Chandralekha (1948 film)
|Directed by||S. S. Vasan|
|Produced by||S. S. Vasan|
|Written by||Veppathur Kittoo
K. J. Mahadevan
|Starring||T. R. Rajakumari
M. K. Radha
S. Rajeswara Rao
M. D. Parthasarathy
|Budget||₹3 million (US$45,000)|
Chandralekha (also spelt Chandraleka[b]) is a 1948 Indian Tamil-language historical adventure film directed and produced by S. S. Vasan. Starring T. R. Rajakumari, M. K. Radha and Ranjan in the lead roles, the film follows two brothers named Veerasimhan and Sasankan, who fight with each other over ruling their father's kingdom and marrying the village dancer Chandralekha.
The development of Chandralekha began in the early 1940s when, after two successive box office hits, Vasan announced that his next film would be titled Chandralekha. However, when he launched an advertising campaign for the film, he had only the name of the heroine from a storyline by Gemini Studios' story department he had rejected. Veppathur Kittoo, one of his storyboard artists, eventually developed a story based on a chapter of George W. M. Reynolds' novel Robert Macaire: or, The French bandit in England, which impressed Vasan. The original director T. G. Raghavachari directed more than half of the film, then left the project because of disagreements with Vasan, who took over the film in his directorial debut.
Originally made in Tamil and later in Hindi, Chandralekha was in production for five years from 1943 to 1948. It went through a number of changes to the script, cast, and production, and ultimately became the most expensive film made in India at the time. Vasan mortgaged all of his property and even sold his jewellery to complete the film. Cinematography was by Kamal Ghosh and K. Ramnoth. The music was largely inspired by both Indian and Western classical music; it was composed by S. Rajeswara Rao and by M. D. Parthasarathy, with lyrics by Papanasam Sivan and Kothamangalam Subbu.
Chandralekha was released on 8 April 1948 and received generally positive reviews, but was unable to recover its production costs. As a result, Vasan released the film in Hindi with some changes on 24 December of the same year, and this version soon became a major box office success. South Indian cinema gained prominence throughout the country with the film's release. The film inspired South Indian film producers to market their Hindi films in North India. It was dubbed in English, Japanese, Danish and other foreign languages and was screened at Indian and international film festivals.
Veerasimhan (M. K. Radha) and Sasankan (Ranjan) are the sons of a king. While passing through a village on his horse, Veerasimhan meets a village dancer named Chandralekha (T. R. Rajakumari) and they fall in love. At the palace, the king decides to abdicate in favour of Veerasimhan. This enrages the younger brother Sasankan; he forms a gang of thieves who embark on a crime spree. Chandralekha's father is injured in the ensuing chaos and dies soon after. Chandralekha, now orphaned, joins a band of travelling musicians whose caravan is raided by Sasankan's men.
Sasankan orders Chandralekha to dance for him, which she does only after being flogged, but she soon manages to escape. Later, Sasankan ambushes Veerasimhan and takes him prisoner. Chandralekha watches Sasankan's men imprisoning Veerasimhan in a cave and sealing its entrance with a boulder. She rescues him with the help of elephants from a passing circus troupe. Veerasimhan and Chandralekha join the circus to hide themselves from Sasankan's men. After returning to the palace, Sasankan imprisons his parents and declares himself king. He immediately sends a spy to find Chandralekha.
The spy sees Chandralekha performing at the circus; he tries to capture her but Veerasimhan saves her and they both escape and join a gypsy group. When Veerasimhan leaves to seek help, Sasankan's men capture Chandralekha and take her to the palace. Sasankan tries to woo Chandralekha but she pretends to faint every time he approaches her. One of Chandralekha's friends from the circus comes to Sasankan disguised as a gypsy healer, claiming that she can cure Chandralekha of her "illness". Behind locked doors, the two girls secretly talk. Sasankan is pleased to find Chandralekha miraculously cured and apparently ready to accept him as a bridegroom. In return, he agrees to Chandralekha's request for a drum dance to celebrate the royal wedding.
Huge drums are arranged in rows in front of the palace. Chandralekha joins the dancers, who dance on the drums. Sasankan is impressed with Chandralekha's performance but, unknown to him, Veerasimhan's soldiers are hiding inside the drums. As the dance ends, they rush out of the drums and attack Sasankan's men. Veerasimhan confronts Sasankan, and they have a long sword fight, which ends with Sasankan's defeat and imprisonment. Veerasimhan releases his parents and becomes the new king, while Chandralekha becomes his queen.
Producer S. S. Vasan contemplated a story for his third film to follow Bala Nagamma (1942) and Mangamma Sapatham (1943), which netted profits of ₹ 4 million. He wanted a film on a grand scale with no budgetary constraints. He asked Gemini Studios' story department (consisting of K. J. Mahadevan, Kothamangalam Subbu, Sangu, Naina and Veppathur Kittoo) to write a screenplay. They saw Mangamma Sapatham and Bala Nagamma as "heroine-oriented stories", and suggested a similar story to Vasan. They told the story of Chandralekha, a tough woman who "outwits a vicious bandit, delivers the final insult by slashing off his nose and, as a finishing touch, fills the bloodied gaping hole with hot, red chilli powder". Vasan disliked their story's gruesomeness and vulgarity, and rejected it but kept the character's name, Chandralekha.
Without waiting for a full story, Vasan announced that his next project would be titled Chandralekha, and he publicised it heavily in most major publications. Despite much work by Gemini's writers, the story was still not ready three months later. Vasan grew impatient and told the writers he would be shelving Chandralekha in favour of developing Avvaiyyar (1953). After he allowed them a final week, Kittoo discovered George W. M. Reynolds' novel Robert Macaire: or, The French bandit in England. In the first chapter he read:
A dark night in rural England and a mail coach convoy drawn by horses trots its way down a deserted leafy highway when suddenly, Robert Macaire, the fierce bandit and his henchmen emerge from the surrounding darkness and rob the convoy. Hiding under a seat is a young woman fleeing from a harsh, unhappy home. She is a dancer and when she refuses to dance the bandit whips her into submission.
Vasan was impressed when Kittoo narrated a story based on this episode. He decided to continue with the film, naming the heroine Chandralekha. Although the story was developed by Kittoo, it was credited to the entire Gemini story department.
|Rajakumari, T. R.T. R. Rajakumari||...||Chandralekha|
|Radha, M. K.M. K. Radha||...||Veerasimhan|
|Sundari Bai, M. S.M. S. Sundari Bai||...||Circus performer|
|Krishnan, N. S.N. S. Krishnan||...||Circus artist|
|Madhuram, T. A.T. A. Madhuram||...||Circus artist|
|Narayana Rao, L.L. Narayana Rao||...||Circus manager|
|Janaki, V. N.V. N. Janaki||...||Gypsy dancer|
|Krishnamachari, T. E.T. E. Krishnamachari||...||The king|
The script had two major roles; both princes of a kingdom—the elder of whom was the hero and his brother the villain. M. K. Radha was offered the part of Sasankan, the younger prince. As he was then known for playing heroic roles, he was unwilling to play a negative role, and instead agreed to play the older prince Veerasimhan. Radha's wife had persuaded Vasan to cast Radha for the part. K. J. Mahadevan, who was a member of Gemini's story department, was chosen to play Sasankan, while T. G. Raghavachari agreed to direct the film. Some footage featuring Mahadevan was shot, but his performance was deemed "too soft" and he was dismissed from the part. He continued to serve as a scriptwriter and an assistant director. When Raghavachari suggested Ranjan for Sasankan, Vasan was reluctant, feeling he was too effeminate to play a "steel-hard villain", but eventually agreed. By then, Ranjan was already committed to B. N. Rao's Saalivaahanan (1945), but Kittoo persuaded him to take a screen test for Chandralekha and Rao gave Ranjan a few days off. The test was successful and Ranjan was officially cast.
T. R. Rajakumari was chosen to play Chandralekha, replacing Vasan's first choice K. L. V. Vasantha. Film historian Randor Guy believes Vasan chose Rajakumari over Vasantha because she was then leaving Gemini Studios permanently for Modern Theatres in Salem. In April 1947, N. S. Krishnan (who had been arrested in December 1944 as a suspect in the Lakshmikanthan murder case) was released from prison; Vasan recruited him and T. A. Madhuram to play the circus artists who help Veerasimhan rescue Chandralekha from Sasankan. The script was rewritten; new scenes were added to showcase the comedy duo. Actors Madurai Sriramulu Naidu and S. N. Lakshmi made their acting debut in this film; the former appears in an uncredited role as a horseman, and the latter appears as a dancer in the climactic drum-dance scene.
When a minor role of the hero's bodyguard was yet to be cast, the then struggling stage actor Villupuram Chinniah Pillai Ganeshamurthy—who later became known as Sivaji Ganesan—was interested; he grew his hair long for the role. Ganeshamurthy had contacted Kittoo several times asking for a role in the film. Eventually, Kittoo took Ganeshamurthy to Vasan, who had seen him perform on-stage. To Ganeshamurthy's dismay, Vasan rejected him, calling him "totally unsuited for films" and told him to choose another profession. This incident caused a permanent schism between Vasan and Ganeshamurthy. The role of the bodyguard was eventually given to N. Seetharaman, who later became known as Javar Seetharaman.
Kothamangalam Subbu's wife M. S. Sundari Bai plays a circus performer who helps Chandralekha escape from Sasankan. T. A. Jayalakshmi, in one of her earliest film roles, appears briefly in one scene that lasted for a few minutes, as a dancer. L. Narayana Rao plays the circus manager. T. E. Krishnamachari plays the king and V. N. Janaki plays a gypsy dancer who gives Chandralekha and Veerasimhan shelter in the forest. Veppathur Kittoo plays Sasankan's spy; he also worked as an assistant director on the film. Pottai Krishnamurthy appears in the song "Naattiya Kuthirai". Other supporting actors include: Seshagiri Bhagavathar, Appanna Iyengar, T. V. Kalyani, Surabhi Kamala, Subbiah Pillai, Cocanada Rajarathnam, N. Ramamurthi, Ramakrishna Rao, Sundara Rao, V. S. Susheela, Varalakshmi, and Velayutham, in addition to "100 Gemini Boys & 500 Gemini Girls". Studio staff members, their families, and passers-by were recruited as extras to play spectators in the circus scenes. Vasan personally introduces Chandralekha via voiceover during her performance at the circus.
Chandralekha began shooting in 1943. More than half of the film was directed by Raghavachari, but due to differences of opinion that arose between him and Vasan over the shooting of some scenes at the Governor's Estate (now Raj Bhavan, Guindy), Raghavachari left the project and Vasan took over directing, making his directorial debut.
Originally, the film did not include any circus scenes. Vasan decided to include them when the film was halfway through production, and the screenplay was altered. For the scene in which Veerasimhan is freed from a cave by elephants, "hundreds" of circus elephants were used. Kittoo travelled throughout South India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to see over 50 circuses before choosing the Kamala Circus Company and Parasuram Lion Circus; Vasan employed Kamala for a month. The circus scenes were shot by K. Ramnoth. In retrospect, Kittoo said of Ramnoth's work:
In those days, we had no zoom lenses and yet Ramnoth did it. One night, while Chandralekha is performing on the flying trapeze, she notices the villain's henchman in the front row. She is on her perch high up and he is seated in a ringside chair. Shock hits her and to convey the shock the camera zooms fast from her to the man. Today, with a fast zoom shot it can be done very easily, but there was no such lens forty years ago. Ramnoth did it using the crane. He planned it well and rehearsed the shot for long. He took the shot 20 times and selected the best 'take'.
After Raghavachari's departure, one sequence he directed—the drum-dance scene—remained in the film. The scene involved 400 dancers and six months of daily rehearsals. It was designed by the chief art director A. K. Sekhar, choreographed by Jayashankar, and was shot with four cameras by Kamal Ghosh. Randor Guy estimated the drum dance alone to have cost ₹500,000 (about US$105,000 in 1948), while Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai, in his 2015 book Madras Studios: Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema, estimated it to have cost ₹200,000, equal to the entire budget of a typical Tamil film of that period.[c] The sequence included various dance forms such as Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, and the Sri Lankan Kandyan dance.
During post-production, Vasan asked Ramnoth his opinion of the scene in which hundreds of Veerasimhan's warriors storm the palace to rescue Chandralekha from Sasankan. Although everyone else praised the scene's photography, shots, and action, Ramnoth remained quiet, finally saying that the suspense could be ruined if the scene was shown uncut, which sparked a discussion. Vasan advised the editor Chandru to edit according to Ramnoth's direction, and he was impressed with the result. C. E. Biggs worked as the audio engineer.
Chandralekha was in production for five years (from 1943 to 1948); it went through numerous changes to its story, cast, and filming. This caused substantial time and cost overruns; the film ultimately cost ₹3 million (about US$600,000 in 1948),[c] and became the most expensive Indian film at that time. Vasan had mortgaged all of his property, received financial assistance from K. Srinivasan—then the editor of The Hindu—and sold his jewellery to complete the film. Adjusted for inflation, the film would have cost US$28 million in 2010. According to film historian S. Muthiah, Chandralekha, considering the free-floating exchange rate at that time, became the first film with a budget of more than a million dollars to be made outside of the United States.
Themes and influences
Although a period film, Chandralekha is not based on historical fact; instead its plot is based on the first chapter of the novel Robert Macaire: or, The French bandit in England. Sasankan is based on the fictional bandit Robert Macaire, and, according to film historian B. D. Garga, Chandralekha is "probably" based on a female dancer in the novel who Macaire flogs when she refuses to dance. The film enacts the incident from the novel. Garga noted that the film also shows influences from other Western literary and cinematic sources, including the novel Blood and Sand (1908), and the films The Mark of Zorro (1920), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Baghdad (1924) and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925). In December 1964, Jerzy Toeplitz called Chandralekha an "extension and development" of the mythology genre. Toeplitz said, "The characters are mortals but behave like heavenly beings, and their movements and gestures, like those of the gods and heroes of the Mahabharata are impregnated with the miraculous." He called the story a "mere pretext to hold together the different episodes, each of which builds up like a circus turn: the tension mounts to a culminating point, whereupon the next episode immediately takes over." According to the book Third World Film Making and the West (1987) by Roy Armes, Uday Shankar's Kalpana (1948), which was also shot at Gemini Studios, inspired Vasan to make Chandralekha. In the 2003 book Encyclopaedia of Hindi Cinema, Chandralekha is defined as a "Ruritanian period extravaganza".
The climactic sword fight between Veerasimhan and Sasankan has often been compared to that in the 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda. In 1976, American film historian William K. Everson compared the comedians in Chandralekha to the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. Although Randor Guy considers the film's drum dance scene to be the first of its kind in Indian cinema, the 1947 film Naam Iruvar includes a scene in which the lead actress' younger sister dances on drums to the Tamil poet Subramania Bharati's song "Kottu Murase"; French film historian Yves Thoraval said this "prefigured the dance that Chandralekha made famous the very next year." According to American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chandralekha "belongs to the same childhood continuum" as Fritz Lang's 1959 films The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb which were set in India. In his 2009 book 50 Indian Film Classics, film critic M. K. Raghavendra states that Chandralekha is constructed in a manner that "enables its narrative to incorporate elements drawn from virtually any kind of genre." According to Guy, the settings of the song "Naattiya Kuthirai" picturised on Sundari Bai's character, including the dance and the costume worn by Sundari Bai, are inspired by those seen in the 1943 musical film Coney Island. Film scholar Uma Vangal believes the film reflects Vasan's "vision of a truly democratic nation, based on equal rights for men and women" by portraying "a world where men and women work together to establish a rightful rule".
The film's soundtrack was composed by S. Rajeswara Rao, with lyrics by Papanasam Sivan and Kothamangalam Subbu. R. Vaidyanathan and B. Das Gupta collaborated with M. D. Parthasarathy on the background music. Rajeswara Rao recalled in a 1993 interview with The Hindu that it took him over a year to compose the music for the film, with much of the time being taken for the drum dance sequence. He stated, "As the dancers performed, we used to rehearse and compose the music. It was done with incredibly few instruments. We used a piano, ten double bass violins, and drums from Africa, Egypt, and Persia which we have acquired from an African War troupe." His salary was ₹1500. The music was influenced by Carnatic music, Hindustani music, Latin American and Portuguese folk music, and Johann Strauss I's waltzes. M. K. Raghavendra said the film has "snatches from [Richard] Wagner and [Nikolai] Rimsky Korsakov (Scherezade) being used at dramatic moments."
The song "Naattiya Kuthirai" was not originally part of the script; it was added during the final stages of the film's production. Sundari Bai spent over a month rehearsing the song. The songs "Aathoram Kodikkalam" and "Naattiya Kuthirai" were sung by M. D. Parthasarathy. J. Cooling Rajaiah played the accordion and piano in the film's gypsy song. The circus chorus was adapted from "The Donkey Serenade" from Robert Z. Leonard's The Firefly (1937). For the Hindi soundtrack, Vasan offered most of the songs to Uma Devi, who later became popularly known as Tun Tun. She was initially hesitant, feeling that "these were beyond her capabilities", but she was supported by Rajeswara Rao who "worked hard on her." "Sanjh Ki Bela", from the Hindi soundtrack, is loosely based on the song "Sanjh Ki Bela Panchhi Akela" from Jwar Bhata (1944). The music of Chandralekha helped it to become one of the most successful Indian musical films of the 1940s; it "created an atmosphere for a number of music directors influenced by Western music" in Tamil cinema. The film was also a major breakthrough in Uma Devi's career, though by signing on for it she violated her contract with producer Abdur Rashid Kardar, who terminated her contract in retaliation. This, in addition to the "dwindling fortunes" of the film industry following India's independence from the British Raj, eventually ended her career in playback singing.
In his 1997 book Starlight, Starbright: The Early Tamil Cinema, Randor Guy said Parthasarathy and Rajeswara Rao "created a fine blend of lilting music of many schools." Writing for Screen in April 1998, film historian M. Bhaktavatsala described the songs as "distinct and standing on its own, with barely any background score attempting to interlink anything, just periods of silence."
|Tamil track listing|
|1.||"Indrae Enathu Kuthukalam"||T. R. Rajakumari||1:09|
|2.||"Aathoram Kodikkalam"||M. D. Parthasarathy||2:23|
|3.||"Padathey Padathey Nee"||M. S. Sundari Bai||3:29|
|4.||"Naattiya Kuthirai"||M. D. Parthasarathy||4:09|
|6.||"Group Dance" (Instrumental)||—||1:25|
|7.||"Aayilo Pakiriyamo"||N. S. Krishnan, T. A. Mathuram||3:10|
|8.||"Manamohana Saaranae"||T. R. Rajakumari||2:30|
|9.||"Murasu Aatam (Drum Dance)" (Instrumental)||—||5:59|
|Hindi track listing|
|1.||"Sajana Re Aaja Re"||Uma Devi||3:04|
|2.||"Man Bhavan Sawan Aaya"||Uma Devi||3:09|
|3.||"O Chand Mere"||Uma Devi||3:21|
|4.||"Maai Re Main To Madhuban Mein"||Uma Devi||2:33|
|5.||"Sanjh Ki Bela"||Uma Devi, T. A. Mothi||3:07|
|6.||"Mera Husn Lootne Aaya Albela"||Zohrabai Ambalewali, T. A. Mothi||2:41|
The first advertisement for Chandralekha appeared on the back cover of the songbook for the film Dasi Aparanji (1944). It featured Vasantha as the heroine, before she was replaced by Rajakumari.[d] With Chandralekha, Gemini became the first Tamil studio to attempt to distribute a film throughout India. According to film scholar P. K. Nair, Chandralekha was the first Indian film to have a full-page newspaper advertisement. According to a 2010 article in Mumbai Mirror by Vishwas Kulkarni, ₹574,500 was spent on newspaper publicity and ₹642,300 on posters, banners and billboards. Chandralekha's publicity campaign was the most expensive for an Indian film at that time; the entire publicity budget of a typical Indian film a decade earlier was around ₹25,000. In the 1950s, the entire publicity for a "top Indian film" cost no more than ₹100,000, which is substantially less than the amount spent on Chandralekha. According to Guy, the publicity campaign "made the nation sit up and take notice".
A. K. Shekhar designed the publicity material, which included posters, booklets and full-page newspaper advertisements. Gemini Studios, inspired by American cinema, also produced a publicity brochure for distribution to exhibitors and the press. It contained a synopsis of the film and a step pictorial account of the key points of the narrative. It provided text for use by local theatres. The booklet also had layouts for women's pages and a pictorial account of suggested marketing activities, such as "How to drape an Indian sari: Theatre demonstrations have a big draw", and information about the film's costumes—which were hand-woven garments of silk and gold; one gold-embroidered riding jacket is considered "the most expensive piece of outfitting ever used in a motion picture."
Chandralekha was released on 9 April 1948. It was released simultaneously in over 40 theatres throughout South India. In the 1940s, a typical Tamil film would be released in about 10 towns, but Chandralekha was released simultaneously in 120 towns.
Chandralekha was released in Japan as Shakunetsu-no ketto ("Fight Under the Red Heat") in April 1954, where it was distributed by Nippon Cinema Corporation (NCC). It was the first Tamil film to be dubbed in Japanese, and the second Indian film to be released in Japan—the first was the 1952 Hindi film Aan, which was released in Tokyo in January 1954. NCC later collapsed; no information about how Chandralekha came to be released in Japan survives. During the 1950s, when India was short of foreign currency, barter was a common means of exchange with overseas business partners. Japanese scholar Tamaki Matsuoka believes this to have been the case with Chandralekha. The pamphlet prepared by NCC for the film calls Vasan the "Cecil B. DeMille of the Indian film industry". A Danish version of the film titled Indiens hersker ("India's Ruler"), was released on 26 April 1954. An abridged English-language version of Chandralekha, titled Chandra, was screened in the United States and Europe during the 1950s.
Despite the film's positive reviews and strong box office performance, it was unable to recover its large production costs, and Vasan remade it in Hindi to do so. The Hindi version, distributed by the Bombay company The Screens, was released on 24 December 1948, with over 600 prints[e] and became a great commercial success, setting box-office records. Vasan called the film "a pageant for our peasants" meant for "the war-weary public that had been forced to watch insipid war propaganda pictures for years." It was selected by the government of India for exhibition at the Fourth International Film Festival in Prague in 1949. The film's success made Madras a major production centre for Hindi films. Five years after the film's success, Gemini paid its employees a bonus, becoming one of the first studios in the world to do so.
Although exact figures for the film's box office earnings are not available, film trade websites provide estimates of its takings. According to Sharmishtha Gooptu's 2010 book Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation, Chandralekha grossed ₹10 million (about US$2,100,000 in 1948)[c] in India alone. Box Office India gives the Hindi version's nett gross as ₹7 million and states that it was the second-highest-grossing Bollywood film of 1948 after Shaheed.[f] It gives its adjusted nett gross as ₹37,98,00,000. Film historian B. D. Garga said in his 2005 book Art Of Cinema: "The two versions—Tamil and Hindi—grossed millions." According to the 1998 book Indian cinema: A Visual Voyage by India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the film grossed ₹20 million (US$300,000) at the box office. A 2011 article by Namrata Joshi in Outlook India says, "Chandralekha grossed Rs 1.55 crore with an audience of 3 crore (30 million), 60% from rural India."
Chandralekha received generally positive reviews from Indian critics. On 9 April 1948, The Hindu said, "India has not witnessed a film of this magnitude in terms of making and settings so far." On 10 April, The Indian Express said, "Chandralekha is an entertaining film for everyone with elements like animals, rope dance, circus and comedy." Kumudam gave a rather mixed review: "Though the story is ordinary, the shocking events inserted into the narrative are something new to the Tamil cinema." The magazine criticised the songs and the film's length, adding that the time period of the story should have been defined: "in a scene, there is a wall clock in the King's office, whereas he is writing with a feather-pen." In its January 1949 issue, the magazine Gundoosi praised the Hindi version for being an improvement over the Tamil version, stating that it had better dialogues and appreciated its pacing.
V. A. K. Ranga Rao described the film as "the most complete entertainer ever made."[g] In their 1988 book One Hundred Indian Feature Films: An Annotated Filmography, Anil Srivastava and Shampa Banerjee praised nearly every aspect of the film, including its grandeur, the battle scenes, and the drum dance, which they called the "raison d'etre" of the film. In 2003, S. Muthiah called it "an epic extravaganza worthy of Cecil B. de. Mille" that was "larger-than-life." In their 2008 book Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi Song and Dance, Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti said, "Chandralekha is a film that translates the aesthetic of Hollywood Orientalism for an indigenous mass audience", calling its drum-dance sequence "perhaps one of the most spectacular sequences in Indian cinema." In his 2009 book 50 Indian Film Classics, M. K. Raghavendra said, "Indian films are rarely constructed in a way that makes undistracted viewing essential to their enjoyment and Chandralekha is arranged as a series of distractions." He concluded by saying, "Chandralekha apparently shows us that enjoyment and visual pleasure in the Indian context are not synonymous with edge-of-the-seat excitement but must permit absent-mindedness as a viewing condition."
In May 2010, Raja Sen, writing for Rediff, praised the film's setpieces, the drum dance sequence, and the "longest swordfight ever captured on film", calling Chandralekha "just the kind of film, in fact, that would be best appreciated now after digital restoration." In an October 2010 review of Chandralekha, Randor Guy praised Rajakumari's performance, calling it "her career-best" and saying that she "carried the movie on her shoulders." Guy praised Radha as his "usual impressive self", saying the film would be "remembered for: the excellent onscreen narration, the magnificent sets and the immortal drum dance sequence." In 2013, director Dhanapal Padmanabhan told K. Jeshi of The Hindu, "Chandralekha had grandeur that was at par with Hollywood standards."
Reviewing the English version of Chandralekha, The New York Times described Rajakumari as a "buxom beauty."[h] When Chandralekha was screened in New York City in 1976, William K. Everson said, "It's a colorful, naive and zestful film in which the overall ingenuousness quite disarms criticism of plot absurdity or such production shortcomings as the too-obvious studio "exteriors". [...] Last but far from least, Busby Berkeley would surely have been delighted to see his influence extending to the climactic drum dance."
Jonathan Rosenbaum said in August 1981, "The prospect of a three-hour Indian film in [Tamil] with no subtitles is a little off-putting, I would say—wouldn't you?" However, he had "surprisingly little trouble following the plot and action" of the film, and added, "this made-in-Madras costume drama makes for a pretty action-packed 186 minutes." In June 2009, K. S. Sivakumaran of Daily News Sri Lanka called it "the first colossal [Tamil] film I saw." In October 2013, Malaysian author D. Devika Bai, writing for the New Straits Times, praised Chandralekha for its technical aspects; she said, "at almost 68, I have not tired of watching the movie."
The Hindi version of Chandralekha was Vasan's first Bollywood project. For this version, Vasan re-shot some scenes and included a slightly different cast. Among the notable differences between the Hindi and Tamil versions of the film, Pandit Indra and Agha Jani Kashmiri wrote the dialogue only for the Hindi version. Indra was a lyricist for the Hindi version with Bharat Vyas, while Kothamangalam Subbu and Papanasam Sivan were lyricists for the Tamil version. Rajeswara Rao, who composed the soundtrack for both versions, was assisted by Bal Krishna Kalla on the Hindi version. Parthasarathy and Vaidyanathan composed background music for the Hindi version without Das Gupta. While the Tamil version was over 18,000 feet (5,500 m) long,[i] the Hindi version was edited down to 14,495 feet (4,418 m).
Rajakumari, Radha, and Ranjan reprised their roles in the Hindi version, but their characters—except for Rajakumari's character Chandralekha—were renamed. Radha's character Veerasimhan was known as Veer Singh in the Hindi version, and Ranjan's character Sasankan was renamed Shashank. Of the other cast members, N. S. Krishnan, T. A. Madhuram, T. E. Krishnamachari, Pottai Krishnamoorthy and N. Seetharaman appeared only in the Tamil version, whereas Yashodhara Katju and H. K. Chopra appeared only in the Hindi version. Nearly the entire cast were credited in the Tamil version, but only six people—Rajakumari, Radha, Ranjan, Sundari Bai, Katju and L. Narayana Rao—were credited in the Hindi version.
|“||Sixty years ago the biggest box office hit of Tamil cinema was released. When made by the same studio in Hindi, it was so great a success that it opened up the theatres of the North to films made in the South. This is the story of the making of that film, Chandralekha.||”|
|— Randor Guy, film historian and columnist|
With the success of Chandralekha, Vasan became known as one of the best directors in Indian cinema. Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, authors of the book, Film History — An Introduction, called the film "the biggest box-office hit of the decade." Randor Guy later called Vasan the "Cecil B. DeMille of Tamil cinema", and called Chandralekha his "magnum opus." According to S. Muthiah, Vasan "pioneered making South Indian films in English." He inspired producer A. V. Meiyappan, who later became a "master at publicity." The success of the Hindi version gave South Indian film producers the opportunity to market their Hindi films in North India. The publicity campaign for Chandralekha created such an impact that film producers in Bombay (now Mumbai) passed a resolution that there should be a limit imposed on advertisements for any film in periodicals. Vasan's Apoorva Sagodharargal (1949) is often considered an unofficial sequel to Chandralekha; it was also a major commercial success.
Chandralekha enhanced Rajakumari's and Ranjan's careers; both became popular throughout India after the film's release. Its climactic sword-fight scene was well received, and is thought to be the longest sword fight in Indian cinema. The drum-dance sequence is often considered the film's highlight; later producers tried unsuccessfully to emulate it. Producer-director T. Rajendar said he drew inspiration from the drum-dance for a song sequence budgeted at ₹10 million (equivalent to ₹30 million or US$450,000 in 2016) in his 1999 film Monisha En Monalisa. Film historian Firoze Rangoonwalla ranked the Hindi version eighth on his list of the top twenty films of Indian cinema. Chandralekha was also a major influence on Kamalakara Kameswara Rao's 1953 Telugu film Chandraharam, featuring N. T. Rama Rao. On 26 August 2004, a postage stamp featuring Vasan and the drum dance was released to commemorate the 35th anniversary of his death, and his centenary.
In July 2007, S. R. Ashok Kumar of The Hindu asked eight Tamil film directors to list their all-time favourite Tamil films; two of them—J. Mahendran and K. Balachander—named Chandralekha. Mahendran said, "If anybody tries to remake this black and white film, they will make a mockery of it." Balachander said, "Just like Sivaji today, people talked about Chandralekha in the past. Produced at a cost of Rs 30 lakhs (a huge sum at that time), it has grand sets. I have seen it 12 times." In December 2008, S. Muthiah said, "Given how spectacular it was—and the appreciation lavished on it from 1948 till well into the 1950s, which is when I caught up with it—I'm sure that if re-released, it would do better at the box office then most Tamil films today." In a 2011 interview with Indo-Asian News Service (IANS), South Indian Bollywood actor Vyjayanthimala said although people consider that she "paved the way" for other South Indian female actors in Hindi cinema, "the person who really opened the doors was S.S. Vasan." She said, "When [Chandralekha was] released, it took the North by storm because by then they haven't seen that kind of lavish sets, costumes and splendour. So Vasan was the person who opened the door for Hindi films in the South."
Chandralekha was K. Ramnoth's last film for Gemini Studios. Although he is often credited with shooting the drum-dance sequence, Ramnoth left the studio in August 1947, before the sequence had been conceived. Director Singeetham Srinivasa Rao told film critic Baradwaj Rangan he disliked Chandralekha when he first saw it, realising that it was a classic only after 25 years, "a fact that the audiences realised in just two minutes." Film producer and writer G. Dhananjayan told The Times of India, "When you talk of black and white films, you cannot resist mentioning the 1948 epic Chandralekha ... That film's grandeur, be it in the sets, costumes, songs, dances and the fight sequences, still remains a benchmark even this day of colour and 3D films." In April 2012, Rediff included the film in its list "The A to Z of Tamil Cinema" and said it "boasted an ensemble cast, great production values and a story that ensured it became a blockbuster all over India, the first of its kind."
Chandralekha has been screened at many film festivals; it was screened in December 2012 at the 10th Chennai International Film Festival, which was a tribute to 100 years of Indian cinema. To mark the same anniversary, it was also screened in April 2013 at the Centenary Film Festival, which was organised by India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and National Film Archive. In 2014, Chandralekha was one of eight Indian films[j] that were screened at the 28th edition of the Italian film festival Il Cinema Ritrovato, as a part of "The Golden 50s: India's Endangered Classics"—the first Indian cinema retrospective at the festival. M. Suganth of The Times of India, in his review of Baahubali: The Beginning (2015), noted that the film's director S. S. Rajamouli had "take[n] his cues from varied sources" for its visuals, such as the grandeur of Chandralekha. In an interview with Sangeetha Devi Dundoo of The Hindu in November 2015, actor Kamal Haasan noted, "Visual appeal has always gone hand-in-hand with content, since the days of Chandralekha and [Mayabazar], not just after Baahubali."
- The UNESCO gives the runtime as 193 minutes, while One Hundred Indian Feature Films: An Annotated Filmography, Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema and India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting give the runtime as 207 minutes.
- Although the title card of the Tamil version spells Chandraleka, i.e. without the "H", the spelling Chandralekha (with the "H") has become more common.
- The exchange rate in 1948 was 4.79 Indian rupees (₹) per 1 US dollar (US$).
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- According to The Times of India, the film was released with 609 prints worldwide; film historian S. Theodore Baskaran says it was released with 603 prints.
- According to the website Box Office India, film tickets are subject to "entertainment tax" in India, and this tax is added to the ticket price at the box office window of theatres. The amount of this tax is variable among States and territories of India. "Nett gross figures are always after this tax has been deducted while gross figures are before this tax has been deducted." Although since 2003 the entertainment tax rate has significantly decreased, as of 2010, gross earnings of a film can be 30–35% higher than nett gross, depending on the states where the film is released.
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