Mahal (1969)

I had no particular film review or song list in mind for this week, but when Anu declared August Dev Anand month over at her blog, and Harini reviewed Duniya, I saw a bandwagon that I liked—and decided to jump on to it. With a film that reminds me of Duniya in some ways: Dev Anand, late 60s, suspense.

Asha Parekh and Dev Anand in Mahal

Mahal begins with a short scene featuring a bad photo of a tacky-looking palace [it looks like a terribly amateurish model, probably made by a clumsy apprentice, out of cardboard and poster colours]. Three men, of whom we never see faces or even profiles, sit around the table on which the photo is propped, and one of them says, in a flat and toneless voice, that this palace is the stake in some big game. And that they must plan well in order to win that game, blah blah.

A mahal is at stake

Cut to some less befuddling stuff. We are introduced to Rajesh (Dev Anand), who is very lucky when it comes to gambling of any sort. Rajesh’s tips help his boss—he is secretary to the wealthy aristocrat Shyam (Abhi Bhattacharya)—make a killing at the races, and whenever Rajesh’s pal Pyare (Sundar) is in dire straits and in need of money (always for noble reasons, such as medical treatment for ailing relatives, or education for children), Rajesh comes to the rescue…

…by winning at gambling tables. At the gambling hall he frequents, Rajesh’s never-ending run of good luck is noticed by Moti (Rajan Haksar) who owns the place, and Moti’s henchman Jimmy (Siddhu). Moti files this bit of information away.

Rajesh goes gambling for a friend

Rajesh’s gambling—even though he asserts that he doesn’t keep a single paisa of his winnings for himself—is a sore point with Rajesh’s mum [no, not Sulochana Latkar, Achla Sachdev, Nirupa Roy or Leela Chitnis. Pratima Devi, who could rock the petulant/loving mum as well as the rest of them]. She is so upset that she refuses, this time, to eat. It is only the intervention of Rajesh’s younger sister Chanda (Azra, in a bad wig) that restores happiness and forced laughter to the dining table.

At home with Chanda and Ma

We now meet the female lead of this story: Rupa [Asha Parekh, also in bad wig, and—to top it all—inconsistent wig, which changes lengths and volume from one frame to the next]. Rupa lives with her mamaji [no, not because—as one would expect—she’s an orphan, but because her parents stay in some as yet unnamed place where there apparently aren’t any good colleges]. Rupa has just finished college—her BA results have been declared [no prizes for guessing; she’s got a ‘first class first’], so she and her friends have decided to go on a picnic to celebrate. 

Mamaji throws a spanner in the works by telling Rupa that he has to go out, but a visitor will be arriving soon: Shyam, the aristocrat whom her parents and mamaji both think would make a fine husband for Rupa. Rupa is thoroughly miffed by this—she has no wish to be paraded in front of some man for his approval—so mamaji assures her that her wishes will be of course taken into consideration. If she says no, it will be no. Rupa is too annoyed to be mollified by this, so decides to play a trick on Shyam, whom she has never seen.

Rupa is told about a prospective groom

And who should turn up but Rajesh? The Shyam in question is Rajesh’s boss, and since he was suddenly called away on some urgent business, has sent a letter to Rupa through Rajesh, begging her pardon for not keeping the appointment. Rupa—disguised [rather badly] as her own bossy grandmother—doesn’t give Rajesh a chance to speak, so doesn’t realize that this isn’t her intended. She bosses him about, but at the same time ends up being charmed by him, so much so that she when she realizes Rajesh is on to her disguise, she invites him to come along on the picnic.

Rupa pretends to be her own dadi

Which is really just a reason for a good song, after which Rajesh hands her Shyam’s letter, leaving Rupa fuming and vowing to get even with Rajesh for having pulled a fast one on her.

That romance having been set up, we get back to Rajesh’s family. Mum has accidentally got her hands on a love letter addressed to Chanda from someone called Ramesh, and is livid as well as heartbroken. What will happen of their family’s honour? Rajesh puts on the righteous brother act and promises to confront this lecherous villain who dares to make passes at Chanda…

…only to find, when he comes face to face with Ramesh, who is a cop (Sudhir) that this is none other than Rajesh’s own childhood friend Ramu. There is much hugging and back-slapping, and Rajesh is very happy that the lecher has turned out to be a bosom buddy [the hypocrisy takes my breath away]. He takes Ramesh home to be introduced to Mum and to meet Chanda [who Ramesh only now realizes is Rajesh’s sister]. And, just like that, the wedding is fixed.

Rajesh 'introduces' Ramesh to Chanda

Because they have very little money, Mum starts fretting: how will she get Chanda married on this pittance? Rajesh decides therefore to put his gambling skills to use. He ends up losing to Jimmy [who cheats], but this gives Moti the opportunity to approach Rajesh. On discovering that Rajesh needs the money for his sister’s wedding, Moti proposes a deal: he will give Rajesh the money, in return for some work Rajesh must do for him.

Moti then tells Rajesh that his (Moti’s) uncle, Raja Dinanath, lives in Darjeeling. Moti and his poor parents had been pretty much looked after by the very wealthy Dinanath when Moti was a boy, but Dinanath’s high-handedness and constant assertions of doing them all a favour finally got on Moti’s nerves.

Moti has a proposition

He ran away, and has since never met Dinanath. But now a dying Dinanath is repentant and wanting to make amends, and Moti—who used to be called Ravi when he was a child—feels obliged to go and meet the old man. But he can’t stomach the thought, really. So, will Rajesh, calling himself Ravi, do that? Go and meet Dinanath? With adequate tutoring, of course, so that Dinanath doesn’t suspect this is an impostor. Rajesh agrees.

As soon as Chanda’s married (and even before her bidaai), Rajesh takes the train to Darjeeling. He’s carrying with him a fat diary containing all the notes Moti has supplied to help prepare him to be ‘Ravi’.

En route, Rajesh meets two odd people. The first is a mysterious, pretty girl (Farida Jalal) who doesn’t say anything, but gives Rajesh some very pointed looks before—while he’s busy reading a newspaper—disappearing, leaving behind her only a diaphanous white scarf.

In the train to Darjeeling

The next is a bluff elderly man (David), who sits down next to Rajesh, takes a peek at the sketch pad Rajesh is drawing Rupa’s portrait in, and lets it be known that he is the father of Rupa. Rajesh is surprised, but Rupa’s daddy doesn’t seem to mind [yes, Hindi filmi fathers appear to be less protective about their daughters than Hindi filmi brothers about their sisters]. Before they can chat or get better acquainted, however, the train steams into the station, and they alight.

Rupa's father meets Rajesh by accident

Rajesh is met by Dinanath’s driver, who drives Rajesh to a grand [so we’re told, though it doesn’t look it] hotel, where Dinanath has reserved the most luxurious suite for Rajesh. The driver tells Rajesh that he will come the next morning exactly at 9 to pick up Rajesh and drive him to Dinanath’s palace. Dinanath will meet him, Rajesh, at 9.33 AM: he does everything important at that hour.

So the next morning, Rajesh goes off to meet Dinanath [and, God help us, but that awful cardboard model-like castle shown at the beginning of the film is Dinanath’s house. For real].

The Mahal

Rajesh meets Dinanath (DK Sapru) at 9.33, and is put through an informal, undeclared test [which Rajesh recognizes as such] to see whether he really is Ravi or an impostor. Is he still as good a shot as before? [Shooting the wicks off six candles with one bullet isn’t something I would have expected anyone—barring possibly Rajnikanth—to be able to do, let alone the 10-year old Ravi]. What was Dinanath’s pet name for Ravi? Why does Dinanath hold 9.33 AM sacrosanct?

Raja Dinanath

All tests cleared, Dinanath is convinced that this is his long-lost Ravi. There are many tears of joy, a happy reunion. All with Dinanath’s pretty young nurse—yes, that same girl Rajesh had travelled with on the train before she vanished—looking on. She gives Rajesh an odd look when she wheels Dinanath out of the room, but doesn’t say anything to him.

... and his nurse, a familiar face

Dinanath has told Rajesh that he needn’t attend to him all the while: after all, Rajesh is young and should be enjoying life. Go see the sights! So Rajesh goes off to a local ice rink—and there runs into Rupa’s father, who renews their acquaintance and invites Rajesh to Rupa’s birthday party. [All just an excuse for a party song which isn’t even very good].

Back at his hotel room after the party, Rajesh finds an unexpected visitor waiting: the nurse, all black fishnet stockings and little red dress.

Even more unexpected, she congratulates him on having pulled off the impersonation so well. And she has a proposition: they (she and Rajesh) should combine forces to bump off Dinanath. As it is, Dinanath has willed all his wealth to Ravi; once that inheritance is his, they can split it two ways. Rajesh declines. He may be low enough to impersonate Ravi, but he won’t help murder Dinanath.

Another startling proposition

So the girl, with a last farewell—in which she addresses him by name, Rajesh—goes off.

And Rajesh is so shaken by that (how does she know his name?), that he follows her back to her home, which is an opportunity for another song, after which they get down to business. No, nothing naughty; just that Rajesh agrees. Yes, he will help get rid of Dinanath.

The next day, however, when the nurse tries to kill her patient—by offering him poison in the guise of his medicine—Rajesh obstructs her, accidentally knocking the poison away. When, after Dinanath’s gone away, the nurse asks him why he did that, Rajesh fobs her off.

Rajesh fobs the nurse off

Rajesh now gets back to the business of wooing an unwilling [or at least, putting up a show of being unwilling] Rupa. She’s soon won over, and after they’re caught in a thunderstorm one night [not that they succumb to temptation…], when Rajesh escorts Rupa home, her very encouraging father comes out to say hello. And in their conversation, the reason for his unstinted approval of this match emerges: like everybody else, Rupa’s dad is under the impression that Rajesh is Ravi, the crorepati Dinanath’s nephew and heir.

Rajesh realizes that this can’t go on any longer. He doesn’t want to take people he loves for a ride. He will go back to Calcutta and tell Moti that he won’t act as him any more.

So Rajesh goes back to the hotel and into his room to pack. And who should be there but the nurse [how does this girl keep getting into Rajesh’s room? Does she pick the locks, again and again? Has she bribed a houseboy? Does she climb in through the window, sheer stockings and all?]—and she holds a newspaper with a startling headline.

Some sensational news - and puzzling

What is going on? Who killed Moti, and why? And, since this is just the first of several deaths, why this sudden spate of murders, and what is the connection between them?

Puzzles galore, many mysteries, and much action to follow. And, remember: Ramesh, Rajesh’s old friend and now brother-in-law, is also a cop. There has to be a reason for that.

What I liked about this film:

The ‘What on earth is happening?’ thing that hits fairly early on in the film. Although the first scene does try to be intriguing, it’s too brief to be impactful, but from the moment one sees the nurse—the same fashionable girl who’d shared Rajesh’s compartment on the train—there’s the definite realization that something is up. And when the pace picks up with one murder after another… there’s no looking back.

Three of the songs. While Kalyanji-Anandji are not favourites of mine (and a couple of the songs in Mahal are quite forgettable), three songs are worth a mention, and more. Yeh duniyawaale poochhenge is sweetly romantic, as is (even better) Aankhon-aankhon mein hum tum. And Aaiye aapka thha humein intezaar rates, as far as I’m concerned, as one of the most seductive come-hither songs of its time, at least when it comes to the audio.

What I didn’t like:

The last 45 minutes. Mahal suffers from a serious case of the ‘curse of the second half’—not because the revelation (when it comes) is a let-down, but just because the execution of it is so bad. The slow buildup of suspense till about ¾ of the way through the film isn’t bad, though (since it keeps getting punctuated by the Rajesh-Rupa romance and some very silly dialogues between her parents—her father goes on and on, telling his wife that he is her “most obedient, henpecked husband”)—it does get diluted a bit.

But after a big revelation at about the 40 minute mark, the scripting suddenly goes south. There’s some unnecessary melodrama, a needless disguise, another hard-to-believe disguise [and, really, how good is a bright red achkan and cap when it comes to keeping a low profile? And why on earth do people in Hindi films, when they should be lying low, burst into song in public at the slightest provocation?] There is a clumsy attempt to disguise an actor’s voice by having someone else—and a toneless, flat-voiced someone, too—dub for them. There is lots of general hamming and idiocy and mysterious motives. It’s almost as if the scriptwriter and director (KA Narayan and Shankar Mukherjee, respectively) ran out of steam.

And yes, there are plenty of plot holes [for example, who were those three men at the start of the film? I can guess, but it’s never explained. And why certain people fell in with the felon’s plan is also never quite clarified].

No, despite the songs, and despite some decent suspense elements, not one of the best.

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32 thoughts on “Mahal (1969)

      • Madhulika – I request you read up the chapter on “Zindagi ka safar” once more (50 songs book). I have mentioned how a phrase has been brilliantly used. Technical, yes, but not too techie for your understanding. In case you do not understand Sa Re Ga Ma, let me know , I’ll mail your the English notations

        Annu / Harini – you guys must read it

  1. Heh heh heh. You did my heart good. All those asides kept me laughing, I was glad I’d finished eating my lunch. For some reason, I could have sworn you had reviewed this film before. Of course, now that I read the synopsis I realise you hadn’t. (My brain is really melting away.)

    I first came across Aaiye aapka tha humein intezaar when I was doing my post on songs of seduction – honestly, it’s better heard than seen, no? Farida Jalal was no sultry temptress!

    So. The $64,000 question: do I watch or do I not? :)

    p.s. You are awake late?

      • Wow, harvey, what a good memory you have! :) Yes. He did say that watching this particular song – didn’t she look like a particularly adorable kitten. Hardly ‘seductive’, no? (The song is, though.)

        • I am impressed, too, Harvey! You’ve a fantastic memory. :-)

          Incidentally, I was just thinking: three of my favourite seductive songs are picturised on women looking not very seductive, though they try hard. This one, of course; Yeh hai reshmi zulfon ka andhera (I adore Mumtaz, but here she’s just too plump, and that absolutely foul outfit wasn’t what she should have been wearing); and Yeh samaa samaa hai yeh pyaar ka (Nanda is another one I associate with ‘one’s sister’. Or, at least, not the seductress). And yet the songs themselves are full of oomph.

            • I’d thought of adding Raat akeli hai to my comment, but then decided not to, because there’s a subtle difference – through most of the film (and that is reflected in the song’s picturisation), Tanuja isn’t serious about her affection for Dev Anand’s character. She’s playful, teasing – and that comes through, to me, as the dominant tone of the song too. She does look pretty, though – but yes, the seductiveness in the audio of the song is missing from the visual. :-)

    • In fact, it’s been such a long while since I watched Mahal, I’d even forgotten that the suspense in it ends up so badly. But by the time I finished rewatching it now, I didn’t have the luxury of more time (or the energy) to watch another film and write up a review. So I decided I may as well write this one up! And there’s one thing to be said for not-so-good films: they make for possibly amusing reviews. :-)

      Farida Jalal is cute. Plump and sweet and short. Definitely not seductress material. She fits the role in movies like Taqdeer or even Aradhana, but somehow, as the femme fatale… I kept imagining what this particular role would’ve been like with Helen in it.

      It’s not a horrible film, Anu. Watch it if you have the time (which, of course, raises that age-old question… WDYGTT?)

      No, I wasn’t up too late. In fact, didn’t access the net after 10.30.

  2. I remember watching this film on DD long time back and was very excited at that time, since it came on the heels of Jewel Thief. Afterwards was ver ydisappointed with the ending. But I think if it were not for Jewel Thief, I would have liked it at that time. I was pretty tolerant at that time.

    • The first time I watched this was on DD too, and I, too, was pretty tolerant back then! So tolerant, in fact, that I remembered having liked it. Which is why I revisited it. :-( And, yes, I kept comparing it to Jewel Thief as I watched. Such a world of difference between the two films, even though both share a similar premise of suspense: “What the hell is going on? But Jewel Thief is well-scripted and well-directed; this one isn’t, and all the silly digressions only tend to dilute the suspense.

    • Yes, Harini – even I liked it on DD all those years ago! In fact, oddly enough, when I bought the VCD a few years back and rewatched it, I didn’t even mind it back then. I guess watching too much good cinema ever since I began blogging has raised my standards and made me more intolerant. :-(

  3. Mahal has got to be one of the most underwhelming movies I’ve ever seen- a great premise and some excellent scenes, but there was simply no effort to build on the suspense. The few good scenes were interspersed with several pointless ones. Frankly, the film makers spent way too much time concentrating on the romantic track which ultimately did nothing to take the plot forward, unlike Jewel Thief, where they were very much part of the build up

    • What I find interesting here is that – unlike all the NA Ansari ‘suspense’ films (which I just can’t stomach), this one starts out pretty good, and the suspense is decent enough… and then it just goes all to bits. Even the romantic track and the forced comic elements are so badly done that they get in the way. I thought both Jewel Thief as well as Teesri Manzil (and some other films, like Woh Kaun ThI? and Mera Saaya manage to blend romance, songs, and suspense far better.

  4. I could pass some time with this one, even if it’s not the best Dev film. I love those three songs. There is a qawwali in there that I kind of like as well.

    Farida makes a most unbelievable seductress. I keep feeling Dev is going to pat her on the head, offer her a toffee and sent her packing.

    Love your asides as usual. Faltu thunderstorm it was eh? Without any action taking place. Heh heh.

    • Yes, what use is a thunderstorm and two people in love getting wet if no indiscretions come of it? ;-)

      LOL about “Dev is going to pat her on the head, offer her a toffee and sent her packing.“! You hit the nail on the head, there.

  5. “and, really, how good is a bright red achkan and cap when it comes to keeping a low profile? And why on earth do people in Hindi films, when they should be lying low, burst into song in public at the slightest provocation?”

    Ha! Still laughing at the asides.. Too funny. It almost feels like Dev is wearing a Santa suit for this Quawwali. So muh for keeping a low profile.. :)

    The disguise almost never works in Hindi films and this doesn’t seem to be an exception. You were spot on when you said about tolerance. I noticed that many of the films that I remember liking way back, I can’t stand them anymore. But then there were so few things competing for attention that even “Krishi Darshan” was worth watching on DD. :)

    I love two songs you mentioned, “Yeh Duniya Wale” and “Ankhon Ankhon main hum-tum”. I think right about this time (or may be Jewel Thief) Dev lost all his charm as far as I am concerned.

    From now on, I think I can safely stop watching those old movies since your reviews are much more entertaining regardless of the type of movie you review.

    • “But then there were so few things competing for attention that even “Krishi Darshan” was worth watching on DD. :)

      LOL! Not to mention Graameen Bhaiyon ke Liye – my sister and I endedup watching even that! Seriously, what with only channel, any film was grist to our mill. And, compared to films like Fauji, Mahal was positively brilliant.

      Glad you liked the review, Ashish!

  6. LOL at your asides, Madhu. Every time I read one of your (or Greta’s or Anu’s) reviews I think how much fun it would be to watch a Hindi film in a theater with y’all. I would be assured of entertainment even (or perhaps especially) if the movie was a fail! :-D

    Coming to “Mahal”, it’s one of those movie I’ve seen several times because I can never remember anything about it and think “surely it must be pretty good given the cast” only to realize half-way through that there’s a reason I didn’t remember the film. :-) Those 3 songs are indeed the only memorable parts of “Mahal.”

    • Thank you, Shalini! And yes, that bit about ‘perhaps especially’ is very right. The worse (or more cliched) a film, the more the temptation to poke fun at it. ;-)

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