Madhumati (1958)

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.

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38 thoughts on “Madhumati (1958)

  1. Oh, thank you for reviewing this film, (and mentioning one of my memorable scenes :-)

    Everything about Madhumati is perfect, every character, every song, the camera angles…just great.

    And of course The man of the week, Johny Walker, fit in the whole narration, like a glove.
    Loved his introduction scene too.

    • When I began watching that part of the film when Anand first comes to the hills, I suddenly remembered that scene you’d described – so I paused the film, and went and checked your comment! It made my appreciation of that particular scene much greater than it would have been otherwise – and actually sensitized me to this technique that Bimal Roy used so well in Madhumati. Thank you!

      And yes, Johnny Walker’s introductory scene is so brilliant. I love the way most of the scene is acted out with him hanging upside down from the tree and carrying on a conversation with Dilip Kumar, who’s on his feet! Delightful. :-)

    • I remember rewatching Madhumati a few years back, when Doordarshan was doing a ‘Sunday morning special’ on Bimal Roy: they showed his films every Sunday for I think a couple of months. When Madhumati was shown, they did a brief interview with Salil Choudhary’s widow, who said that the score for Madhumati set a record on Radio Ceylon’s Hit Parade – nearly all the songs of the film featured on the programme. She also said that Salil Choudhary’s favourite song from the film was Aaja re pardesi, though Bimal Roy wanted him to change it. Lata, however, loved the song and insisted that she’d only sing an unchanged version.

      • It seems Bimal Roy and I have the same taste. I never really understood the fascination of the song. I like the background music, but otherwise leaves me very much untouched. i would have liked it to have a bit more haunting tone.
        Thanks for the anecdote.

        • Frankly, more than Aaja re pardesi, I like Ghadi-ghadi mora dil dhadke better. If it’s a question of haunting songs, then I think the best are Aayega aanewaala from Mahal and Koi door se aawaaz de chale aao from Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam: just thinking of those two songs gives me gooseflesh!

  2. The performances in this film are good, but it isn’t one of my favorites. I agree that this is a formula film. And while it’s obvious that Om Shanti Om ripped it off absurdly (though I don’t think that film had any pretensions toward originality – it was all parody and “homage,” wasn’t it?), I could also name a few films that Madhumati reminded me of – in fact, I have before (http://roughinhere.wordpress.com/2009/10/16/oh-that-terrible-sense-of-deja-vu-reflections-on-madhumati-1958/)…

    But anyway, I guess I also always expect something a little different from Bimal Roy. (And for the brilliant gothic film that ponders reincarnation, I think I’ll stick with Kamal Amrohi. ;) )

    The music is certainly nice and, of course, I really liked some of the dances here.

    • Yes, Om Shanti Om was pretty much all parody and ‘homage’. So convenient! But then, have you noticed how a lot of Hindi films these days have at least one song that’s homage to old Hindi films?

      I’m so glad to have someone who, like me, doesn’t think Madhumati is all it’s made out be. For me, what really worked was the music and the cinematography – otherwise, it was really nothing extraordinary. I had that sense of deja vu too, but put it down to the fact that there have been several (dozens?) films that had similar scenes/themes/dialogues/whatever. Many of those were of more recent vintage than Madhumati, so I guess I can’t blame Bimal Roy – on the contrary; it appears other filmmakers find Madhumati inspirational. I must admit to having missed the similarities with Mahal, but then I haven’t seen Mahal in about 20 years or so. Needs a rewatch!

  3. Here is a bit of trivia about Madhumati. The film was in the making for 6 years. Dad was nowhere in the picture when the film was launched sometime around 1951 or so. Forget Bimal Roy Productions even the thought of being a part of the film world was something he could only dream about. But as they say destiny willed otherwise and he joined Bimal Roy Productions in 1957 when Madhumati was still under production and he was asked to join the cast.
    Since this is Johny Walker week, as I have already mentioned there is one scene which is my favourite. It is between Walker and Dilip Kumar. The former is showing off to the village folk that his master Dilip Kumar is totally dependent on him; he spins yarns in a cheekily smug manner but as Dilip Kumar joins the group and gradually begins asking him questions from behind, he realizes that he is now in trouble his smugness changes to a sheepish acceptance of his foolishness. This was as an excellent performance. In fact in a TV program Johny Walker had himself pointed out that this was a well conceived scene which provided him with the opportunity to perform so well.

    • Shilpi, thanks so much for that bit of trivia! So this was one of your father’s earliest roles, was it? He did feature in some of Bimal Roy’s best films, though, didn’t he – Sujata and Bandini among them. Both superb films, and with good roles for your Dad, especially in Sujata.

      You know, the copy of Madhumati that I rented this time (a Shemaroo video) didn’t have the scene you’ve mentioned. Now that you describe it, I recall having seen it long ago when I watched the film on TV, but it wasn’t there in this VCD. :-(

  4. Rewatched Madhumati last night. Laughed out loud at the scene where Dilip Kumar is in his cottage and is enjoying a cup of tea standing near the window. He sees a crowd of girls singing and going somewhere.

    Dilip Kumar to Charandas (Johny Walker): yeh ladkiyan kahan ja rahi hain (Where are these girls going)?

    Charandas: uf o! Jab yahan nahin aa rahin to kahin bhi jaaen. Hamen kya lena. (Since they aren’t coming here what do we care where they go).

    LOL!

    I really love this film. :)

  5. This is yet another classic i haven’t seen though i’m familiar with some of the songs, i especially love Suhana Safar the most. Madhumati has quite a huge cult following, it’s one of the most repeated flicks as far as bollywood is on mainstream British Tv during their very short yearly bollywood season and yet i seem to miss it on almost every occasion

    • Yes, it is quite a cult classic even in India. Though, as Richard points out (and as even I agree, to some extent) I don’t think it really merits all the hype. Yes, the acting, the cinematography and the music are good and the story is cohesive enough, but it isn’t knock-your-eyes-out fabulous, the way some people seem to regard it. Paisa vasool all right, but not I think as great a film as a lot of Bimal Roy’s other works.

      • I think this film was equally well made, but lacked the social/moral message which perhaps make it less worthy of him. The latter genre tends to get billed higher.
        So IMO it is the genre that disappoints some.

        Once in a while serious film makers do like to try something else, I guess, and this wasn’t a bad subject considering it dealt with the spiritual religious beliefs of the majority.

        Wasn’t Mahal different?
        *spoilers*

        There was definitely this tale going around about the lost spirit of the dead girl, but it was after all only Madhubala who liked to pretend and sang. Ashok Kumar didn’t recall his previous birth, and they didn’t get united.

        end *spoilers*

        • More Mahal “spoilers* :)

          The question about reincarnation in Mahal is still left open at the end. There is a lot of implication that it is a possibility, and there is no natural explanation for the fact that Ashok Kumar’s character looks identical to the character in the painting, etc.

          The ghost turns out not to be real, but the way this plot develops toward this more realistic conclusion is part of the reason that Mahal is a much more brilliant film.

          Mahal also has some strong social content, which comes out in different ways, especially during the testimony of Madhubala’s character on the witness stand. Class-based prejudices and class-based deprivation become major topics in Mahal. (Maybe they’re somewhat present in Madhumati, but the social message is less direct – ironic, considering Bimal Roy… )

          For me, the real similarities, aside from discussing the same supernatural topic (reincarnation) are in the mood/atmosphere, especially near the beginning of both films. And the ghost -whether real or not – is very similar at first; she even sings in the same voice. :)

          • “And the ghost -whether real or not – is very similar at first; she even sings in the same voice. :)”

            Heh! I love that. :-)

            I can’t comment on Mahal right now, since it’s been so long since I watched it, I’ve forgotten nearly all of the film. Will rewatch it and then post a review, so we can do a comparison with Madhumati!

  6. I haven’t seen this film since I was 6-7 and all I remember now is that for years after watching it, I was terrified of Pran – I was convinced that his appearance onscreen meant that the heroine would die and hero would cry (and my father would tease me unmercifully for crying in a film)! :D I do know the story of Madhumati, of course, but never tried to watch it again since I am not particularly keen on re-incarnation stories.

    From what I know of their respective plots, Mahal is definitely a much better film. It uses the conventions of re-incarnation love-stories very cleverly to build up a Gothic mystery, long before the re-incarnation conventions were even set up by Bollywood.

    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.” That’s interesting. I’ve always associated him with artistically made commercial films – this, Yahudi, Benazir, Prem Patra, etc. But then until recently I’d only ever seen this film and Bandini, and naturally my viewing started at the masala end of the Roy spectrum!

    • Which just shows what widely varying films Roy was capable of making! Somehow I never think of him as the director of films like Prem Patra or Yahudi – the former one of my favourite films, even though it is (to my mind) very un-Bimal Roy! To me, he’s always Sujata, Parakh or Bandini. I remember being very surprised to find that he made Madhumati too.

  7. Pingback: Suhana safar aur yeh mausam haseen… « In Black & White

    • Frankly, this is the only reincarnation movie I like. All of the others I’ve seen have been rather cheesy and silly; this one combined the reincarnation story with an interesting suspense twist and made it a good entertainer. And the music was fantastic.

  8. Read your reviews of both ‘Madhumati’ and ‘Mahal’. They’re both excellent reviews, with several interesting comments. You’re quite right about about ‘Madhumati’ being largely an entertainer, but it’s a lovely film, too well crafted and too well developed a story to be easily categorised as masala fare, though it certainly has numerous masala elements. I also thought that Johny Walker was very funny in it.

    You say that you aren’t terribly fond of the whole love transcending lives, reincarnation premise to movies like these. But just taking it at a purely conceptual level, this is such an interesting area, and presents a fascinating realm of possibilities for film-makers. Perhaps I haven’t seen enough Hindi movies on this theme (apart from ‘Mahal’ and ‘Madhumati’ I have just seen ‘Lekin’ which was Ok, ‘Neel Kamal’ which was Ok-ish, and ‘Kudrat’ which was kind of bad) but it seems that the potential the concept presents hasn’t been cinematically exploited to even a fraction of what it can be. ‘Mahal’ was a solid effort given that it was released in 1949 and the first film to deal with the concept at all, and ‘Madhumati’ is lovely but it’s not really the kind of film that gets you thinking and hypothesising. Take, for example, a film like ‘Inception’ which uses the medium of dream-stealing to throw up interesting questions about the impact of our subconscious and how it functions, similarly, the notion of past lives and past associations (romantic or otherwise) powerfully impacting upon our present in profound yet barely perciptible ways is ripe for cinematic utilisation. One doesn’t have to believe in reincarnation at spiritual level to acknowledge that it can make for an ingenious psychological study.

    • Ah, I can see similarities between this comment and the ones you left on Carla’s Madhumati post. :-) Naturally. And thank you for appreciating my posts!

      Your comment about my not liking the love-transcending-lives trope is valid, though I think there’s a slight disconnect here. It’s not that I don’t find the concept of reincarnation intriguing (I do, and I’d love to see a well-made film that does use it. One film which used the reincarnation theme differently, without making it a love-through-all-the-ages one was Karz). What I find cheesy is the idea of two people being so much in love that they will always be in love, and will always remember that this is the one. (Another film I am reminded of is Hamesha).

      All right, perhaps I have watched far too many Hindi films which centre round this trope, which is why I’m sick of it by now. I love sci-fi and fantasy in all its forms, but this particular aspect of reincarnation just gets my goat. Sorry.

      • I was primarily talking about the reincarnation concept, and how it yields so many interesting cinematic possibilities. It doesn’t have to center on a love through the ages trope. That’s a romantic idea, but there’s so much that can be done apart from that. Several of the Hindi films I’ve seen on this reincarnation theme are just kind of lame. I was just thinking that if directors move a little beyond the obvious on this theme and exercise some ingenuity, it provides opportunities to enter pretty fascinating terrain.

        • I think we’re both saying basically the same thing. It’s an interesting trope, if someone would use it in a different way, not that same tired old love angle.

  9. madumati is the only film of bimal da that i don’t like . i listened this story in childhood on vividh bharti, second watched this movie. but the effect which i had of his other films. madhumati didn’t had at all on me.

    • It is very different from his other films. If you start watching it with the expectation of watching something like Sujata or Parakh, it can be very disappointing. I don’t mind the film – in fact, there’s plenty about it that I like – but yes, given a choice between this and most of his other films, this would probably be pretty low down in the list for me.

  10. sharing about madhumati. distributors wanted naushad saheb as music director . there was extreme pressure on salil da and shailender to do well. when music was completed salil da went to s.d.burman . after listening to the track of madhumati. burman dada said this industry does not deserve you.

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