A Johnny Walker film, but one that’s known for a lot else besides.
I always associate Bimal Roy with the Do Bigha Zameen or Parakh sort of film: deeply rooted in reality, both harshly real and heart-warmingly real. Stories about people like us, people with problems and joys like ours. His films are socially relevant ones that discuss issues like untouchability and corruption, poverty, alcoholism and the plight of those who aren’t economically or socially powerful enough to stand up for themselves.
Madhumati is the glaring exception, the extremely surprising entry in Bimal Roy’s filmography: a film that’s chockfull of everything one doesn’t expect of Bimal Roy. Reincarnation, spooks, multiple roles, atmospheric storms: one could almost think Ramsay Brothers. Thankfully, no; because Madhumati, though in a completely different genre than Bimal Roy classics like Sujata, Bandini, Do Bigha Zameen or Devdas, still bears the mark of a master craftsman. And it’s good entertainment value.
The film begins on a dark and stormy night (a recurring motif in the film: all the most dramatic events occur on stormy nights). Two friends – an engineer, Devendra (Dilip Kumar) and a doctor (Tarun Bose) are travelling by car along a mountain road when a fallen tree forces a halt. The driver advises the two men to take shelter in the nearby mansion while he goes off to find help. Devendra and his friend go off to the mansion, which turns out to be a spooky place, dusty and seemingly deserted.
A decrepit watchman appears eventually, and this is when Devendra starts acting strangely: he asks the watchman if a picture had once hung on one of the walls. When he sees an old portrait of a man, he identifies – and correctly, to everybody’s surprise – the subject as a certain Ugranarain, an erstwhile zamindar. A gust of wind through a bust window sends the curtains fluttering, and with it Devendra’s memory – or whatever. He sits the doctor down and starts telling him the story that’s suddenly come to Devendra’s mind. Perhaps it’s from a previous incarnation, he says; he cannot be sure.
At any rate, in the flashback we’re now treated to, Devendra is Anand, newly come to these same hills to work as the manager on a timber estate. Shortly after he arrives, Anand sees a girl dancing through the hills and singing as she goes. He has no idea who she is, of course, but in true Hindi film fashion, he’s attracted to this unknown belle.
And, also in sinister Hindi film fashion, Anand is soon acquainted with all the local dos and dont’s. He is warned not to cross the stream, because Paan Raja, the man who lives on the opposite bank, is a bloodthirsty sort who has vowed to kill anyone belonging to the ‘company’ (the timber estate, I’m guessing) who crosses over. The reason for this lies in a long-ago crime: years back, Veer Singh (Tiwari), who works on the estate, had murdered the son of Paan Raja.
More background emerges: Paan Raja is raja (king) only in name. His ancestors were once the kings of this area, but no longer. The power and money now are held by Ugranarain, who is Anand’s boss, and whom Anand hasn’t yet met. Anand also discovers that Veer Singh, and the rest of Ugranarain’s gang, seems to be involved in some hanky-panky regarding the timber.
Anand also meets the delightful Charandas (Johnny Walker), who is to be Anand’s bearer – his peon, waiter, and general dogsbody. Charan has a bit of a taste for liquor, but other than that, he’s a fine sort: heart in the right place, a healthy respect for all the spookiness of the hills, and an immediate loyalty towards Anand.
Having been introduced, my favourite comedian then disappears for a while, while Anand’s romance takes centrestage. The girl whom Anand had seen when he’d first arrived on Ugranarain’s timber estates turns out to be Paan Raja’s daughter, Madhumati ‘Madhu’ (Vyjyantimala). Anand notices her again, a shy figure flitting through the misty woods. When he goes out into the woods to sketch, she slyly steals his drawings away.
He eventually comes face to face with Madhu at the local fair, and shortly after – at the fair itself – Madhu comes to his assistance when Anand gets hurt while rescuing a toddler from a horse rider with no scruples (this is Pran – whom we already know as Ugranarain from that painting Devendra identified). The rider rides off, the child is handed over to his mother, and Madhu, while binding Anand’s hand, insists that Anand come home with her. Her father, who is respected as a physician, will put ointment on that wound.
Paan Raja (Jayant) attends to Anand’s injury, but does a double-take when he discovers that Anand works on the timber estate. He immediately turns suspicious (even downright rude) and boots Anand out.
Which doesn’t much affect the Anand-Madhu romance. These two are already pretty deeply in love, and spend every evening talking and singing and mooning about on the hill. We get to hear some wonderful songs and see some picturesque views, and Ugranarain happens to notice that his estate manager is hanging out with a very beautiful girl whom he, Ugranarain, would like to sample for himself.
Though he’s discovered by now that Ugranarain is a baddie (anybody who’d run down a defenceless toddler is), Anand hasn’t realised just how bad Ugranarain actually is. Therefore, when Ugranarain sends Anand off on an unnecessary two-day errand, Anand complies. Madhu tries to stop him – Paan Raja has gone off to a fair in a nearby village, and she will be all alone – but Anand reassures her: he will be back soon. During the days since he first met Paan Raja, Anand has managed to convince the old man that his, Anand’s, intentions towards Madhu are honourable; now, to keep her reassured and happy, Anand ‘marries’ her at the shrine where she goes to pray for Anand’s wellbeing during his trip. Nobody witnesses the ‘wedding’, but Madhu’s happy.
Not for long, though. Anand leaves, and shortly after, Charan becomes an unwitting tool in the grimy hands of Ugranarain and his slimy accomplice, Veer Singh. Charan is sent as a messenger to Madhu, to let her know that Anand has been injured in an accident, and is lying at Ugranarain’s mansion, calling for Madhu. It’s a stormy, wet night (again!) and when Madhu arrives at the mansion, looking for her beloved, all she finds is the lecherous Ugranarain —
The story leaves Madhu clutching desperately at a bamboo screen while trying to flee Ugranarain. Instead of showing what happened to her, we move forward to when Anand, having returned and found Madhu missing, goes looking for her along with Paan Raja, who’s returned to an empty home. All they find is her dupatta, and Paan Raja, with a morbid fatalism, declares that “It is no use searching for her. She has fallen prey to a wild animal” – ominous words, and true, though Anand does not yet know how true.
Madhu is never found, and Anand, missing her dreadfully, sinks into a morass of loneliness and depression. The morbidity is relieved somewhat – at least for us viewers – by good old Charan’s efforts to help. Charan is convinced that Anand is haunted by Madhu’s ghost; so he goes off and hires an exorcist to do some mumbo-jumbo and get rid of the lurking spirit.
But to no avail. Anand continues to be consumed by his memories of Madhu. He spends all his days out in the woods, sketching Madhu. Until one day in the woods he meets a woman who is the spitting image of Madhu. Madhu? Or someone else? But how can it be? Can there be two women with exactly the same features? Has Anand finally lost his mind? Or is there more to it?
Madhumati is too well-known (and too well-written about) for me to have anything new to say about it. Almost anybody who knows anything about classical Hindi cinema knows that this was a blockbuster, and the most commercially successful film for both the director/producer, Bimal Roy, and the writer Ritwik Ghatak. It won an unprecedented nine Filmfare Awards, a record that stayed in place till 1995, when Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge won ten. And: if imitation is the sincerest of flattery, then yes, much of Bollywood still thinks Madhumati is worth copying.
What I liked about this film:
The acting. Dilip Kumar and Vyjyantimala are excellent (she won the Filmfare Award for Best Actress for the role), and so is Johnny Walker as Charandas. Charan may not have a huge role in the film, but in the few scenes where he appears (especially that delightful bit with the exorcist!), he’s a gem. Johnny Walker won the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor for this role, and very well deserved too.
The songs. Salil Choudhary’s music for Madhumati is sublime, each tune a masterpiece, all the way from Dil tadap-tadap ke keh raha hai to Julmi sangh aankh lagi to Main toh kabse khadi is paar. And, my favourite Johnny Walker song, the gloriously tipsy Jungle mein mor naacha kisi ne na dekha. It trips and rollicks and hiccups in the hilariously intoxicated way that only a Johnny Walker-Mohammad Rafi pairing can achieve. Priceless!
Bimal Roy’s artistic talent when it comes to direction. The story of a love that transcends lives has been played out in other films (Milan and Neel Kamal, for instance); the story of spirits wandering the Earth for vengeance isn’t anything new, either. And although there is a hint of the socialism that Bimal Roy and Ritwik Ghatak stood for (Ugranarain and Veer Singh versus the simple villagers), Madhumati makes no pretence of being anything other than a supernatural/romantic/tragic tale of star-crossed lovers. Where Bimal Roy makes it worthy of the Filmfare Best Movie Award is in his treatment of the story, the visuals and the camera work. Madhumati, is, for instance, the film of the Dramatic Appearance. Take, as an example, how Johnny Walker is introduced: Anand is standing at a fork on a hillside path, and doesn’t know which branch of the path he should follow. When he flips a coin to decide, the coin twirls up into the air – and disappears. Flummoxed, he looks up and he and we meet Charandas, who’s sitting in the tree above and has pocketed the coin.
Or the scene at the village fair, where Anand catches a fleeting glimpse of Madhu. (Blog reader pacifist described this scene as one she finds especially memorable, and having rewatched this, I have to agree, pacifist: it is mesmerising). A Dramatic Disappearance, I suppose one would call this.
Or the ultimate in Dramatic Appearances: Anand’s sketchpad in one frame, as he draws the dead Madhu from memory:
And then – as he lowers it:
That is what makes Madhumati what it is: visually memorable.
What I didn’t like:
With a film that has great acting, great music, an engaging story and excellent direction, not very much remains that could possibly be faulted. And yes, I agree that Madhumati is a fine film, entertaining and total paisa vasool, in the fullest sense of the word. The only reason I don’t bill this as Bimal Roy’s best is that I always feel a sense of disappointment when I watch Madhumati. It’s possibly because the ‘lovers in all incarnations’ theme has always struck me as silly and farfetched – certainly not the sort of thing I’d have expected of Bimal Roy (or Ritwik Ghatak) both of whom I associate with more depth and realism.
I’d read somewhere that Roy made Madhumati largely as a commercial venture, to be able to bring in funds to finance projects close to his heart, such as Sujata and Bandini. If that was the case, then Roy definitely succeeded: the film was, commercially, a hit. On its own, it’s worth a watch. Compared to a number of Bimal Roy’s other works, however, it comes off as less intense, less something Roy really wanted to make. Well-made, cinematically superb, but still basically just a formula film.