Friday, July 17, 2009

A page from Indian film history: The Court Dancer (1941)

This post first appeared in the PassionForCinema blog on June 21, 2009.

1941: World War II was raging on in Europe and, back home in India, Tagore passed away. The year also saw the first trilingual production of an Indian film—Wadia Movietone’s The Court Dancer or Raj Nartaki, directed by Modhu Bose (1900-1969), which was released in English, Hindi, and Bengali. According to the film credits, The Court Dancer was “the first Indian film with dialogue in English to be entirely produced in India with an all-Indian personnel.”

Once, in the late 1980s, Doordarshan broadcast the English version of The Court Dancer in the late-night slot. (Unfortunately, old classics are typically relegated to the hours of slumber.) After finishing my school homework well in advance, I was up that night with my video recorder to capture this momentous piece of Indian film history. I was very curious to hear the cast speak English, especially given that the film was set in early 19th century Manipur.

After many years, I recently revisited my videotape of the film, this time to digitize it, to make it last forever. And here, I will have to necessarily digress a bit. In the last few months, I have had to wade through unknown waters. (I am still wading.)

As someone with zero technical knowledge, I have been faced with many questions: sitting here in America, where the NTSC format prevails, how do I digitize my Indian VHS tapes (PAL format) so that they will work universally? What multi-system VCR must I invest in? What kind of a converter box will I need? How do I go about all this without getting ripped off? After being assailed by umpteen other such doubts, and after long months of research, I finally figured out what exactly I need and, hey, the process of digitization has finally begun.

Now I have moved on to the next stage: I am immersed in researching the world of media storage! So what is the best way to store these newly digitized films? Should I copy them onto DVDs with their painfully small storage space, in which case, am I to split each film into two or three DVDs, and add to the clutter of my tiny apartment? Or should I copy them onto Western Digital-manufactured passport drives that come in terabytes, where a one-terabyte passport drive can, amazingly, store up to 666 hours of material? Just the other day, I learned about the My Book external hard drive that can even be plugged into the television.

More than anything else, I am terrified of losing these priceless films, so what about backups? I am still deciphering all this and more. End of digression.

So, getting back to The Court Dancer (which is still sitting on my computer hard drive while I decide where to store it permanently), the film tells the tale of doomed love between a courtesan and a prince—as such alliances are usually doomed to be. (For starters, think of the unsanctioned love of Anarkali and Prince Salim.) Based on a Bengali play by dramatist Manmath Ray (1899-1988), the film starred the legendary Prithviraj Kapoor (1906-1972), one of the doyens of Indian cinema, as Prince Chandrakirti (Jyoti Prakash replaced Kapoor in the Bengali version); and the accomplished Sadhona Bose (1914-1973), an exponent of both Kathak and Manipuri dance forms, in the role of the court dancer Indrani. (Interestingly, Sadhona Bose, the wife of director Modhu Bose, was the granddaughter of Keshab Chandra Sen, the Brahmo social reformer, 1838-1884. Sadly, in her later years, she was reduced to begging in the streets of Calcutta.)

Here is a brief write-up of the film, with excerpts.

In keeping with the Vaishnava tradition of 19th century Manipur, the film opens with a musical celebration of Lord Krishna’s love for Radha, in the court dancer Indrani’s garden. It is the night of the full moon and, to the accompaniment of Timir Baran’s music that sounds appropriately regal, the viewer is introduced to His Highness Prince Chandrakirti as he grandly enters the garden of his beloved. As his eyes eagerly look for Indrani, the camera follows suit and pans to a striking Sadhona Bose. Indrani and Chandrakirti are swathed in their love for each other. Thus begins a story of human love that is intertwined with divine love, in the background of the Raas Leela. Watch the beginning of the film, with an introduction from Doordarshan:

Soon the strains of “Jai madhava mukunda murari” herald the arrival of the High Priest Kashishwar Goswami and his followers in the grove. Indrani, with sincere devotion, performs the Raas Leela with her group (choreographed by Bose herself), which touches the heart of Kashishwar who tells her, “I have never seen such devotion before, my child”. He is about to offer her “the most valuable treasure of the Vaishnava,” which is the “sacred dust from Lord Chaitanya’s feet,” when Chandrakirti’s father, King Jaisingh, arrives at that critical moment and shouts to Kashishwar that Indrani is a court dancer. Kashishwar recoils in horror. Chandrakirti looks on helplessly as Indrani is reminded of her stigma, her fate—something that will happen over and over again as the story unfolds. Indrani is a courtesan with the proverbial heart of gold—or should we say purity, of selfless love, for her prince as well as for Lord Krishna. But this is not recognized by society: how can a nautch girl have any stake in spiritual matters, let alone dream of marrying a prince? Watch the Raas Leela, and Kashishwar recoiling from the court dancer:

Later, Indrani is turned away from the royal temple, where she goes to offer worship. And then a melody wafts through the air as these words fill the screen: “The tortured soul of Indrani found solace in a broken temple whose keeper was a singing hermit.” Comforted by the kind hermit, she offers her prayers in this dilapidated, desolate temple on top of a hill and regains her peace.

King Jaisingh is, meanwhile, busy forming a marriage alliance for his son with the princess of neighboring Tripura. Since Manipur and Tripura are not on good terms, binding the two kingdoms in wedlock seems strategic: as Tripura’s envoy informs King Jaisingh, if this alliance is not finalized soon, Tripura will invade Manipur. “To keep the envoy in good humor,” the king orders Indrani to perform in the court, and this is followed by the envoy’s announcement of the to-be royal wedding. A shining crescent moon, glittering stars, and a flower garland are all momentarily transposed onto Indrani’s fingers during the dance sequence: the imagery has stuck in my mind. Watch the dance sequence and Indrani’s reaction:

As a dejected Indrani returns to the temple on the hill, Chandrakirti rushes there to vow before the idol that he loves only her and will not marry anyone else. Later, at Indrani’s house, a furious King Jaisingh arrives and orders his son to leave the place at once. Watch the father-son encounter:

Not caring for the disastrous consequences of breaking a marriage alliance with Tripura, Chandrakirti tells Indrani that he will come at dawn and take her to the faraway Shyamsunder temple where they will get married. Indrani is ecstatic. The disturbed king, sensing trouble from his son, confides in Kashishwar, who, in the interests of Manipur, decides to talk Indrani out of marrying the prince. He finds Indrani in the broken temple; she has gone there, one last time, in the middle of the night, to thank the lord.

Kashishwar successfully dissuades Indrani from her goal of marrying the prince by painting a picture of doomsday to her: the people will never accept her as the queen, the army will rise in revolt, Tripura will invade, Manipur will be destroyed, and Chandrakirti will certainly perish. He reminds her of her duty to her country, to her religion, and most importantly, to her prince: if she really loves him, she will give him up for his own sake, for his own life. A broken Indrani collapses to the ground. Kashishwar walks away relieved, although sad for Indrani.

When the prince comes to take away Indrani at dawn, she feigns rudeness. When Chandrakirti tells her that he has given up his right to the throne so that they can live together happily, Indrani spurns his love—a love “without the pomp and grandeur of palaces.” A disbelieving prince concedes, “Oh, a court dancer after all” and stomps out. Indrani is shattered. Watch the Indrani-Chandrakirti encounter:

The royal wedding is announced for the next day, an auspicious occasion when Kashishwar will distribute the “sacred dust of Lord Chaitanya’s feet” to all devotees. Indrani is ordered to dance on the festive occasion, which she does, but faints towards the end. Considering this an ill omen, the king contemplates postponing the marriage. Meanwhile, the people of Manipur are clamoring for the sacred dust from Kashishwar, who is suddenly not to be found, much to the consternation of the king and the people.

Touched by Indrani’s selflessness and duty towards her country, Kashishwar has gone to Indrani’s house to give her the sacred dust, which he had once denied her. Meanwhile, the captain of the guards arrives at Indrani’s house to escort Kashishwar back to the palace to distribute the sacred dust. Kashishwar sternly replies that the people must come to Indrani, who will dispense the sacred dust with her own hands. As the horrified captain leaves, Kashishwar gently tells the surprised Indrani that he knows of nobody more deserving of the sacred dust than Indrani herself and begs her to accept it.

Meanwhile, the captain spreads rumors among the people that Indrani is a witch, for she has even trapped a holy man. As an angry mob marches to Indrani’s house to kill her, a faithful maid runs to the prince to ask him to go save Indrani and tells him of her sacrifice; Kashishwar also confesses to the prince his role in Indrani’s pretence. As the prince rushes to save Indrani from the mob, she spots her finger ring containing poison and quietly swallows the powder. She dies in his arms. Watch the last scenes:

A conclusory note: The Court Dancer is a simple love story, told simply and effectively. Some may consider the acting to be exaggerated, but that is in keeping with the theatrical style of acting common in those days. After all, many of the early legends of Indian cinema started out in theatre—Prithviraj Kapoor notably. Timir Baran’s music brilliantly recreates royal Manipur and conveys the soulful devotion of the Vaishnava poets. At 80 minutes in duration, The Court Dancer is a short film by Indian film standards.


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  3. I am so glad that the legacy of my beloved and visionary grandfather Jamshed "JBH" Wadia is still appreciated by so many. The Court Dancer aka Rajnartaki (it was made in English, Hindi and Bengali -- three versions -- simultaneously) was not a box-office success, although it was nominated as India's entry for the Oscars in 1941/42. I watched it first when I was a child in the 1960s, at the little preview theatre at Wadia Movietone's studio in Chembur, a suburb of Bombay. I hope to be screening it at the February 2014 Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Bombay, along with several other Wadia Movietone films (including a few Fearless Nadia starrers). Hope many people attend the screenings. Best wishes, Roy Wadia/Wadia Movietone (

    1. Thrilled beyond words to hear from the grandson of the legend himself, and that too on the first day of 2014. I did not know that The Court Dancer was India's entry for the Oscars. It certainly remains one of my all-time favorites. Actually that was the second JBH Wadia film I saw. The first was Diamond Queen (1940) at a screening by Cine Society (not sure if it is still around?) in the early '90s when I lived in Bombay. I remember being spellbound by Fearless Nadia. Sadly though I haven't seen a whole lot of WM films, except the later Mela (1948) and Madhosh (1951). I have read that the studio produced two Tamil films as well in the 1930s, and am quite intrigued. Are these available? It is heartening to know that there is a WM Archives dedicated to preserving these wonderful relics and making it all available for researchers. How I wish I were in Bombay to attend that festival!