Since my last post was about my uncle, the guitarist David Vernon Kumar, it seemed appropriate to devote this post to one of the films for which he played. Mahal, made when my uncle was about 20 years old, featured the hauntingly melodious Aayega aanewaala, the song that shot Lata Mangeshkar into the limelight – also a song, which, if you listen carefully, has some beautiful guitar notes. Played by my Vernie tau.
Mahal is an odd film. I first watched it when I was a child, and didn’t quite understand all of it. This time, when I rewatched it, I found myself wondering what possible genre it could be classified under (not that too many old Hindi films can be grouped under any one genre; nearly all are musical and romance, plus something else – suspense? Social issues? Fantasy? All of the above?) Mahal is a bit of everything, too. And yet, strangely mesmerising.
It begins on (what else?) a dark and stormy night. Shankar (Ashok Kumar) is the son of a judge who lives in Kanpur and has recently bought a large mansion, called Sangam Bhavan, near Allahabad. Shankar has come to see Sangam Bhavan for himself, and is surprised to discover that the only servant around in this vast echoing house is a gardener, Krishna (?).
Krishna leads Shankar into the house, and tells him a little bit about Sangam Bhavan’s history. The house stands on the bank of the Yamuna, and had been built about 40 years earlier by an unknown man who would come every night in a boat to supervise the construction. When Sangam Bhavan was ready, the man brought his beloved here – a very beautiful woman named Kamini – and she began living in Sangam Bhavan. Every night her lover would come, rowing across the Yamuna, to her.
One night, though, during a terrible storm (such as this, says Krishna, indicating the storm raging outside), the boat capsized in the Yamuna and the man drowned. Kamini, grief-stricken, did not last long; soon she too threw herself into the river and drowned.
Since then, says Krishna, Sangam Bhavan has been haunted by the memories of those two lovers who were separated by the elements.
This sad romance intrigues Shankar, but not much. He requests a favour from Krishna; will Krishna please go – now, in this thunderstorm – to Allahabad? Shankar gives the gardener the name and address of a friend named Srinath, who is a lawyer. Krishna is to tell Srinath that his old friend Shankar has arrived at Sangam Bhavan.
Krishna goes off, and Shankar, wandering through the house, has a narrow escape when an old portrait falls off a wall, nearly hitting him in the process.
If that wasn’t eerie enough in itself, this is what Shankar sees when he has a closer look at the man painted on the canvas:
Somewhere in the vicinity, a clock strikes two… and, as if on cue, somewhere nearby, a woman begins to sing.
Shankar follows the voice, trying to find the singer, but she’s elusive beyond belief. One moment, he glimpses her – her face too far away to be seen – as she sits on a swing and goes to and fro, to and fro… but when Shankar hurries forward, it’s to find an empty swing.
A black cat runs past, crossing Shankar’s path, and he continues to hear that mysterious woman singing, now as she rows a boat on the river. Who is she? He does finally manage to see her face – as he glances in through the carved panel of a door – but the woman (Madhubala) quickly veils herself. By the time Shankar rushes into the room, it’s empty. She’s vanished again.
Just then, Shankar’s friend Srinath (Kanu Roy) arrives. Shankar repeats the old story that Krishna had told him, shows Srinath the portrait, and tells him about the elusive singer. Srinath is inclined to put it down to Shankar’s imagination, but Shankar is by now pretty convinced that he is the reincarnation of the man who had built Sangam Bhavan. Surely he has been reborn so that he might be reunited in this life with his age-old beloved, Kamini.
And so we go on: Shankar keeps seeing ‘Kamini’ – she even has a brief, rather vague conversation with him in which she alludes to how long she’s been waiting for him. Shankar’s belief that this is a spirit, not a flesh-and-blood woman, is strengthened by the fact that her favourite spot seems to be an old riverside gazebo, from which she always vanishes – either by jumping off into the river below, or by stepping off – but where?
Shankar’s swiftly becoming obsessed with ‘Kamini’. Two o’clock every night finds him beginning to hear her song, echoing in his head.
Srinath, good friend that he is, cannot see his pal going to pieces in this ridiculous fashion. He therefore tries to distract Shankar by sending him off (on a wild goose chase) to two dancing girls. (One of whom is played by Sheela Naik, who acted the part of Nadira’s maid in Aan).
It doesn’t work, though – Shankar leaves the two dancing girls to their own devices at 2 AM, and goes off again to Sangam Bhavan, pulled by that invisible string that is Kamini…
This time, as she leads him through a hidden passage linking the mansion to the river, she tells him all. He is the reincarnation of the man who had built Sangam Bhavan. And she, Kamini, is the spirit of his poor lost love. Kamini explains that they can never be united in this life, because he, having died a violent death by drowning, has been reincarnated, while she – because she committed suicide – is doomed to remain a spirit, and not be reincarnated.
Shankar is terribly distressed at this revelation. But Kamini holds out one hope: she can occupy the body of another woman, drive out the other woman’s spirit – kill her, in other words – and then they will be united. Because the other woman’s spirit will be Kamini’s.
But will Shankar approve of the other woman’s face and body? Perhaps he should say yes only after he’s seen a woman whose face he likes – after all, they will have to spend the rest of eternity together.
Shankar, thoroughly taken in by now, agrees to whatever Kamini has to suggest.
She has an odd suggestion to make. The gardener Krishna has a daughter named Asha – Shankar has noticed her before, going about her chores, her face hidden in a heavy opaque ghoonghat. Well, the next morning, when Asha brings him his tea-tray, Shankar should lift her ghoonghat and have a look at Asha. If he likes what he sees, Kamini will kill Asha and occupy her body.
They will then live happily ever after.
That does not happen, though.
The next morning, just as Shankar is moving forward to unveil the gardener’s daughter, Srinath – who’s been worrying himself sick over his friend’s lunacy – comes rushing in, bringing with him Shankar’s enraged father (M Kumar). Shankar, adamant on not leaving Sangam Bhavan, runs, falls down a flight of stairs, and is taken, alive but injured, back to Kanpur.
This is all sheer madness, says Shankar’s father; if Shankar has any sense whatsoever, or any idea of honour and family duty, he’ll forget this silly notion of reincarnation and eternal love.
What’s more, as Shankar himself is well aware, he is already engaged – engaged to a well-brought up girl from a ‘good family’ (even though Shankar has never seen the girl). Shankar cannot jilt her; he must marry his fiancée as soon as possible.
Much emotional blackmail ensues, and Shankar gives in. (His way of giving in is dramatic: his father hands him a loaded pistol, telling Shankar that if Shankar will not agree to get married, he may as well shoot his father right now. Shankar shoots – sending four bullets, one after the other – but not at his father. Instead, he shoots at one of his own portraits, which hangs on the wall behind. The bullets rip through the chest of the painted Shankar. A symbolic suicide).
Shankar, therefore, marries his fiancée, Ranjana (Vijaylaxmi). He marries her, sight unseen, but tries to come to terms with his new life that night. When he enters the bridal chamber, he tells the still-veiled Ranjana that he has great hopes of their future together. He seems shy, happy – when she reaches across and removes a rose from his buttonhole, he even holds her hand, admiring its beauty and delicateness.
It seems Ranjana – even a veiled Ranjana whose face her husband has not yet seen – has already been able to banish the mysterious Kamini from Shankar’s thoughts. But just as Shankar reaches forward to lift Kamini’s ghoonghat, the clock strikes 2, and Shankar hears that lovely voice calling…
… and he rushes off, hurrying through the house in confusion, trying to get back to Sangam Bhavan and Kamini. He is jerked out of his stupor when he bangs into a hanging birdcage and ends up coming to his senses.
But Shankar, even a Shankar who realises deep down that he is now married and must be faithful to Ranjana, cannot forget Kamini.
So Shankar does the only thing he can think of: he runs away. He takes Ranjana – still veiled, still unseen by her own husband, still with her marriage unconsummated – with him. He takes her deep into the mountains and far away from civilisation, to a place where he hopes he will be untroubled by the spirit of Kamini. This is an awful place, wild and inhospitable, and Ranjana is miserable. Not just because she is far away from her family and friends, but more because her husband has still not bothered to even see her face. “And I will not lift my ghoonghat on my own”, she writes in a letter to her bhabhi.
On the one hand, Ranjana vows to herself that she will find out what terrible secret Shankar is hiding from her – why is he so agitated? What comes between the two of them? On the other hand, Shankar, though far away (geographically) from Sangam Bhavan and Kamini, is unable to shake off his memories of her.
Where will this all lead to? Will Ranjana realise what is happening? Will she find happiness with Shankar? Or will Shankar return to Kamini – his ‘eternal love’? And what, anyway, is happening?
As I said, I found this a somewhat odd film. On the surface, the story appears to be what became in the 60s a popular theme for suspense films: a man falls in love with a woman who appears to be a spirit (I’m thinking Woh Kaun Thi?, Anita, and Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi – the last-named, by the way, actually contains words from the lyrics of a Mahal song). But is this really a case of the supernatural?
What I liked about this film:
The music, of course. Aayega aanewaala, besides the fact that my uncle had a hand in the playing of it, is one of my favourite Lata Mangeshkar songs – it’s beautifully sung, the music (by Khemchand Prakash) is wonderful, and the overall effect always gives me gooseflesh. Mahal also has some other great songs: Mushkil hai bahut mushkil chaahat ka bhula dena, Yeh raat phir na aayegi and Main woh dulhan raas jise na aaya singaar are some other favourites of mine.
The cinematography, the frames, the angles, the lovely play of light and dark and all the shades between. Kamal Amrohi, the director, uses the camera in amazingly effective ways. Look at this, for instance: Madhubala’s face, just after she sees Shankar for the first time and rushes from him – but turns back, unknown to him, and watches him from behind the lattice screen of the window:
Or this scene where Krishna tells Shankar the story of Sangam Bhavan as he goes about lighting a chandelier, the light from the candles slowly increasing as his tale reaches its climax.
What I especially loved were the extreme close-ups that allowed one to really feel the emotion of a character without the actor having to resort to high histrionics. Somehow, I think the sheer despair of Ranjana, who cannot fathom why her husband rejects her so, is more obvious in this frame than if she’d been weeping her eyes out:
And Madhubala, here, looking exquisite – but with that somewhat blank look which prompts one to think: has the news she’s just heard sunk in? Is she so befuddled by the trick fate has played on her that she is incapable even of reaction? Or does she not even care anymore? Is she too numbed by all that’s happened?
What eventually did work for me was the power that Mahal manages to project. As an experience – sheer visual effect – it’s a memorable film. It may not be a great story (I thought it a little too tedious, even downright ludicrous, at times), but there are moments where it excels. In the portrayal of despair (Ranjana’s increasingly despondent letters to her bhabhi); or Shankar’s helpless frustration in realising he’s caught between filial plus marital loyalty on the one hand, and Kamini on the other; or the touching scene where Shankar, despite loving Kamini to distraction, is able to summon up the humaneness to comfort a weeping Ranjana.
Mahal was, for me, an interesting study in characters. There are very few main characters here – ultimately, it’s just a play between the emotions of Shankar, Ranjana, and Kamini. Who will win? Who will lose? But whom do we want to win, and whom to lose? Eventually, everybody is shades of grey. There are reasons for what Kamini does; there are reasons – dire, but to some extent understandable, given Ranjana’s state of mind – for what she does.
What I didn’t like:
The occasional holes in the plot. While the pieces do more or less fall into place, there are some questions left unanswered, some things skimmed over conveniently.
Minor spoilers ahead:
For example: while the mystery behind ‘Kamini’ is explained, no logical explanation is given for the fact that the original owner of Sangam Bhavan – the man who had it built – had a face that was identical to Shankar’s. And Ranjana’s fateful letter ends up in the right hands too much by coincidence, at too coincidental a time.
Plus, I’m not much of a fan of the love-endures-through-many-lives trope. I find it tedious, and can’t quite reconcile with it. So, obviously, that concept didn’t sit well with me. And I couldn’t abide with the high-handed, utterly selfish way in which a lot of the characters treated one another – and, what was even more surprising, the way in which the character at the receiving end allowed such treatment. I suppose by now I should be immune to seeing filmi parents run their offspring’s lives, or husbands do just about whatever they wish without taking their wives into consideration… but the demand Shankar finally makes of Srinath? And Srinath’s response? Ugh.
Perhaps that was, after all, a reflection of what ramifications of loyalty Mahal was trying to project: that there are loyalties – to one’s family, the family’s honour, to one’s spouse, one’s friends, whatever – but it just didn’t work for me.
Still, this is a landmark film, and not to be missed. See it, if only for the stunning visuals, Madhubala’s beauty, Aayega aanewaala – and the rivetingly grim sense of fatalism that grips much of the film.