When I did my post on double roles in Hindi cinema, someone mentioned Ranjan as having done a double role in Chandralekha, the 1948 film which was made both in Tamil as well as in Hindi, and was a big hit. Some years ago, I would have probably filed that bit of information away and not acted on it. Ever since I saw Ranjan in Nishaan, however (and liked him), I have been open to the idea of watching other films starring this dashing actor (who, by the way, was a trained pilot as well). Besides, I remembered that Chandralekha was supposed to be a pretty big film: good production value, opulent sets and so on. Why not see it, I thought.
(By the way, Ranjan does not have a double role in this film).
The story is set in a kingdom ruled by a king with two sons. The elder son, the crown prince, is Veer Singh (MK Radha): a ‘good man’, a devoted son and an upright, just would-be ruler. The younger son, Shashank (Ranjan) is the complete opposite of Veer Singh: ambitious, greedy, demanding the throne for himself. The king keeps trying to put him off, to defy him when Shashank tries to bully him, but nothing works. Finally, the king is obliged to banish Shashank.
Shashank, furious and vengeful, leaves, but promises he’ll be back to grab the throne.
Meanwhile, on a trip into the countryside with some of his troops, Veer Singh crosses paths with a village girl named Chandra (TR Rajakumari). There is pretty much instant attraction between them, but Veer Singh, instead of telling Chandra who he is, says his name’s Maanu, and she assumes that he’s a soldier.
A couple of days later, Chandra meets Veer Singh again. They’re getting to know each other, billing and cooing and whatnot, when Veer Singh receives word that Shashank, along with a group of his henchmen, is attacking. Veer Singh and Chandra part ways, she hurrying back home to her widowed father, he going off to counter Shashank.
But trouble awaits. Chandra’s old father, crossing the street towards Chandra, gets run over by a group of Shashank’s riders. With his dying breath, Chandra’s father instructs a friend of his to ensure that Chandra is taken to live with her aunt in a nearby village; for her to continue to live alone here would not be advisable.
Her father dead, a grieving Chandra is mourning him when she is given the news that a group of travelling musicians will be going to her aunt’s village; Chandra can go along with them.
Meanwhile, Shashank and his evil cronies have wreaked havoc across the countryside. They raid and plunder left, right and centre, and as luck would have it, they attack the little group of people Chandra is travelling with. Chandra is taken captive and brought in front of Shashank. He is smitten by her, and forces her to dance for him. Chandra dances so vigorously, she faints (in fact, she faints pretty consistently through the story to ward off Shashank’s attentions).
Not one to be discouraged, Shashank has Chandra bound up and entrusted to one of his cronies, with orders to bring the woman to Shashank’s stronghold.
Shashank then goes off to grab the throne for himself. He and his men manage to take Veer Singh and his men by surprise. Veer Singh is taken prisoner and dragged off into the countryside, where Shashank has him shoved into a cave, and a huge boulder tumbled into place blocking up the mouth of the cave. Veer Singh cannot possibly get out of there. Ever.
But all is not lost, because Chandra is far more enterprising than your average Hindi film heroine (possibly because this was originally a Tamil film heroine?). She manages to give her captor the slip, and escapes. While on the run, she happens to almost run into Shashank and his men again; hidden, she sees what happens (though, to keep the plot intact, she doesn’t cotton on to the fact that her Maanu is actually the crown prince).
Thus, when a smug Shashank and his men have gone, Chandra runs up to the cave and bangs hard on the boulder across its mouth, trying to call out to Maanu/Veer Singh. She even climbs up to try and see if she can find a way in from some other route. All is futile…
…but Chandra’s luck (or Maanu’s, really) is enviable. A large circus troupe is travelling along the nearby road, dozens of people, with the circus elephants, various other wild animals, etc. The circus people are singing as they go, so Chandra hears them, and goes running to them, begging for help. Initially, the munshi (?), who seems to be pretty much in charge, refuses; they have better things to do than to stop every time someone hails them.
But a woman named Sundari (Sundari Bai) is rather more inclined to help. She scolds the munshi, and gets everybody—elephants play a major role in this—to help roll away the boulder from the mouth of the cave and get to Maanu/Veer Singh.
Chandra and her Maanu are reunited, and they decide to go along with the circus. For reasons undisclosed, Chandra decides to become a trapeze artist (I would have thought trapeze artists would start off real early, and that it would take many years of practice to become anywhere close to expert). But Chandra being Chandra, she is soon the star trapeze artist at the circus, billed Chandralekha and wowing everybody with her skill.
… until one day, when Chandra looks down into the audience during a performance and straight into the face of Shashank’s soldier, the very man whom she had managed to escape from. Worse still, the man recognizes her.
Suddenly, Chandra’s and Maanu’s lives are in danger; Shashank is too fascinated by Chandra to let her go scot-free, and this henchman of his knows that. Maanu and Chandra need to leave, and get away as soon as possible. Maanu, who has been in touch with one of his own men even during the days he and Chandra have been with the circus, knows just what Shashank has been up to. He has grabbed the throne, and rumor has it that the king and queen have gone off on pilgrimage (the truth is that Shashank has imprisoned them, and has told them that Veer Singh is dead).
The stage, therefore, is set. Shashank on the one hand; Veer Singh + Chandra + their friends from the circus (especially Sundari) on the other. Many adventures await our hero and heroine, on their way to the inevitable happy end.
Chandralekha was originally made in Tamil, produced by SS Vasan and filmed between 1943 and 1948. Initially, T Raghavachari was the director, but after many differences with SS Vasan in the course of filming, he left Chandralekha and SS Vasan took on the task of directing the film himself. In 1948 itself, SS Vasan reshot portions of the film to create a Hindi version, in which most of the cast reprised their roles from the Tamil original. Chandralekha was the most expensive film to be made in India at the time, and the Hindi version was quite a hit.
To me, this film was a mix of average and good. The story is a fairly standard raja-rani one. Barring the circus (which is a somewhat unusual setting for a good bit of the story), there’s little here that’s out of the ordinary. And Ranjan, who was for me the main draw, doesn’t have as much screen time as I’d have liked (plus, he isn’t as good as he was in Nishaan).
What I liked about this film:
The drum dance, the ‘nagaada naach’, as it’s referred to. This is a grand spectacle, consisting of hundreds of dancers atop massive drums. This sequence is a very impressive one, costing (according to estimates) anywhere between 2 to 5 lakhs, the cost of an average film at the time. The dancers in the scene are supposed to have practiced for six months to get the scene right. Interestingly, T Raghavachari was the director of the drum dance scene, and even after he left Chandralekha, SS Vasan retained the scene as Raghavachari had filmed it. Even if you don’t watch Chandralekha, do watch this drum dance: it’s really worth a watch. (The swashbuckling sequence closer to the climax is also good).
And the songs. Chandralekha has a lot of songs, and though I’d not heard any of these before, most of them appealed to me. S Rajeswara Rao and Bal Krishna Kalla composed the music for these songs, with lyrics by Pandit Indra and Bharat Vyas; and there were several songs here, especially the two songs sung by the banjaras (in a language I have privately dubbed ‘banjara gibberish’); Chalta chal, chala chal, Naache ghoda keemat iski chaar hazaar, and Mera husn lootne aaya, which I liked a lot.
Last but not least, Sundari Bai as Sundari: a feisty, peppy female if I ever saw one. While Chandra too is less of a wimp than the average Hindi film heroine of that era, Sundari is even more of a woman after my own heart. Strong-willed, brave, yet with a kind heart—and a good sense of humour. Her performance in Naache ghoda keemat iski chaar hazaar is especially a delight: so much fun all the way. Not to mention that it’s a worthy addition to my list of people selling things.
What I didn’t like:
This I was prepared for. The theatricality. It wasn’t unbearable, but yes, it was there.
And the circus scenes. Besides the fact that Chandra becomes a trapeze artist in what seemed a ridiculously short time, there are all the scenes with the circus animals. Of course, this was de rigueur at the time, and of course I went to the circus too when I was a child, and didn’t think there was anything wrong with elephants and tigers and lions being made to climb up onto stools and do silly antics just to wow human beings… but now, I do find it a bit disturbing. If you’re an animal lover and don’t like seeing possible cruelty to animals, skip the circus sections.
And, a very silly and completely pointless sequence featuring Yashodra Katjoo and a man dressed up as a bear. Why? Why, at all?
All said and done: not a fantastic film overall, though it’s entertaining enough. But that drum dance, and Naache ghoda keemat iski chaar hazaar: oh, yes. Those two are worth a watch.