Article Hindi

Lekh Tandon made Amrapali to prove a point

Though he moved to directing for television, cinema remained Tandon's first love and he believed that the story was at the heart of the medium.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Veteran filmmaker Lekh Tandon died on Sunday, 15 October, aged 88 at his residence in Powai, Mumbai. Best known for his films Professor (1962), Amrapali (1966), and Jhuk Gaya Aasman (1968), among others, Tandon was also responsible for giving Shah Rukh Khan his first break on television.

Tandon came to the film industry in the 1950s and was inspired by the legendary stage and cinema artiste Prithviraj Kapoor, who was known to encourage new talent in the industry.

Fascinated by the medium of cinema, Tandon started working with Prithviraj Kapoor's oldest son, the actor-filmmaker Raj Kapoor, as an assistant director and received his first break as director in FC Mehra’s Professor (1962), starring Shammi Kapoor and Kalpana (who was making her debut). Professor was a huge success and the director recalled the scenes between Lalita Pawar and Shammi Kapoor to be among his favourite moments in the film.

Inspired by a book that he had read, the director then went on to make the historical Amrapali (1966) starring Vyjayanthimala and Sunil Dutt in the lead roles. In an interview, Tandon recalled that he was propelled to make the film when a gentleman remarked that Indian filmmakers were incapable of making an 'authentic' film.

Taking up the challenge, Tandon adapted the life of Amrapali, the legendary courtesan of the republic of Vaishali (in present-day Bihar) on screen, replicating the grandeur and opulence of the period. Each aspect of the film was painstakingly detailed, including the costumes by Bhanu Athaiya, who drew inspiration from the Ajanta caves to lend authenticity to her designs. 

The film’s music and war choreography in particular were greatly appreciated while Vyjayanthimala’s dances are remembered as among the best of her film career. The film is arguably one of Tandon’s best known and was chosen as the official Indian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 39th Academy awards in 1967, but it failed to make the final cut.

Tandon next made Jhuk Gaya Aasman (1968), a tale of reincarnation remade from the 1941 Hollywood film Here Comes Mr Jordan starring Robert Montgomery. Jhuk Gaya Aasman starred Rajendra Kumar, Saira Banu, Prem Chopra and  Rajendranath and is best known today for its immensely popular title song, based on the Elvis Presley hit Marguerita.

This was followed by the hit film Prince (1969), with Shammi Kapoor playing the arrogant and bored prince Shamsher Singh. The screenplay and dialogues of the film were written by Abrar Alvi and the narrative was a comment on the life of the privileged. This film also had a superhit song, 'Badan Pe Sitare Lapete Hue', written by Hasrat Jaipuri and said to have been inspired by a visit to the Lido in Paris. The film is also known for the dance competition between Helen and the leading lady, Vyjayanthimala.

Lekh Tandon’s Dulhan Wahi Jo Piya Man Bhaye (1977) is remembered for the notable performances by Madan Puri and Shashikala. Produced by Rajshree Productions, the first draft of the film’s story was reportedly penned by Tandon in just 15 days! A drama centred on family values, the film was awarded the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award the following year. 

After a distinguished career in films, Tandon took to directing television shows in the 1980s. A chance meeting with a young Shah Rukh Khan led to Tandon casting him for the serial Dil Dariya, a love story between a young woman from a wealthy family and a young man from a poor family studying to be a doctor. Few know that though Fauji was Khan's first television serial to be aired, he began shooting for Tandon's show first. They later acted together in a few films like Swades (2004), Paheli (2005) and Chennai Express (2013).

Though he found directing for television challenging, cinema remained Tandon's first love. Always passionate about engaging audiences through cinema, he believed that the story was at the heart of the medium. He was fascinated by stories involving human relationships with some element of sacrifice and lamented the lack of passion in contemporary storytelling. 

He remained active almost till the end and completed the screenplay for the film Phir Ussi Mod Par (2017) on the subject of triple talaq.

Several people from the industry paid tribute to the filmmaker and recalled some of their moments with him.