Did I choose to write about this film because it is currently on Netflix with subtitles and thus more available than hundreds of other things I might have selected? Yes. Does it have something to offer the Gutter reader other than availability? Absolutely.
Amrapali (1966) is one of a relatively small handful of Indian films depicting episodes from the nation’s ancient Buddhist history. Set roughly 2,500 years ago—I said it was ancient!—the film tells the story of royal courtesan Amrapali (Vyjayanthimala), whose city Vaishali is attacked by neighboring king Ajatashatru (Sunil Dutt). After some giant battle scenes that involve the actual Indian army, a wounded Ajatashatru puts on Vaishali armor to take shelter. Still pretending, he encounters Amrapali and tells her her city is victorious, and she nurses him, and if you think an arrow impaled in someone’s chest and a cauterization iron could not possibly be effective phallic symbols, this film has something to show you. He is quickly smitten but also hell-bent on conquest; she falls for him equally hard but has no idea who he really is. A sculptor in love with Amrapali eventually reveals the truth, and her community punishes her for harboring the enemy. I won’t give away the ending, but a late appearance by the Buddha and the sobering effects of his words during a time of war mean that the film highlights how difficult it can be to live by all of your principles while also listening to your heart. This is all interesting enough, but what makes the film stand out story-wise is how central its woman lead is to expressing and embodying its values and driving the action. What the men do (or hope to do) on the battlefield, she achieves directly and firmly through words and personal-scale behavior.
Vyjayanthimala is, quite simply, Hindi cinema’s greatest dancer, supported here by the equally esteemed choreographer Gopi Krishna. Watch her win a famous danceoff. I am tempted to just write 😍instead of words to talk about her, not only because she herself has gigantic expressive eyes but because that is how I feel watching her in this film. Even if, like me, you are not knowledgeable about dance, there is still so much to be dazzled by in her performance. Look at her too restless to sleep or smoldering in a love song on a boat. Not everyone can act through Winehousian stacks of hair, but she can.
This film is spectacular set piece after spectacular set piece. Even within a cinematic tradition that so often uses dance to express or augment emotions and plots, Amrapali is exceptional.
I can’t get over the sizzle in this film. When I think period piece made decades ago, I don’t always assume the chemistry will translate to my modern eyes, usually because the acting styles and amounts of pancake makeup often feel artificial in emotionally obstructionist ways to me. Some actors seem to get lost under historical accouterments, but Vyjayanthimala and Dutt blaze throughout this film. Maybe that’s partly because they’re actually wearing less clothing than they would have been in a film set in 1966 (the costumes by Oscar-winner Bhanu Athaiya are gorgeous, especially if you’re interested in jewelry), and there is no sense of awkwardness about them. They are remarkably regal and confident, which is especially notable in a cinema tradition that is stereotyped for being skittish about direct representations of sex. Whoever did the blocking for these scenes (director Lekh Tandon? I have no idea) is unabashed and unafraid of having their actors actually be intimate physically and facially. There is no coyness. These are adults happily being adults.
What a joy it is to watch experts at work. Amrapali crescendos into Vyjayanthimala’s show-stopping breakdown in a wordless musical number in which she uses only her body to express her character’s moral turmoil.
Not quite everything in the film lives up to this moment. For example, I know not every viewer in 2023 is as enamored of pre-digital recreations of historical battles as I am, and I find the king character a little underwritten and Dutt a little shouty, a problem that maybe stands out only because Vyjayanthimala is so often bewitching through movement and facial expression alone.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, though, the film dedicatedly supports and serves Vyjayanthimala’s performance of Amrapali’s emotions and principles, and our woman star—the driving force as character and performer—is absolute fire throughout. Scholar Usha Iyer posits that Amrapali is a standout in Indian cinema history for this very thing: women dancing stars were creative forces in filmmaking, with projects like this one created to feature their talents. We think of dance being made to fit the songs in a film, but in some of Vyjayanthimala’s work, “the performer’s dance vocabulary and bodily comportment precede and influence the song.” (“Dance Musicalization: Proposing a choreomusicological approach to Hindi film song-and-dance sequences,” South Asian Popular Culture vol 15 issue 2–3, 2017.) One of the terms I had to learn when delving into Hindi cinema is “woman-centered,” which people apply to movies that are about women or social issues considered to be of interest to women. Disingenuous commentators also use it to mask whether such a project or portrayal is therefore also feminist (and they often are not) but Amrapali is actually both, putting its energies into foregrounding and supporting that actor and the character. For anyone interested in what it takes to make a film with a woman performer at the fore—and therefore also larger discussions of film history—Amrapali is a must.
Amrapali is currently available on Netflix with English subtitles. If you fall in love with her after watching it, you can also see Prince on Netflix, co-starring Bollywood royalty Shammi Kapoor as the scion of a small kingdom in post-independence India who, a bit like the Buddha, actually, gives up his privilege in order to live a more meaningful life, with Vyjayanthimala as an equally royal princess who could not possibly love a commoner but clearly does. Prince had a lot more to say than I thought it would, and it’s definitely the most interesting role I’ve ever seen Kapoor do. It’s much less about Vyjayanthimala’s character than Amrapali is, but she is very convincing as a snotty royal who bristles under challenges to her concept of identity and worth.
The Tommydan55 Youtube channnel devoted to vintage Indian cinema has several of Vyjayanthimala’s films with English subtitles. I particularly recommend Nagin, because readers of this website probably love a snake lady and it is one of the films Iyer cites as foregrounding Vyjayanthimala’s awesome talents, and Madhumati, the foundational classic of the reincarnation genre. Readers already knowledgeable about Indian cinema may want me to name Devdas, in which she plays a courtesan in love with a self-pitying alcoholic manchild. I find this story almost unwatcably irritating and have no idea why it has been adapted over a dozen times across Indian cinema history, but this particular version is among the best, thanks to the talents of Vyjayanthimala, Suchitra Sen, and Dilip Kumar. Or if you want to head straight to more dancing, watch her in this showcase number from Prince in which she features with the great Helen, another of India’s best dancers on film, though in very different styles than Vyjayanthimala. In three sets, the two women take turns demonstrating different dances, alternating Indian classical forms with foreign or contemporary ones, punctuated by wild gesticulating from the co-starring man that cannot really be called “dancing.”
Beth Watkins believes more conflicts should be resolved through dance battles.
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