SS Vasan’s Ruritanian drama Vanjikottai Valiban (1958) is about a nail-biting contest for the throne of the kingdom of Vanjikottai. But Vasan’s film, remade in Hindi as Raj Tilak, is perhaps better known for another contest: the dance-off between Padmini and Vyjayanthimala.

There simply isn’t another more engrossing or energetic dance contest in the history of Indian cinema than the one in the song Kannum Kannum Kalandhu. Rumours of real-life friction between Padmini and Vyjayanthimala, both excellent Bharatanatyam artists, have accompanied the song’s journey through film history, making the climactic sequence more engaging than the overall political drama.

SS Vasan obviously saw the promise when he decided to add the song to his film. He got Hindi choreographer Hiralal to handle the song and Kothamangalam Subbu to write lyrics that matched the furore of the steps.

In the main rivalry in the plot, Vanjikottai’s king and his minister Chokkalingam (TK Shanmugam) are on the one side and the king’s second wife and her brother Senapathi (Veerappa) on the other. When the film opens, Senapathi has already staged a coup and killed the king. The onus of winning the kingdom back is on the banished Chokkalingam.

Assisting him in his endeavour is his son Sundaram (Gemini Ganesan) and the murdered king’s daughter, Padma (Padmini). Chokkalingam rallies the people of Vanjikottai and plants the seed of revolution. But Senapathi discovers his plan and imprisons him in a crocodile-infested dungeon. That is when Padma steps in.

Disguised as a wealthy trader, Sundaram invites Senapathi to his palace for a celebration. He also promises to entertain him with a dance by a “world-famous dancer” (which is Padma). The performance is supposed to buy Sundaram time to go free Chokkalingam.

Sundaram’s plans are threatened when his lover Mandakini (Vyjayanthimala), a princess from the neighbouring island of Ratna, turns up at the celebration. Sundaram does not have the time to explain his plan to Mandakini, who mistakes Padma to be his lover. Sundaram convinces Mandakini to watch Padma’s performance. Unable to contain herself and filled with envy, Mandakini challenges Padma on the dance floor.

Thoroughly enjoying himself, Senapathi remarks, “Sabaash, sariyana potti” (Bravo, a fitting contest), a catchphrase that would go on to become immensely popular in Tamil Nadu.

Padma and Mandakini take on each other through a variety of dancing styles. To Padma’s opening Bharatanatyam sequence, Mandakini responds with a more free-flowing erotic style. “I will dance, watch me, and my dance will cast a spell on the audience,” she sings as she gracefully glides.

C Ramachandra’s composition changes tracks and moods to accommodate Mandakini’s entry. Padma’s response is framed in the Bharatanatyam idiom. The war on the dance floor also takes the help of caustic lyrics. “Don’t try to win love through a contest,” Padma sings. “Why don’t you first give a fitting reply to my anklets instead of trying to talk smart,” Mandakini retorts.

As the dance-off gathers intensity and becomes a word-less argument, a terribly anxious Sundaram runs backstage and turns off the lights to end the contest forcibly.

Vanjikottai has to be the priority, he reminds himself.

Vanjikottai Valiban (1958).