One of my dad’s favorite boyhood films was 1935’s Captain Blood with Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland. I never knew that until a couple of years ago, but in the meantime it had become one of my favorites too. I love a good pirate movie! Guru Dutt’s film Baaz was an early favorite when I began watching Hindi films, especially since the pirate in question was a girl, and Geeta Bali at that. So imagine my joy when I discovered that around the time Errol Flynn was making Captain Blood, Prabhat’s own V. Shantaram was making a film starring the statuesque and beautiful Durga Khote as Pirate Queen Saudamini. Imagine! And furthermore, my beloved Chandramohan—he of the startling green eyes and overpowering charisma—is in it too!
The only fly in this delightful ointment is a lack of subtitles, especially for a Shantaram film of this vintage when meaningful dialogues and plot were the order of the day. I’ve read that the film condemned the tyranny of men over women, which I could totally get behind if I could understand it all. Khair. I could not let my ignorance stop me from enjoying the spectacular visuals.
And what visuals there are! The special effects showing a tall-rigged pirate ship at sea are no less than those of Hollywood’s Captain Blood, nor are the detailed costumes and sets. They are seriously yummy. Apparently Shantaram had a large ship replica built, and then created a backdrop on canvas which could be raised and lowered to simulate the movement of the waves.
My favorite thing is much simpler: Saudamini’s belt of knives which graduate in size along her waist until she has a sword hanging at her left hip. Want!
The bare bones of the story seem simple: Saudamini is deprived of custody of her young son when she separates from her husband by the Queen (Karunadevi) and her Minister of Justice Darjaya (Chandramohan), whose rule is patriarchal and repressive; and Saudamini embarks on a life of swashbuckling rebellion against the society which has taken her little boy from her.
The movie begins at sea years later, with Saudamini and her men capturing and sinking another vessel full of riches. Rumor has it that the Rajkumari is aboard this second ship, but she is nowhere to be found. Saudamini has a close advisor by the name of Shekhar (K Narain Kale) who lectures her gently and seems to disapprove of her methods. His young daughter Rekha (Vasanti) accompanies Saudamini everywhere dressed like a mini version of her, and if her father doesn’t quite approve of Saudamini’s lifestyle, Rekha sure is having fun.
Saudamini’s men unload the loot from their latest adventure in a cave, where Saudamini also gets into an argument with a shaggy prisoner chained up there.
It’s Chandramohan! and therefore her old enemy Darjaya—I would guess she’s had him chained up there for some time given his unkempt appearance, although the synopses I’ve read claim he is captured on the Rajkumari’s ship. He’s also missing a leg. After a fierce exchange of words Saudamini has him dragged away by his chains.
That night as everyone sleeps, the Rajkumari, Nandini (Shanta Apte), climbs out of a chest in which she had been hiding and is seen by Darjaya.
He tells her to get back into the chest after some conversation, and she does, after which he places his hand tenderly on the top of it. In the morning, Saudamini and her pirates head back to their ship. Rajkumari Nandini climbs out of her chest again and Darjaya gives her the plate of food he had been given earlier. She is touched by his solicitude; for his part, he is clearly smitten with her.
Meanwhile, her mother the Queen receives some visitors: the men who escaped the Rajkumari’s doomed ship have made it ashore. I love her Deco throne and palace!
She is distraught at the news that her daughter is missing, captured by Saudamini. She has posters put up (most likely, not that I would know) offering a reward for the capture of Saudamini. Saudamini comes to town with Shekhar and Rekha and sees the posters.
She dons a saree and goes into the main marketplace to gather intelligence from some women there, and is almost caught by watchful soldiers.
Back at the pirate cave, Nandini goes out for a refreshing swim and a song (I confess, I mostly fast forward through the songs) and meets a young shepherd by the name of Sudhir (B Nandrekar).
They fall almost instantly in love with each other. Poor disabled unkempt Darjaya! But these two are very sweet together. There’s a lovely scene of them swimming together and talking, where the camera glides alongside them. Very lyrical, and conveys how easy and comfortable they are with each other. There is a lot of this kind of imagery in this film (waves crashing against rocks as Saudamini grieves over her lost son, for instance, feeling guilty about her crimes no doubt too—oh, the turmoil!).
Afterwards, Sudhir stops Nandini from stepping on a young plant and a conversation ensues which may or may not be philosophical but goes right over my head.
In the busy town, Shekhar and Rekha rescue Saudamini when she is almost captured by soldiers, and they escape—a thrilling horseback chase!
Oblivious to all the action and concern over her elsewhere, Nandini is overwatering Sudhir’s little plant.
He wants to introduce her to his mother but the conversation beyond that escapes me (except I get that it’s a proposal of sorts). Nandini returns to the cave with stars in her eyes, where the besotted Darjaya is waiting for her (still chained to a big rock). She tells him about Sudhir and he is crushed—and angry. He tells her that she belongs to him, but they are interrupted by the return of Saudamini and her men.
Saudamini gives Nandini some sort of lecture in which the word ghulam is bandied about, and I’m pretty sure she’s warning Nandini that women are slaves to men. This seems to impress Nandini, because when Sudhir comes looking for her later that night she tells him to forget about her. The next morning she puts on her own pirate outfit (and knife belt! jealous!) and joins Saudamini and Rekha and the band of pirates.
After they leave Sudhir reappears looking for his beloved (he has passed a sad night emoting to a mournful song). Darjaya tells him (I think) who Nandini really is, and that Saudamini has taken her, and convinces Sudhir to break his chains. Sudhir accompanies Darjaya to the palace, where they are welcomed by the Queen. I still love love love her Deco decor.
Saudamini is furious when she finds that Darjaya has escaped. But he is there waiting for her, all cleaned up with a shiny new pair of crutches—his eyebrows and moustache now resemble eyelashes. Still, it’s a better look than Charles-Manson-Insane.
He’s brought a bunch of soldiers with him, and Sudhir. The pirate crew along with Rekha, Shekhar and Nandini, flee through a hidden trapdoor while Saudamini distracts Darjaya, who wants to know where Nandini is. They set sail while Saudamini is taken prisoner by Darjaya’s soldiers.
What happens now? Will Saudamini be rescued by her friends? Will she ever be reunited with her son? Can Sudhir’s love for Nandini prevail over the lure of the Knife Belt and life as a kick-ass female pirate?
Or will the evil Darjaya have his way with everyone? He is, after all, Chandramohan!
In her wonderful autobiography, Durga Khote herself says about Amarjyoti:
A film like Amarjyoti, an imaginary story and beautiful in every respect, happens only once in a rare while. The cinematography, sets, costumes, jewellery, songs, and backgrounds were so perfectly attuned, that the audience went crazy with every scene. Every element, whether it was shots of ships, surging waves and enormous rocks, or the casting and performances with minute shades of expression, heroism, self-sacrifice, and extreme tyranny—was striking in itself, and in complete harmony with every other element of the complicated plot. Shanta Apte’s songs became very popular. Vasanti’s lovable charm, the harsh anger that I, as Saudamini, expressed against injustice, Chandramohan’s impressive performance, light eyes flashing—were all wonderfully effective. The costumes of the smugglers, their lifestyle, the weapons they carried, were all imaginary, and yet they came through so convincingly on screen. Every costume was so precisely selected that it fitted in its place perfectly, as if carved for that space.
I could not say it better or agree more! This is a film with enough charm that it easily held my uncomprehending attention. If you understand Hindi, I would wager you will enjoy it a lot. I can’t say that I enjoyed the songs as much as the 1930s audience apparently did, but Durga sings one of them (I think—since actors sang for themselves during this time) which is interesting as an historical artifact if nothing else. Just see this one, do. It would make an excellent double-header with Captain Blood some evening!
Updated to add: I have subtitles! If you leave a comment with your email in the email address field (not displayed to others) I will send you the subtitle files, which synch perfectly with the vcd. Please note that you will need to have the vcd, I will not supply that.