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Too hot to handle: The scene from Chitralekha (1941) that troubled the censors

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While Kidar Sharma's masterpiece is lost forever, a surviving still from the film conjures up the scene that was censored 80 years ago.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

With the debate on film censorship in the country hotting up, it is worthwhile remembering that this battle has been going on almost since cinema made its entry into India. Eighty years ago, for instance, there was a film, Chitralekha (1941), that got the censors hot under their collars with a sensual scene.

Directed by Kidar Sharma and starring Mehtab, Nandrekar, Ram Dulari and Monica Desai, Chitralekha was based on the eponymous novel by Bhagwati Charan Verma set in the reign of the emperor Chandragupta Maurya. The film also marked the debut of actor Bharat Bhushan.

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A drama with a spiritual theme, the film's story is set in the 3rd century BCE and tells of the exceedingly beautiful and famed dancer Chitralekha. A rich nobleman, Bijgupta, who is given to wine and women, falls for her though his marriage has been settled elsewhere.

Bijgupta’s guru, Kumaragiri, is tasked with bringing his pupil back to his prospective wife and disparaging the dancer. Known for his asceticism, Kumaragiri lectures Chitralekha about her religious duties and she slowly begins to heed his words. Eventually she abjures her profession, decides to lead a life of piety and becomes Kumaragiri's disciple.

In the process, however, the yogi himself falls for Chitralekha and tries to seduce her. The film's climax featured the yogi’s advances being thwarted and Chitralekha reuniting with Bijgupta.

With a meticulous eye for detail, Kidar Sharma plunged himself into the shooting of the film. He insisted that the complete screenplay be rehearsed repeatedly, much to the annoyance of the cast, and even gave instructions for the music, asking composer Khansaheb Zande Khan to compose the entire score in raga Bhairavi despite the latter’s misgivings.

A still of Mehtab in the censored bathing scene from Chitralekha. Photo: Courtesy of film historian Zafar Abid Balani

However, one scene in the film created a phenomenal buzz. It was the bathing scene meant to convey the sensuousness and feminine charm of Chitralekha. Film historian Zafar Abid Balani shared his conversations with Mehtab, where she described the scene in great detail.

Thought to be inspired by the artwork of Raja Ravi Varma, the scene portrayed Mehtab draped in a barely there saree, pulling up water from a well and pouring it on herself while standing. The shots featured several close-ups of her bathing.

While, sadly, the film does not exist today, Balani shared a rare, unpublished still from his private collection, which shows Mehtab in soft focus in this pose. It represents a moment snatched from oblivion, as the photograph is the only evidence of this part of the film's history.

While there was a great deal of excitement around this scene, it also drew the attention of the censor board at the time. The beginning of film censorship in India took place with the Cinematograph Act of 1918 which went on to set up censor boards in various cities across the country.

While the main source of concern for the censors back in the Raj era was nationalistic content, there was also some anxiety about the exhibition of women’s bodies, an anxiety which gained momentum over time. There was much on-screen kissing in films of the 1920s and 1930s, which sailed by without causing any eyebrows to be raised, but by the 1940s the situation had begun to change.

The politically charged atmosphere in the country caused the ears of the censors to be pricked and their grip began to tighten. Journalist Uday Bhatia has pointed out that of 1,774 films viewed by the Bombay censors in 1943, only 25 required certain changes before they could be released. That number grew to a whopping 464 out of a total of 3,099 films by 1948. Chitralekha was among the early films to run afoul of the censor board.

Eventually, this scene was swapped with another bathing scene featuring Mehtab in a tub, pouring water over herself with a lotus flower. Writing about the scene in his reminiscences, The One and Lonely Kidar Sharma, the filmmaker said, “In this film, I even bared a beauty on the silver screen for the first time with such finesse, in a bathing scene by Miss Mehtab, that nothing was revealed, but it created an illusion of great feminine charm.”

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Sharma required Mehtab to strip for the scene and she agreed, understanding the allure that the director wished to convey through it. However, she laid down the condition that the set would be cleared, the lighting and shot adjusted with a double, and there would be no retakes for her performance once the director said ‘cut!’

With only Mehtab and Sharma present for the scene, it was shot. “I agreed and Mehtab gracefully and beautifully performed the scene, which the critics raved about and the audience loved,” he wrote.

An advertisement for the film in The Bombay Chronicle newspaper

The first trial show of Chitralekha did not get a favourable response from the bosses. The strains of the shehnai by a young Bismillah Khan were not appreciated either.

The film was released at New Cinema in Calcutta and was an utter disaster there. Set to be released towards the end of June 1941 at the Lamington cinema in Bombay, it was delayed by some 'eleventh-hour hitch' and 'city disturbances', according to news reports of the time. The film was finally released on 5 July at the Edward and Lamington talkies and became an overnight sensation, with the music and songs enrapturing the audience. The fine performances in the film, its music, sheer beauty and subject matter were praised wholeheartedly.

A review in The Bombay Chronicle newspaper dated 19 July 1941 praised the film’s direction, screenplay and acting, especially that of Mehtab as Chitralekha and Gyani as the yogi. “Sharma has directed ‘Chitralekha’ and invested it with his usual care and attention," the reviewer wrote. "As an instance of his skill in fine scenario-writing may be mentioned the contrast he has cleverly emphasised in ‘Chitralekha’ of the attitude of the saint when he first meets Chitralekha and his adoration of her in his ashram when he was a victim of her striking beauty.”

The film proved to be a decisive one for Sharma who enjoyed its success but still found himself jobless! He moved to Bombay from Calcutta and through actor Prithviraj Kapoor met the famed Chandulal Shah of Ranjit Studios, who hired him on the spot for the finesse of his craft as seen in Chitralekha. Sharma went on to remake the film with Meena Kumari and Ashok Kumar in 1964 but maintained that it could not recapture the magic of the 1941 version.