Still from the movie
Still from the movie
Lekh Tandon’s historical biopic ‘Amrapali’ (1966) was India’s official entry for the 39th Oscars in the Best Foreign Language category. It didn’t go far because, as its 84-year-old director explains, Indian cinema didn’t have any standing in the world arena then. But years later, his costume designer, Bhanu Athaiya, became the first Indian to win an Oscar, sharing the award with John Mollo for another biopic, ‘Gandhi’ (1982).Back in the ’60s, to ensure that Vyjayanthimala looked the part of a royal courtesan from 500 BC who later becomes a disciple of Buddha, Bhanu visited the Ajanta caves to find references in the frescoes. While art director M R Acharekar found his inspiration in a centuries-old stone temple in Mysore.

“Raj Kapoor had planned a film on Ajanta and Achrekar saab had made 125 designs for him. Experts in London agreed they could be replicated and we replicated some of them,” says Tandon who himself took his album of stills to Yogesh Mishra, an authority on Amrapali, who reassured him that this was how Vaishali and its locals would have looked when Magadh Emperor Ajatshatru waged war, first to further his ambitions and then for the woman he loved. “Those war sequences were filmed by Dwarka Divechi at Saharanpur, with the army supplying the horses and soldiers. Many were actually wounded and one horse had to be shot. It frightened me to see jawans and horses tumbling to the ground,” adds Tandon.

He also recalls the first song that almost didn’t happen because when Raj Kapoor learnt on the morning of the recording that Shankar-Jaikishen had given ‘Kaate na kate raina’ to Tandon, he refused to part with it saying he had decided to use it in ‘Mera Naam Joker’ (1972). Cancelling the recording would be an inauspicious start so Lata Mangeshkhar urged the composers for an alternative. They had one mukhda, ‘Jao re jogi tum jao re, yeh hai premiyon ki nagri, yahaan prem hi hai puja’. “Lataji called for a harmonium and sat down with Shankar-Jaikishan to set it to tune while Shailendra was sent off to write the antaras,” says Tandon.

“Shailendra returned to Mahalaxmi Studio after a few hours saying he could come up with just three antaras instead of the usual five. Lataji assured him they were enough and Amrapali got its first song in the shortest time possible,” reveals Tandon.

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