55 Years of Amrapali: Dance and Nation through the 1966 Courtesan Film
Gunindu Abeysekera - July 1, 2021
This year marks 55 years since the release of F.C. Mehra and Lekh Tandon’s film, Amrapali, starring Vyjayanthimala Bali as the famous court dancer, Amrapali, and Sunil Dutt as Magadha’s Emperor Ajatashatru. At surface, this story is the classic trope of a forbidden romance, which in this case, conflicts with the demands of loyalty to the nation through deception, devotion, and dance. The film commences with the angered Emperor Ajatashatru impatient to conquer the state of Vaishali against his mother and war general’s advice. Obstinate, he attacks Vaishali and loses the battle, forcing himself to disguise as a soldier of Vaishali and find solace with a patriotic Vaishali citizen, Amrapali. While romance builds between the disguised Ajatashatru and Amrapali, who is unaware of his true identity, she becomes Vaishali’s courtesan dancer after successfully challenging the incumbent through dance battle. Amrapali becomes the pride of Vaishali, winning over the hearts of its citizens, political leaders, Ajatashatru, and her guru’s son, Som, with whom she tasks with sculpting a statue of her “soldier.” After overhearing Ajatashatru speaking with his war general who snuck into Vaishali, Som reveals his completed statue to Amrapali that depicts her disguised “Vaishali soldier” explicitly as Emperor Ajatashatru in Magadha uniform. While Amrapali scolds Ajatashatru for his deception, he is forcibly taken back home to Magadh by his own war general because the emperor’s mother had died. Confused, betrayed, yet love-struck, Amrapali pleads with the leaders of Vaishali to discharge her of her duties as court dancer. When they inquire why, one leader exposes to the court that Amrapali is in love with their enemy, Emperor Ajatashatru, causing her people to turn against her. When Ajatashatru ascertains that Vaishali imprisoned Amrapali and executed his war general, who had returned to Vaishali to convince Amrapali to become Magadh’s Empress, he rages a violent war against Vaishali and finally conquers the state. Devastated by the carnage Ajatashatru created in the name of her love, Amrapali rejects him and turns to Buddhism after overhearing a sermon between the Buddha and a mass of Sangha in that moment. Ajatashatru follows her to the sermon, breaks his sword, and seeks repentance and refuge under Buddhism as well.
Central to the film’s narrative is Amrapali’s role as the historic royal court dancer and courtesan of Vaishali. To place her positionality into context with the themes of the film, we must first reflect on the courtesan film genre of Indian cinema. In her text, National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema, 1947-1987, Sumita Chakravarty states the following:
The themes interwoven in this narrative are artistically represented through song and dance
The courtesan, as historical character and cinematic spectacle, is one of the most enigmatic figures to haunt the margins of Indian cultural consciousness. Variously described as dancing girl, nautch-girl, prostitute, or harlot, she appears again and again in Indian cultural texts, at once celebrated and shunned, used and abused, praised and condemned. Socially decentered, she is yet the object of respect and admiration because of her artistic training and musical accomplishments. The embodiment of a charged sexuality, she is as often associated in popular culture with the Madonna. A bazaar entertainer, she is paradoxically the repository of the traditions of a vanished age and a lost way of life (Chakravarty 269).