Court Dancer/Raj Nartaki – 1941
‘Court Dancer’ or ‘Raj Nartaki’ made in 1941 by producer J. B. H. Wadia under his Wadia Movietone banner is remembered for the many ‘firsts’ it scored for the producing company as well as for the Indian film industry.
It was the first film to be shot simultaneously in three languages – Hindi, Bengali and English. It was the first Indian film to get a prestige release at the Metro (both of Bombay and Calcutta) with high dignitaries like Sir Roger Lumley (then Governor of Bombay) and the then Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court attending the premieres.
The English version was the first fully Indian effort aimed at exploring foreign markets.
There are many interesting facts behind the making of this film, especially its English version. The talented Bengali team of director Madhu Bose, his actress wife Sadhna Bose and some other unit members had just completed a film in Bombay for Sagar Film Company called ‘Kumkum, the Dancer’ and they were prepared to stay longer if another assignment came along. Wadia took the opportunity to book them for a Hindi-Bengali film and a successful Bengali play by Manmatha Ray was selected for adaptation.
The story opens in the kingdom of Manipur where Chandra Kirti, the heir-apparent to the throne has fallen in love with Raj Nartaki, Modhuchanda. The love between these two symbols of different social orders is on a higher plane of life being free of any lusty considerations. The dancer, in spite of her professional pursuits, is a woman of high morals and in the prince’s view appears to be the most fitting person for being his life mate but this union is disapproved by the king and by the Raj guru. Thereafter the drama passes through the usual obstacles, compromises and heart burns till the tragic end for the greater glory of her love.
The message of the film however remains reactionary. While the writer trembles for a time on the possibility of bridging the social gulf between the prince and the dancer, he ultimately succumbs to the demands of orthodoxy but the story is the last point of this picture which is primarily intended for Sadhona Bose and her dancing art. We must not therefore look the gift horse in the mouth.
Sadhona gives a beautiful performance and her dances are marvellously executed. Timir Baran also came out well with excellent music, making the picture very attractive purely from the musical point of view and the direction is entirely hitched on to the dancing feet of the leading lady whose unfulfilled love for the prince reaches sublime heights. The comedy sequences between the court jesters are a jest in themselves.
Taken up as a pride presentation, the producer lavished all his resources and selected the cream of talent to shape it into a thing of beauty and a work of art. Other than the title role, as the prince you have the strapping Prithviraj; the high priest’s role was filled eminently by Ahindra Choudhry, doyen of the Bengali stage and screen. The choreography, based on the rich fare of the Manipuri School, done by Sadhna Bose herself, with Madhav Menon dancing opposite her as Shree Krishna in the Raas-leela sequences.
The English version was conceived and launched quietly by the producer, with the English dialogue penned by himself and the songs translated by the famous anthropologist Verrier Elwin. There had been cases of two Indian films in English before, namely ‘Nurjehan’ and ‘Karma’ but they had either not been wholly successful or wholly Indian. This was the first case of such a film acted by an all Indian cast and made by an indigenous unit. In later years, many Indian film makers made such attempts in different ways, either by way of an English version as in K. A. Abbas‘ ‘Rahi’ or a separate English film made as a co- production as in Dev Anand’s ‘Guide’.
After the release at the Metro, “Court Dancer”, which had met much initial resistance and opposition from the local trade circles, was shown all over India as an English film. But what is more remarkable, its world distribution was taken over by Columbia Pictures. Unfortunately, due to the wartime tensions of 1941, the foreign release of “Court Dancer” was seriously affected and an ambitious venture could not achieve the much desired end. Still, it remains in film history as the first important step taken for the spread of Indian art and culture abroad through the cinema medium.
Here is the complete film in it’s English version. Enjoy.