    I haven’t seen ‘Amrapali’ or read ‘Dancing with the Nation’. I have read some of Ruth Vanita’s other work such as her critical commentary on the works of Premchand, which I found to be very astute and insightful. The book in question ‘Dancing with the Nation’ is also likely to contain thoughtful counter-examples and counter-arguments to what I have written below.

    The idea of the courtesan as a ‘lonely martyr’ or an unhappy figure may have become a stereotype, because it has been such a staple in films and literature across the world. The fact that it has been such a staple, to me, doesn’t merely suggest that all these writers and filmmakers, conditioned by their patriarchal assumptions, were busy peddling stereotypes. It suggests that these depictions also had a foundation in reality. Of course, this may not have been the only reality, and may not reflect the experience of other courtesans who found fulfillment in what they did. That doesn’t mean it’s not a legitimate perspective in itself which can exist alongside other perspectives. For every affluent courtesan who exercised some degree of power and influence, there were others who didn’t and who weren’t happy. Certainly, a lot of the literature of the subcontinent seems to suggest this. I think of ‘Pakeezah’ more as an affirmation of romantic idealism, than as a film kowtowing to what some perceive as regressive values and assumptions.

    I've never really though of Vyjanthimala as a mannered actress, or an actress whose performances veered towards theatricality. I suppose there were those rapid eye movements, but on the whole I found her performances very convincing. She was amazing in Gunga Jumna, and despite being a Tamilian played a Northern rustic village belle so wonderfully. I also thought she was good in Jewel Thief, Madhumati, Naya Daur and Paigham.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi Jai, I made a comment on this post a couple of weeks ago, which wasn't posted. I tried re-posting it as well but it may have gone into your spam again. It would be good if you could approve it. If it's not in your spam any longer, here is the comment:

    I haven’t seen ‘Amrapali’ or read ‘Dancing with the Nation’. I have read some of Ruth Vanita’s other work such as her critical commentary on the short stories of Premchand, which I found to be very astute and insightful. The book in question ‘Dancing with the Nation’ is also likely to contain thoughtful counter-examples and counter-arguments to what I have written below.

    The idea of the courtesan as a ‘lonely martyr’ or an unhappy figure may have become a stereotype, because it has been such a staple in films and literature across the world. The fact that it has been such a staple, to me, doesn’t merely suggest that all these writers and filmmakers, conditioned by their patriarchal assumptions, were busy peddling stereotypes. It suggests that these depictions also had a foundation in reality. Of course, this may not have been the only reality, and may not reflect the experience of other courtesans who found fulfillment in what they did. That doesn’t mean it’s not a legitimate perspective in itself which can exist alongside other perspectives. For every affluent courtesan who exercised some degree of power and influence, there were others who didn’t and who weren’t happy. Certainly, a lot of the literature of the subcontinent seems to suggest this. I think of ‘Pakeezah’ more as an affirmation of romantic idealism, than as a film kowtowing to what some perceive as regressive values and assumptions.

    I've never really though of Vyjanthimala as a mannered actress, or an actress whose performances veered towards theatricality. I suppose there were those rapid eye movements, but on the whole I found her performances very convincing. She was amazing in Gunga Jumna, and despite being a Tamilian played a Northern rustic village belle so wonderfully. I also thought she was good in Jewel Thief, Madhumati, Naya Daur and Paigham.

    ReplyDelete