I must thank my friend Muz for sending me this rare treat from Wadia Movietones. While I am not sure what the motivation was for making what is billed proudly as the first all-English talkie made in India by an all-Indian cast and crew, I am surely grateful to not need subtitles. The ill-fated love story is nothing new or earth-shattering, although it contains a nice message about equality and hypocrisy. It is typically 1940s in its formal, stagey acting and stilted language, but Sadhona Bose is glorious as Court Dancer Indrani and of course my would-be father-in-law Prithviraj is beyond gorgeous himself (I have taken about a gazillion screencaps of both of them). The action takes place in early 19th century Manipur and the dancing costumes all remind me of my own little Manipuri dancing doll, although there is a wonderful Art Deco feel to much of it as well.
We begin in the Court Dancer’s little garden, where everyone has gathered to celebrate Janmashtami. Prince Chandrakirti (Prithviraj) appears to visit his ladylove Indrani. He is to be crowned King by his father in another month and he is determined to marry Indrani, although his father frowns upon the liaison. Their meeting is interrupted by the Captain of the Guards (Thapan).
The Captain has been sent by King Jaisingh to ask Chandra to meet the approaching procession of High Priest Koshishwar, an esteemed holy man carrying a vial of the Sacred Dust from the feet of the Lord. In any case Chandra refuses to leave Indrani’s side and she now performs a Ras Leela dance for him and a bunch of priests who have just arrived.
Sadhona is unbelievably graceful. I would love to see her in something else (1937’s Alibaba for instance! Make it happen, universe!). King Jaisingh (Nyampalli) arrives just as the dance ends to chastise Chandra for not going to meet the High Priest. But Koshishwar (Jal Khambata) is already there in the midst of the priests, and praises Indrani’s performance as Radha to the skies. He approaches her to apply the Sacred Dust and is stopped by the horrified King, who informs Koshishwar that she is a mere dancer.
The priest himself recoils in horror on this discovery (I am not clear on who he thought she might be, given that she was after all dancing, but never mind).
Poor Indrani! Denied the Sacred Dust, she is further humiliated later when she travels to the temple with the royal entourage and is refused admittance. The procession is quite wonderful and must have been quite a production: there are lots of elephants, and it’s a typically lavish Wadia scene.
Indrani leaves the temple, taking her offerings with her—although the priest assures her that they are welcome—and on the way home passes a small ruined temple with a hermit priest in residence. He welcomes her warmly and refuses her offerings, saying that God welcomes all people and doesn’t require any gifts from them either—prayers are enough. He tells her: “That temple is not worth entering that shuts its doors against any living soul.”
Prince Chandra, who witnessed her humiliation at the large temple, has followed her on horseback. He promises her that when he becomes King and marries her, he will open all the temples in Manipur to everyone.
It’s evident by now that Chandra and Indrani are good and devout people who genuinely love each other wholeheartedly. And my goodness they would have gorgeous children!
But the King has decided to marry Chandra to the Princess of a neighboring kingdom to cement an alliance with them and prevent war from breaking out. He doesn’t take Chandra’s devotion to Indrani seriously until Chandra rejects the crown and his inheritance in favor of marrying her.
Enraged, King Jaisingh vows to have her arrested and executed, but Koshishwar—who still remembers her luminous performance as Radha—asks for a chance to talk with her instead. He finds her in the “broken temple” (as it is called throughout) offering prayers of thanks for Chandra’s love, and asks her to sacrifice that love for the sake of peace for Manipur and its people.
There is another obstacle in the form of the Captain of the Guards, who wants Indrani himself and is willing to instigate trouble against both of them if she doesn’t accept him.
Will Indrani give up Chandra? Will Chandra accept her sacrifice if she does? Can this love story end happily?
As I said, it’s a simple (and short, too, at an hour and twenty minutes or so) story with a simple message, and there is a LOT of pretty along the way. The dance numbers are beautifully choreographed and performed, with a lovely Wadia special-effects touch at one point to explain how the hand movements of the dance represent the stars and the moon.
I love the costumes and sets and as usual would give my eye-teeth to get my hands on some of that stuff!
Okay, especially Prithviraj.
Sadhona Bose is credited at the beginning for costume design, as well. Her husband (Bengali director) Modhu Bose directed the film, and the lovely music is by Timir Baran—who apparently was also Sadhona’s “good friend” at one time, according to her pretty extensive biography on imdb. It doesn’t sound like she had a very happy life in later years, but she was really just wonderful in this, a beautiful dancer. It is truly an historical gem.