Chandralekha (1948)

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.


27 thoughts on “Chandralekha (1948)

  1. Thank you for that beautiful recap of “Chandralekha”. A film worth watching, in my humble opinion, if not for anything else at least for its grand opulence. As you mentioned, the drum scene is a feather on the cap of the filmmakers and kudos to Vasan for retaining it even though it was filmed by Raghavachari.

    Here’s the link to an article on the making of “Chandralekha” (focused more on the Tamil version), penned by well known film historian, Randor Guy. Happy readings….


    • I’m so glad you enjoyed this review, and thank you for linking to that article by Randor Guy. I’d read it when I was writing up this review, and I hope others will benefit from your posting the link too. Thank you!


  2. Sounds good! And the drum dance was really grand.
    The video of the drum dance added has a new soundtrack. Not the original one.

    This one has the original music


    • “so this is the film you were talking about.

      Hmmm… where? what context? I don’t recall.

      Thank you for the link to your post! I am a little rushed today, but I did skim through it, and of course read the bits about your impressions of the film. I found it interesting that a couple of our screenshots are identical. :-)


      • Yes, I noticed the similar screenshots, but didn’t want to comment on it; our similarities are too often remarked upon, anyway. :)

        No, I misunderstood; you clarified on my blog that the movie you were talking about is your next post.


  3. This sounds like a fun movie, and almost reminded me of ‘Here comes the circus’ series by Enid Blyton. I must admit, when I re-read the circus series in adolescent years I was put off the with the complete absence of any romance! This movie seems to be my answer to circus and love (and intrigue) all in one!

    I watched the drum dance. It really is something and a reminder that grandiose has always been such a part of our movies. It reminded me of Bahubali in a way- a deplorable two part movie you *must never* watch- which had these grand sets of dancers, kings sitting on fancy thrones et al. too. But this (Chandralekha’s) particular drum dance was more restrained in its show-offness (does that make sense?) and more focussed on a panoramic, sometimes close up, view of the movements and the camera didn’t jerk too much, which was very pleasing and comforting to the eyes.


    • Oh, yes. I remember watching Bahubali, though (just goes to show) I had forgotten pretty much most of it. I do recall the grand sets – very CGI, in some instances. I do agree that the show-offiness in Chandralekha is more restrained; there’s a control there, even in the grandeur. Bahubali is flashy.


  4. Thanks for this nice review of Chandralekha. It brought back my memory of watching this movie on DD for the first time in late 70s or so.
    It was highly recommended by my senior relatives and i too enjoyed the grandeur and fun of the costume drama. Of course, what stayed back was the drum dance and the song Mera husn lootne aaya,
    But, overall, an enjoyable one. Planning to revisit.

    I have seen Nishan before and now have the Ranjan-Bhanumati starrer Mangla on my watch list. Any feedback on Mangla?


    • “Mangala”, with Vasundhara Devi (real-life mother of Vyjayanthimala) and Ranjan in the lead, was originally made by S.S.Vasan in Tamil under the title “Mangamma Sabatham” and released in 1943. He produced it on a grand scale and Tamil cine goers appreciated it and ensured that it was a box office bonanza. Ranjan played a double role in the movie – as father and son – and earned a lot of name for himself. This was probably the last hit in Vasundhara Devi’s career.

      The success of the movie spawned remakes in other languages:
      – “Mangala” in Hindi in 1950
      – “Mangala” in Telugu in 1951
      – “Mathalan”, in Sinhala in 1955
      – “Mangamma Sabatham” in Telugu again, in 1965

      Here’s the link to a write-up on “Mangamma Sabatham”, the original Tamil version, penned by film historian Randor Guy for “The Hindu”. Happy readings….


      • Sir about a typo in the first sentence. I meant to say the following:

        “”Mangala” was originally made by S.S.Vasan in Tamil and released in 1943 under the title “Mangamma Sabatham” with Vasundhara Devi and Ranjan in the lead.


      • Thank you for answering that question. I hadn’t known about Mangala either, so I’m grateful to you for this information. I intend to watch the film sometime – it sounds interesting.


        • Ambrish,

          Thanks a lot for your quick feedback on Mangala and for sending the link on the original Tamil film. The storyline seems interesting and I am moving the film up in my wish list. Hoping to see it in a couple of weeks.


    • Thank you, Dr Deshpande – I’m glad you enjoyed the review. It is indeed a grand spectacle, and overall fairly entertaining.

      I hadn’t known about Mangala, so I’m glad that your question was answered.


  5. Madhu,
    I saw the film for all its glitz and monumental scale. I don’t remember anything about the movie, not even whether Ranjan played a negative role. But two songs deeply impressed me:
    1. ‘Nadiya kinaare Raam bagiya mein’ sung by Bharat Vyas

    2. ‘Mai ri main to madhuban mein’ sung by Uma Devi

    And of course, Drum Dance, discussed in great deal by Richard on his blog. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.


  6. Hearty thanks for this objectively penned review of Chandralekha which freshened-up my own memories of watching it for the first time on Doordarshan in December 1988. I was curious to watch it and had been awaiting for that watch for long as my mother (who was also a movie buff as well as a lover of music and literature) had seen it in her bachelorhood in theatre and told me a lot about it. Coincidentally, I watched it all alone with nobody else around. I was a teenager then and the first meeting of Chandra and Veer Singh (who became Maanu for her) simply won me over. The songs also appealed to me and I had no complaints with the movie which I found as quite an entertaining one. I agree with your assessment and most of the relevant thoughts. All the same, I will share my views regarding use of animals in circus, movies and the like wise separately (I am a great animal-lover and a vegetarian though). You never fail to do justice to any movie. This post confirms it once again.


    • You are very kind, Jitendraji, thank you so much for the appreciation. I am also impressed that you actually remember even the month when you watched it! I can usually remember only vaguely the decade when I watched a film, no more than that.

      Although Doordarshan was our main source of entertainment in 1988 and we used to watch pretty much every Hindi film shown back then (including some really horrible ones!), I don’t remember ever watching Chandralekha. I wonder how I missed this one.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Some days after I read this review, I discovered Ranjan today in two movies via two songs I searched for, on YT.
    I had been listening to Manna Dey’s collections (on Prime Music) and I heard two songs that I had never heard before or could not recollect hearing them in the past.
    1) The first one is a haunting melody – Roop Tumhara Aankhon Se Pee Loon – Lyrics by Indeevar, Music by Ajit Merchant/Ramamoorthy. Film – Sapera starring Ranjan etc
    2) The second one is a duet – Manna Dey and Suman Kalyanpur. Lyrics – Yogesh, Music – Robin Banerjee. Film – Sakhi Robin. This also had Ranjan with Shalini.

    Don’t know if you have reviewed these yet.


    • Thank you for alerting me to Roop tumhara aankhon se pee loon; what a beautiful song it is. I hadn’t heard this one before, but loved it.

      Did you mean Tum jo aao toh pyaar, from Sakhi Robin? It’s a gorgeous song, I like it a lot. Funnily enough, this was the song a blog reader had suggested to me as an example of a wonderful song absolutely wasted on a nondescript film. :-)


      • You are right. I did mean Tum Jo Aao Toh Pyaar.

        BTW, on another note, I also heard Tu Hai Mera Prem Devata from Kalpana – another song in that Manna Dey collection. I recall reading your review of Kalpana some time back.
        I was struck by the music composition of Tu Hai Mera Prem Devata. If one did not know that the film’s music was composed by O P Nayyar, I am not sure anyone would be able to guess the name of the music director after hearing this song.
        The film Saathi has music composed by Naushad and If I recollect correctly music was arranged by Kersi Lord; the songs are outstanding and the use of western instruments and rhythms/percussion makes it difficult to identify the music director correctly e.g. Ye Kaun Aaya Mehfil Mein, Mera Pyaar Bhi Tu Hai.
        Have you created a list of film songs of music directors that are so different from the ones that they are known for – as above – OP Nayyar whose songs had that ‘horse-carriage’ beat in many of his songs or Naushad who used classical based songs with Indian instrumentation and sounds? It would be interesting to check out what music directors were capable of comping up with surprises in the past.


        • Coincidentally enough, I was just thinking about this the other day, when I was watching the Mala Sinha-Shekhar starrer, Aankh Micholi, with music by Chitragupta. Chitragupta is one composer most people associate with fairly classical-based songs, but here, some of his tunes were pretty Westernized. It crossed my mind that it might be interesting to do a list of songs that are not the ‘norm’ for an MD. Maybe, now that you’ve suggested this too, I will try doing that post. Thank you for the suggestion!


  8. It delights me that 1) both traveling musicians and traveling circus performers provide the means of rescue/protection to the main characters, and 2) instead of agonizing over thrones lost &c. &c., Veer Singh is apparently contented to cut his losses and join the circus post cave-freeing.

    Between “Naache Ghoda Keemat Iski Chaar Hazaar” and “Mera Dil Tumpe Aa Gaya” from “Yeh Dil Kisko Doon,” I’ve now seen two circus-themed songs featuring somebody in a horse costume. What are the odds?!


    • “I’ve now seen two circus-themed songs featuring somebody in a horse costume.

      I’ve been racking my brains ever since I read that comment to try and remember if there are any other songs along those lines, and no, I can’t recall any more! Actually, now that I come to think of it, I can’t remember too many other Hindi films which had a substantial section set in a circus. Mera Naam Joker, of course; and Fearless Nadia’s Circus Queen, but that’s about it.

      Liked by 1 person

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