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When Vijay Bhatt took Ram Rajya to America in 1947

On the filmmaker’s 25th death anniversary (he died on 17 October 1993), we look back at his historic American tour where he showed his film, Ram Rajya (1943), starring Prem Adib and Shobhana Samarth.

Vijay Bhatt with Spyros P Skouras at a banquet at the Waldorf Astoria, organized in his honour by The India Society of America. Photo: Courtesy Pauravi Pathak

Sonal Pandya

Filmmaker Vijay Bhatt, co-founder of Prakash Pictures, had great aspirations for his banner that he set up in 1934. Bhatt, who began his career in the silent era, turned director with Khwaab Ki Duniya (1937), starring Jayant and Sardar Akhtar.

Within the next five years, Prakash Pictures made all kinds of films and established itself with titles like Narsi Bhagat (1940), Bharat Milap (1942) and, of course, Ram Rajya (1943).

The last-named was a big hit and the filmmaker had grand plans. He not only wanted to screen Ram Rajya across India, but also wished to show it to the world.

In 1947, the filmmaker took the feature to the United States of America to screen it in New York. The US premiere of the film was held at the Museum of Modern Art on 5 May. Two more screenings were organized by The India Society of America on 6 and 7 May.

According to an account on the filmmaker’s website, run by his granddaughter Pauravi Pathak, after the premiere of Ram Rajya, a young American woman asked Vijay Bhatt why Ram abandoned Sita after the Agni Pariksha (trial by fire).

Bhatt responded: "That is the difference between the Indian point of view and the Western point of view. In the West, in Great Britain for example, a king left his kingdom for the sake of the woman he had married. Here, Rama left his wife for the sake of his subjects, some of whom had reservations about Sita, although he loved her very much, and actually lived the life of a recluse afterwards."

A grand banquet was held at the Waldorf Astoria on 6 May. Eric Johnston, then president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), was the chief guest while Spyros P Skouras, then president of 20th Century Fox, was the guest of honour. Skouras presented Bhatt with a scroll commemorating the event.

Photo: Courtesy Pauravi Pathak

Bhatt’s family has preserved the certificate all these years. Though worn by time, the certificate symbolizes the honour bestowed upon the filmmaker by The India Society of America for the 'idealism and purity of his immortal film epics, his tireless artistic endeavours for the enrichment of India's film creations and for interpreting India's message to the world'.

The certificate is signed by the society's chairman, Dr Chandrashekhar, and the rest of its members, although most of the names have now faded.

Bhatt with the American press discussing his future projects (Photo: Courtesy Pauravi Pathak)

Besides Ram Rajya, Bhatt carried prints of Bharat Milap and Vikramaditya (1945) for private screenings. Interestingly, Bhatt was looking forward to helming a film on the Buddha and required someone to come on board as co-producer. He already had an English script written by Harindranath Chattopadhyay. The film, which faced opposition from the Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka, never saw the light of day.

During his sojourn in the US, Bhatt did not fail to visit the country's entertainment capital. Before arriving in New York for the Ram Rajya premiere, he had visited Hollywood where he met the teenage Elizabeth Taylor, swimmer-turned-actress Esther Williams, performer Eddie Cantor, and actor Ronald Reagan, future president of the US, who was filming for The Voice Of The Turtle (1947) at the time.

A clipping from the Sunday Star dated 5 May 1947 (Photo: Courtesy Pauravi Pathak)

At the Paramount Studios, Bhatt met another maker of epics, filmmaker Cecil B DeMille, and the two bonded over films. He even gave Bhatt an autograph with the touching message, "Greetings from one director who is still trying to make good pictures, to another director, who will make great ones long after I am gone." DeMille’s autograph is another cinema treasure saved by Bhatt family.