Raj Nartaki (The Court Dancer) (1941)

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.”

Hooray!

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.

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52 Comments to “Raj Nartaki (The Court Dancer) (1941)”

  1. “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,”

    What is nice though is to learn (from your blog among other things) that they explored different options and ways to tell stories. By the 70s the formula was set in stone

    Love your screencaps of the hand (mudras). That’s why I read your blog–on my own I might never nocice these things.

    • Yes, and it’s kind of fun that India is still exploring ways to appeal to a wider audience.

      And without people like you I would not know those hand movements are called mudras! :) Thank you!

  2. OMIGOSH! This is ancient. An english film by India, that early? Astonishing. Sadhona Bose is so beautiful and Prithiviraj is awesome. He looks a bit like the young Shammi… :)

  3. Prithviraj kapoor was such an handsome guy! Love him!
    They made good film with good messages that time!
    since this is an english film. How is the language? Does it sound like the scene in which Himanshu Rai speaks to some bird or something about his beloved?
    Would love to see this film!

    • I just kind of sat and melted into a puddle watching him :) The language is okay, it’s interesting because the pronunciation is just fine but the rhythm or cadence of their speech takes some getting used to. You are thinking of Karma and the squirrel scene too :) It’s very like that!

  4. A question about the English used, is it British English, or what might be called Indian English, or something in between?

    Also, for your American readers, Turner Classic Movies is showing “A Throw of Dice” (1930) at 12:30 am on Monday, July 26.

    • It’s somewhere in-between…very British a la 1940s Hollywood, but with an Indian accent!

      Thanks for the info on Throw of Dice—it’s a lovely film too :)

  5. LOL at would-be father-in-law. :-)
    And of course Chandra and Indrani would have gorgeous children. :-)
    And a gorgeous would-be daughter-in-law. :-)

    Not seen the movie. Sounds like a feel-good, sweet movie of that period. (I am assuming here that all ends well, that Indrani and the would-be father-in-law (henceforth to be known as WBFIL) get together and the Captain of the Guards is put in his place).

    Have now got this pic in my head of WBFIL in his deep voice going “Bahu….”. And memsaab appears.

    Somebody needs to take this story further. :-)

    • Ha ha :) Honestly, I did not feel very bahu-like towards him! His voice too was so much like Shashi’s in his English-speaking films—it wasn’t as deep as it became later (think he had throat cancer or something, which caused it to change).

      SPOILER: It’s not really a feel-good film, to be honest :( (Indrani dies at the end, of suicide, in Chandra’s arms). END SPOILER

      • Thanks for the pic raja! I’ve the same thing in my head now! ‘ROTFL’

        @ memsaab: I can understand you not feeling very much like bahu but a dullhan. but it will be a WBIFL from Kal Aaj Aur Kal (1971). You will love him!

      • I too was curious about the English so I checked out the Youtube excerpts. Prithiviraj’s English sounds like it is better than Raj Kapoor’s. My assessment– a little like Dev Anand in Guide (English version). Dev Anand’s English is better of course. Also notice the Bengali actor’s(Sadhana) English is better than the Punjabi’s(WBFIL)–just like in India even today (okay that’s a stereotype and I will get into trouble for it).

  6. Hey Memsaab,

    will look for this film — have a series of postcards that are of wadia movietone movie posters, although this film isn’t among them. Also, LOVE your doll! Where did you find her? I have a 7-year old niece for whom I buy dolls whenever I travel — I didn’t get her one on my first trip to India. Hope to on my second.

    Sally

    • The doll is vintage (not sure how old) and I happened across her at an antique show…I am sure they still make them in India though! I’d love to find more of them, actually, they are fun to have around :)

    • Sally – you will get a lot of those dolls in Tamil Nadu – I think they are called “Thanjavur Bombai” ie Thajavur dolls that shake their head. The actual dance style may vary ie it could be Bharatanatyam rather than Manipuri. If you go to “Puzham Puhar” – the Tamil Nadu Government Emporium in any State capital in India, you may find such dolls.

      You can even try the Mainpuri State Emporium if you happen to be in Delhi – I presume Delhi has this Emporium. Sadly the southern states don’t have state emporiums of North East.

  7. The screencaps are awesome especillay the mudras and the elephant scenes. Where did you find this movie? It must be really hard to find such oldies.

    • Muz sent it to me, his father taped it from a television channel in England.

      • Gosh viewers in the UK are lucky that television channels are showing such oldies! No Channel in India will show these for
        sure these days!

        • Cent per cent in agreement with you Filmbuff, it is question of money honey bole toh SPONSORS hai kya,? first the commercial interest then we talk. It is sad STATE of affairs .But thanks to Internet we can see the glorious history of past movies and remember the folks who made it.

          Otherwise they would be all destined to a dustbin, no doubt in my mind about that.

          Here Torrent groups also need a mention where we have folks sharing the most rare phillums .).) and the bits and pieces of info about the people behind it. Folks from all over the world are connected and that is very good sign .)

          Cheers .)

          • Thanks for confirming my view!
            Indeed blogging has been a great gift
            for filmlovers to meet online and share
            views /films/argue etc etc.

  8. Oh, I need to get hold of this film! Have heard about it, but this is the first time I’ve come across a synopsis or a review of it (well, not that I’ve actively searched, but still). Sadhona Bose looks gorgeous, as does Prithviraj Kapoor.
    Have just discovered that a search on youtube for ‘Raj Nartaki’ yields a bunch of excerpts. Will go and check them out!

    • Yes, Richard links to Nivedita’s writeup of it below which is lovely! I had forgotten about it (BAD MEMSAAB) but she has uploaded a lot of great old cinema to youtube.

  9. Thanks for the review. Young Prithviraj is always good for screen-caps.

    I bought that doll in the Central Cottage Emporium in Delhi, only with a different costume: a full length ghagra.

    There were also some in the state emporiums on Baba Kharag Singh Marg in Delhi, as I visited several, cannot remember if it was in the TN one or not.

  10. Nice review and love the screen caps!

    I feel as though I saw this film ever since I read Nivedita’s blog post with all those clips:

    http://cinemacorridor.blogspot.com/2009/07/page-from-indian-film-history-court.html

    But, no, I never had the chance to watch it all the way through.

    You’re right about Sadhona Bose, loved her dancing in this (and can see why Sadhana was named after her)…

    And I have heard about her unhappy life in later years. When I did a post on one of her dances here (http://roughinhere.wordpress.com/2009/08/08/sadhona-bose-in-the-court-dancer-1941/ ), I got a comment describing how she became yet another Bollywood riches-to-rags tale…

    • Thank you for linking that—I had forgotten about it (which I had found from your post)…

      Sadhona Bose is just beautiful and so graceful. The bio of her on imdb is pretty thorough too, which is unusual!

  11. The king obviously doesn’t mind marrying off a dancer to a neighboring prince. Would that prince have no objections to her lowly caste??

    Prithviraj and Sadhona really look gorgeous. As does your doll. Though none of them look Manipuri :)

    Would love to see this film. I didn’t even know of Sadhona before this, so great job again, Memsaab, in documenting Indian film history.

    • ? The King had no intention of marrying her off to a neighboring prince? He was marrying his son the prince off to a neighboring princess…

      They are gorgeous. And what does the doll look like? I’ve seen other Manipuri costumes which looked like this—what are they supposed to look like? Is this “filmi” Manipuri? :D

      I will bring the film with me next time I visit :)

  12. Interesting write up Memsaab. hope to get a chance to see this someday .),
    one thing I noted, the playing time for this movie is all different ie India:126 min (Hindi version) | India:144 min (Bengali version) | USA:86 min (English version). This as per IMDB.

    Wonder what was chopped in Hindi and English version, do share with us if yu or other readers have any idea. Thx

    Cheers
    p.s. hv to see Rajput Ramani from 1936 which Trini bro had u/l, and unfort I missed it, luckily one seeder to help out.

    • Probably songs were chopped. The flow was nice though, it didn’t feel edited as so many do.

      I missed Rajput Ramani too, will see if I can get it although it looks unlikely :( Same story as Shahi Lutera…

  13. Excerpts of this English-language film are on youtube. Check out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvjry5CYXBY

    And so on.

  14. What a little jewel of a movie this is. As always, pix of Prithvi’s youth remind me of Shammi’s mustachoied days, but at the same time, Prithvi’s own personality is so strong that it is evident even in screen caps (which are lovely- thank you). I really appreciate the outsdoor shots- they were fairly rare then, and always fun.

  15. Thanks everyone for the suggestions on where to find dolls of India. I will surely be shopping at the emporiums on my next trip!

    And yes, I tried to find a DVD of this film, to no avail (even checked Induna). You are lucky to have gotten a copy! I hope some of these older films will become available on DVD at some point. Read w/ interest that Mrinal Sen’s “Khandar” has been restored and was shown at Cannes this year. Hopefully it will be available soon!

    Thanks again.

    • The emporiums are FUN :)

      No, I think this isn’t out, and if it were it would have a huge ugly logo slapped over it and scenes and songs missing probably. DESPAIR!

  16. If I am not mistaken “Khandar” was an 1980s film that did the festival rounds earlier but was never released in
    mainstream theatres

  17. I saw Khandar at the London Film Festival when it was first made. Fine film, beautiful cinematography and a very realistic take on the venerable Indian film “well-off-educated-spohisticated-city person-meets-beautiful-rural-young-person=fall-in-love”….and the cinematography was wonderful.

    Never knew that it was never released in cinemas. Shabana Azmi & Nasiruddin Shah at the height of their restrained acting powers are always a treat. However, as it is a good 25 years since the one and only time I saw it, so I do not what I would say about it now.

  18. When I was a kid, I would not touch an old movie with a barge pole. At that time, any movie older than two years was an old movie for me. I remember not watching movies like Samadhi (1971), Haqeeqat(1964) etc when they were being shown for free in 1974 in my locality, since they were too old and boring for my liking.

    But now, I would love to watch movies like “Raj Nartaki”, which is nearly 70 years old. Have I grown old ?

  19. Iwas searching wadia movietones first bengali with same title (Raajnartike)w was produced by j.b.h.wadiaand directed by madhu bose and other movies called (Manthan)under the same banner .What i want uto ask was Dilip kumar thier in the movie

  20. I hv got some stuff to show u like some old p.c barua bengali movies like devdas/mukti &some1952 magazine advertisment of hindi movies if u r interested i can send u in urs email

  21. i have uploaded some of my photos on my facebook account.if u r on facebook u cn check them out in ma profile.these include photos of the front cover of booklets of some new theatre movies, wherin actors lyk PC Barua and Kanan Devi have acted.they r not properly edited and r ol in bengali language.if u have any problem regarding language i can translate it in english
    if u r interested in hollywood magazines.u can have a look in ma profile itself.
    i m sittin in front of ma computer,do expect a early reply.

  22. You have really a knack,skill and a keen eye to absorb the movie details,seen and implied.Your review is very enjoyable.
    Sadhona Bose looks quite enchanting and impressive in this movie,I agree.
    Thanks.
    -AD

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