I feel that, no matter how high an opinion one may have of oneself, it is risky business to attempt to remake a classic. If (for example) Alfred Hitchcock made a film, don’t attempt to remake it—especially if you plan on tinkering with the way the story plays out. Biren Nag (who had already made the pretty good suspense thriller Bees Saal Baad) tried his hand at remaking Hitchcock’s atmospheric Rebecca here, and while he got some things right, the end result is not quite as memorable as Rebecca was.
The story begins in the very white, luxurious rooms of a woman—whose face we never get to see. The camera follows her about, showing her legs and her arms as she has a shower, then gets into a bathtub [both? Why? Isn’t a shower enough?]. Her bath finally over, she reaches for a towel—monogrammed with a huge and ornate P—and after drying off and returning to the bedroom, slides her feet into a pair of fluffy bedroom slippers and starts dressing up.
She is lounging around in bed when a maid (again, someone whose face we don’t see) brings in a tray crowded with visiting cards. The wealthy woman, a heavy bracelet on her wrist, languorously picks up a card and tells the maid to instruct Dai Maa to seat whoever’s arrived.
After some time, she goes downstairs, and her waiting guests rise to their feet, all eager to meet her. There’s a brief, inconsequential conversation with a representative of a local youth association, of which this woman is apparently a patroness.
Later still, when she’s on her own, the woman receives a letter from a certain Kamal (Madan Puri), in which he entreats her to meet him at a riverside bungalow that night. The woman is obviously very amenable to the idea. That evening, she sits at her dressing table, wearing, besides a white sari, an odd piece of headgear that looks like a tiara and a very heavy veil [all supposedly to add to her mysteriousness, but only succeeding in making her look like an over-the-top Hindi film Christian bride].
In the midst of this, the Dai Maa (Lalita Pawar) enters the room. Dai Maa pleads with the woman to not go to the bungalow. She also admonishes the woman, saying that in the absence of her (the woman’s, not Dai Maa’s) husband, it isn’t seemly to be so decked up [and pray why not?] or to go out every night to the bungalow.
Dai Maa’s words fall on deaf ears. The woman gets up, wanders off in a drunken (yet—as is inevitable in Hindi cinema—tuneful) daze, singing about all the pain in her heart, which no amount of drink is ever going to be able to dull. She ends up at a large but empty bungalow, where we next see her cosying up to Kamal, drinking all the while.
There is one witness to this tryst between P and Kamal: Ramesh (Tarun Bose), a drunk who is loitering about outside the house and peers in, wild-eyed and desperate for a glimpse of the woman he too loves.
Within the next couple of minutes, a lot happens, and all of it rather confused. The camera shows a man’s legs as he walks slowly down a wooden staircase. Shots are fired. P is shown lying still on the bed where she had been romancing Kamal just a short while back. A man, whose face we cannot see, enters and lifts P—obviously dead as the dodo now—and takes her away.
The last we see is the surf beating on the seashore, while Ramesh cackles madly about Amit Singh’s wife Poonam, now dead—and now also Ramesh’s.
All very puzzling.
The credits roll at this point, and when we return to the film, it’s to the sound of the voice of Rajeshwari ‘Raj’ (Waheeda Rehman) as she talks of her life. Raj’s father had been the loyal diwan of a wealthy zamindar, so when Raj’s parents died, the zamindar took her to his home and gave her shelter. After his death, his wife however has begun to regard Raj in an unsettling light: as a potential bride for her insane son, who she believes will be cured of his insanity by getting married. [Ah, the many ills marriage can cure in Hindi cinema].
Raj, at her wits’ end and with nowhere to go, is on the verge of committing suicide by flinging herself off a cliff when she happens to see Amit Singh (Biswajeet, in too-dark lipstick and an icky moustache). There is instant chemistry between the two strangers, each of them standing atop two separate but nearby cliffs.
Within a matter of a few days, they have come to know each other, and Amit proposes to Raj. She is overjoyed, and agrees.
So they get married, and Amit drives her to his grand haveli, Mayfair. This, of course, is the same cardboard-looking haveli in which the initial scenes of the film had been set. Raj has no idea what she’s coming up against, which is just as well.
When they arrive at Mayfair, Amit acts very oddly: he gets out of the car and enters the house without bothering to wait for his bride.
Instead, to welcome Raj [and a cold welcome it is, too], there is Dai Maa. Raj, who thinks this elderly lady is a relative of Amit’s, bends to touch her feet, and Dai Maa recoils, admonishing Raj while the servants standing around giggle.
Raj is most embarrassed, and goes rushing off to find Amit, who—instead of being comforting and telling her it doesn’t matter—is cold and indifferent, and doesn’t see why Raj is getting all upset.
Gradually, as the days go by, Raj begins to realise that things in Mayfair aren’t quite as wonderful as she’d dreamed they would be. Amit and his estate manager-cum-childhood friend Ranjan (Sujit Kumar) spend most of their time on the estate, going about their work. Even when Amit comes home, he’s often distracted, talking shop with Ranjan, and leaving Raj to her own devices.
…which, unfortunately, means that Raj has to turn to the iron fist in the mail glove, Dai Maa. Dai Maa goes around saying “Narayan, Narayan,” in a self-righteous way while she’s telling her beads, but alternates this with passing snide remarks that are aimed at showing Raj just how poor a substitute Raj is for Amit’s first wife, Poonam.
Poonam, says Dai Maa, was a paragon. Beautiful, charming, popular, sophisticated—everything, in fact, that the lady of Mayfair should be. [Implying, naturally, that Raj falls far short]. From the others around—a maid named Jhumki (Chand Usmani), for example—too, Raj hears the same thing: how perfect Poonam was.
The members of the local youth association come to call, too, and a shy and diffident Raj reluctantly accepts their invitation to a party—only to find that she’s a total misfit there. Everybody around keeps telling her how Poonam used to be the life of every party, which Raj, sitting all by herself in a corner next to a lamp [which goes on and off, depending upon whether Waheeda Rehman’s face is the focus, or someone is saying, “Why are you sitting in the dark?”] is not.
There are reminders of Poonam all about. The dead woman’s dog, Cherry, thankfully, soon makes friends with Raj. One day while Raj is out painting by the river, Cherry runs off to the bungalow, and Raj, following Cherry, finds this odd, now-dilapidated house, all cobwebby and dusty. Here, she runs into the tipsy Ramesh, who gathers Cherry up into his arms, and babbles on, about how faithless she was, and how Cherry is like her.
Raj is initially mystified, then gets anxious when Ramesh starts yelling that the dog didn’t belong to the haveli’s owner, just as this bungalow didn’t belong to him, and just as she didn’t belong to him. Ramesh eventually seems to realise that Raj is not to blame for all his angst, so he hands Cherry over, and Raj is able to get out of the bungalow—only to find that Amit, when she meets him, is very annoyed at her for having visited the bungalow.
What on earth is going on? [We have some idea, of course, thanks to those pre-credits scenes]. Dai Maa has had the east wing of the haveli cleaned and decorated for Raj; she doesn’t even allow Raj to visit the west wing (which was where Poonam had lived), and Raj—on a surreptitious tour of the west wing, with a servant who is sympathetic—realises that the west wing is kept exactly as it was when Poonam was alive.
In between Amit’s now-affectionate/passionate, now-cold and distant demeanour, Dai Maa’s thinly veiled animosity, and the spookiness of odd characters like Ramesh, it’s hardly a surprise that Raj soon finds herself having nightmares about Poonam’s room. How long before those nightmares come true?
What I liked about this film:
The music, by Hemant. My favourite—in fact, one of my favourite Hemant songs, from all his filmography—is Yeh nayan dare-dare. A close second is the hauntingly beautiful Jhoom-jhoom dhalti raat, of which the slow, slurring version is more stirring than the slightly faster version. The other two songs, O beqaraar dil ho chuka hai and Raah bani khud manzil, are good as well.
Waheeda Rehman. Such a fine actress and so lovely, as always.
The cinematography and the art direction. The stark greys, whites and black; the shadows and light, the frames and angles: many are memorable.
What I didn’t like:
(Some spoilers here, and some comparisons)
The mangling of the story. I didn’t expect something that remained true to either Hitchcock’s interpretation or even Daphne du Maurier’s original novel. What I did expect was something that was coherent and logical. Kohraa, like Bees Saal Baad or Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi, isn’t actually a supernatural or horror film; it’s about death, life, crime and innocence, and love (of different, sometimes even destructive, types).
When a film isn’t a ghost film, I don’t see any logical reason for a door shutting on its own, a shower starting up all by itself, lights going on and off as they please, or someone dreaming—down to the exact detail—a room she has never visited. What’s more, unlike Woh Kaun Thi? or Bees Saal Baad, no attempt is even made to explain these seemingly supernatural occurrences.
Secondly, the characterisations don’t work too well. In Rebecca, for example, the unnamed protagonist is extremely shy and naïve, which makes her not even exactly comfortable with her husband, Max de Winter. And Max himself is mostly just equable, neither too cold towards her, nor brimming over with love.
In Kohraa, Raj is shy, but not painfully so—for instance, in her interactions with Amit or the servants of Mayfair, she is shown as being fairly self-assured (even assertive at times). Amit’s behaviour towards her veers oddly from the very romantic to the indifferent.
Which basically translates into a somewhat unconvincing relationship. Why, if Amit and Raj are so close, so comfortable, does she not question him earlier? Why does she not ask what’s bothering him, why he snaps at her if Poonam is mentioned, or why he stops her from going to the bungalow? Actually, why even does Amit not tell Raj how he felt about Poonam?
And, really, such a waste of talent. Asit Sen I can accept in a bit role as a buffoonish villager who makes a startling discovery…
Even Manmohan Krishna is acceptable as a lawyer. But Abhi Bhattacharya—who appears as a lawyer, too—ends up with about 50% of his dialogues consisting of “Us raat aap bangle mein kyon gayeen theen?” (“Why did you go to the bungalow that night?”—he goes on repeating this question, every time a couple of decibels louder, until the poor witness, who’s not being able to get a word in edgeways, is almost on the brink of collapse).
And the courtroom scenes (rarely a strong point in Hindi cinema, anyway) are exceptionally terrible here. Even I know that a lawyer can’t just get up and shout “Objection, milord!” and not provide any reason for the objection, yet have the judge uphold the objection. Not once, but thrice in quick succession.
No, this isn’t one of Biren Nag’s best efforts. But it sounds and looks beautiful, and it’s entertaining enough. You could do far worse.