Vyjayanthimala showed off her dancing talent in scores of films but few showcased her skills – or her entire self – better than Lekh Tandon’s Amrapali.

Dressed in strapless blouses and fitting draped dhotis (the veil is optional) and shot in lambent tones that accentuate her classical features and her gem-like eyes, Vyjayanthimala makes for an unforgettable dancer in the period romance. As it turns out, the film was one of the glorious failures of 1966. But like many movies that were ignored in their time, it has gained greater flavour and meaning over the years. Its pleasures started on the surface (the “Amrapali outfit” created by the brilliant designer Bhanu Athaiya, MR Achrekar’s yellow-hued sets, Shankar Jaikishan’s classical score) but emanated from the core themes (Vyjayanthimala’s proto-feminist character, the pacifist message).

Amrapali’s private quarters.

Based on history and legend and previously filmed in 1945, Amrapali features Vyjayanthimala as a spirited court dancer from Vaishali who loses her heart to Ajatashatru (Sunil Dutt), the ruler of the rival Magadha kingdom. Ajatashatru sneaks into Vaishali in the guise of a wounded soldier. As Amrapali tenderly dresses his wounds – the first of many encounters between the beautifully matched leads – love blossoms. Amrapali gives her heart and body to the disguised Ajatshatru, but his intentions, at least initially, are less than honourable. A symbolic sexual encounter on a boat marks the union of the lovers, but political rivalry, war and statecraft set off Amrapali on an unconventional journey away from romance and towards renunciation.

Vyjayanthimala and Sunil Dutt in Amrapali.

The movie opens with Ajatashatru fuming at the defiance of the neighbouring kingdom Amrapali. The king sets off to tame Vaishali despite a stern warning from his mother (Sulochana), but he is unsurprisingly bowled over by Amrapali’s grace and beauty. The sequences between Dutt and Vyjayanthimala crackle with the erotic frisson that was unique to the Indian historical genre, as if to celebrate a time when Indians were less puritanical about their sexual desires. One can only guess what audiences at the time made of Vyjayanthimala’s costumes, inviting though never vulgar, and the combustible sensuality of her character.

Amrapali is a public woman – she is the court dancer and therefore belongs to the highest bidder – but is treated with dignity, in keeping with the movie’s depiction of Vaishali as a just kingdom. Amrapali has a mind of her own, and is firm in her loyalties to the kingdom that gives her identity and respect. No wonder, then, that Ajatashatru, who is conniving to gut the kingdom from within, gazes upon wonder at this perfectly formed female during a contest to name the best dancer of the court.

Sunil Dutt in Amrapali.

Lekh Tandon had made his debut as the director of the comedy Professor in 1963 after serving as an assistant director on several productions. He was fascinated by a book he had read on the period, and aimed for a movie that would depict “the language, the culture and the unity of the time”, he told Scroll.in. “Shammi Kapoor was supposed to star in the film, but he turned it down,” the 88-year-old actor and director said. “But the producer, FC Mehra, told me to go ahead and make it.”

Mehra’s act of faith resulted in fine collaborations between the director and the technicians, who worked hard on combining authenticity and spectacle. “I remember going to the director of the Princes of Wales museum at the time, and he said that Indian filmmakers cannot make an authentic film,” Tandon recalled. “This provoked us.”

The Vaishali court, as imagined by MR Achrekar.

Athaiya, who won an Academy Award in 1983 for Richard Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi, famously conducted research for the costumes by visiting the heritage site of Ajanta and Ellora in Aurangabad. The movie was meant to be shot on location, but was eventually made on sets constructed in Mumbai. Special care was taken for the lighting by cinematographer Dwarka Divecha, who has such films as China Town and Sholay to his credit. “Dwarka Divecha understood the period,” Tandon said. “He used three sets of lights for Vyjayanthimala, one for her face, another for her the middle body, and a different set for her whole body.”

A statue of Ajatashatru.

Among the reasons for Amrapali’s failure was its use of classical Hindi dialogue, Tandon said. “Urdu was more prevalent among audiences at the time, and this was the movie’s downfall,” he said. “Audiences didn’t understand the language.” The movie’s advocacy of Buddhism, which the dancer embraces in the manner of Asoka after being horrified by the ravages of war, also worked against the movie, Tandon theorised.

Despite its poor showing in 1966, Amrapali remains one of Tandon’s best-known films, one for which he is commended to date. The movie is also one of the highlights of Vyjayanthimala’s career, and Tandon has only words of praise for her dedication. “She was too good and too great,” he said. “She took on the movie as a challenge. She had 104-degree temperature while working in the [lovemaking] pond sequence. No wonder she was disappointed.”