The "Indian" Dances in Kali Yug (1963, Italy/France/Germany)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Back in 2011 when I researched for my post series on Indian dances in Western films about India, I found some images from the 1963 Italian film Kali Yug that seemed to depict India and feature an "Indian" dance that looked like it would fit in nicely with the orientalist dances in part three of the series. 

Kali Yug film posters
At that time, I wasn't able to find any clips online or copies of the film for sale and it seemed quite rare. Fast forward three years later and a Google search on a lark reveals the film and its sequel (the German dubs, Kali Yug Die Gottin Der Rache and Aufruhr in Indien) are available at Dailymotion!

According to the Historical Dictionary of Italian Cinema, Kali Yug was one of "two adventure fantasies set in India" directed by Mario Camerini, "one of the foremost directors of Italian cinema in the interwar years." The full name of the film was Kali Yug, La Dea Della Vendetta (Vengeance of Kali), and its sequel released in the same year was Mistero del Tempio Indiano (Mystery of an Indian Temple). While the credits of the films describe them as Italian-French-German coproductions, the films seem to have been shot in Italian and then dubbed into German (Kali Yug Die Gottin Der Rache/Aufruhr in Indien) and French (Kali-Yug Deesse de al Vengeance/Le Mystere Du Temple Hindou) as well as other European languages judging by the titles found online (Kali-Yug Les Revoltes de/de Opstandelingen Van, Kali-Jug Boginja Osvete, etc.)

The films are an entertaining orientalist imagining of a "strange" India and feature lots of European actors in brownface. The setting is the seemingly fictionally-located city of "Devgaon" in 1880 India.

The four dances in the films all center around the character Amrita, an exotic-enough sounding Indian name, played by the French actress and "Bond girl" Claudine Auger. Darkened into ridiculous-looking brownface, Amrita seems to be some sort of temple dancer or dancer maintained by the kingdom who lounges about in opulent quarters when she's not performing in a way straight out of colonial paintings.

Kali Yug was released only four years after Fritz Lang's successful 2-part 1959 "Indian Epic" (Der Tiger Von Eschnapur and Das Indische Grabmal) which makes me think Camerini wanted to try his hand at the "exotic India" subject matter for the Italian audience primarily but also with dubs to cash in on India-hungry audiences in France and Germany. France has a colonial history in India and Germany's love of Indian culture and films is well documented, but Italy's connections to India seem much less robust though similar in some ways to Germany particularly far back in history. Given how influenced the films seem to be by the 1938 and 1959 versions of Das Indische Grabmal/Der Tiger Von Eschnapur, I wasn't surprised to see the credits list Eichberg Film as one of the coproducers. I assume that was the production company Richard Eichberg who directed the 1938 films!

The Film Dances

The first "Indian" dance is a practice scene with Amrita teaching two "Indian" (Europeans in brownface?) women in front of the gazes of British officers. We see Amrita first in closeup as she does stereotypically-exotic "Indian" movements (including "namaste" and "eye" gestures) and then we see a bit of her teaching before the three are seen dancing again briefly at 25:15. Wish I knew what idiotic comments the British officers were making in the interim! The other two dancers while looking as over-tanned as Amrita at least have some dancing talent. I can't guarantee any of these videos will start at the right time (Dailymotion is buggy), so move to the time listed at the top of the video or use the direct link if needed.

23:33-26:00 - Direct Link

After a tense dialogue scene between Amrita and a British character, we see Amrita and the other two dancers again giving a formal performance of the choreography they were simply practicing before. The portion at the end (after 56:10) seems loosely inspired by Kathak in the quick spins and armwork and by Uday Shankar's style in the half-seated shimmy and opposing hands. The rest of the moves are vague "Oriental"/"Indian" inspirations that remind one of a lot of Indian popular film choreography. I'm really intrigued by the dancer on the left. She's obviously a practiced and graceful dancer and I suspect she probably choreographed the film dances. Might she have been someone well known in the Indian dance community in France/Germany/Italy at that time?  (September 2019 Update: See the comments below!  This dancer has been identified as Zareen Suleman, a "Pakistani dancer [mostly Kathak and Bharatnatyam] and actress, very active in the Pakistan film industry in the 50's and 60's" who I was right, DID choreograph the film's dances!) The dancer on the right struggles with remembering the choreography, but the worst of all is Amrita and her silly attami neck-slides.

54:55-56:40 - Direct Link

The third dance in the film is a brief solo performance by Amrita for what looks like the king, and she moves her hand in one trajectory frozen in the same hand gesture...seemingly to evoke some sort of mysterious exoticism. The eclectic mix of instruments is quite humorous!

1:20:57-1:22:11- Direct Link

In the film sequel, there is only one dance--a dramatic number by Amrita in the temple in front of the Kali statue right before the structure implodes. The setting is obviously inspired by the 1938 and 1959 versions of Der Tiger Von Eschnapur/Das Indische Grabmal. Amrita's moves here are simplistic, rhythmic, and most importantly, "exotic"!

1:18:14 - 1:20:11 - Direct link

How fun to unearth yet another entertaining glimpse of how India was being misrepresented in popular European entertainment at that time!


  1. Good re-start after the rather longish gap!

    Perhaps you were researching for this well-researched and very informative post.

  2. Hello,

    Just wanted to let you know that the dancer on the left is, in fact, my grandmother, Zareen Suleman (Panna ji). She was a Pakistani dancer (mostly Kathak and Bharatnatyam) and actress, very active in the Pakistan film industry in the 50's and 60's. She was also the first Pakistani to star in a foreign film, that being Kali Yug and yes, you guessed right - she did choreograph the film's dances!

    Hope this comment proves to be helpful and informative :)

    (I'd also like to add that my grandmother is so happy to see that you recognised her talent and is surprised - pleasantly - that there are those who still appreciate her after all these years - so thank you!)

  3. And, I'd also like to add that the dancers Amrita is 'teaching' are not Europeans in brownface, in fact, they are an Indian and a Pakistani (my grandmother) with dark makeup - they were too fair in their eyes, and to be Indians they had to be darker thus the dark makeup.

    1. Oh how amazing, the granddaughter of that excellent dancer on the left in the second video identifying her on my post, and to know that the real woman saw this post and is happy to be so fondly remembered! How amazing, see I never would have discovered this information without your comment. I've updated the post above. Oh my goodness, I just did a google search, I see some examples of her film dances including one that looks particularly amazing. Oh boy, I have been wondering about what dance treasures are in the Pakistani film industry, and how the trajectory has been different after partition. It's been on my list of things to research on forever--this has just bumped it up on the list! Thank you so much again for your comment. So sorry for my delayed reply--I just learned this month that Blogger has not been informing me of comments on my blog for almost two years while I've been on hiatus. :(


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