One style of mystery story popular in the early 60s (though there was the odd film even earlier, like Mahal) was the one where the suspense includes a seemingly supernatural element. A woman in white, singing a ghostly song of eternal yearning as she wanders half-seen (or unseen) through the gloom. Woh Kaun Thi?, Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi, Bees Saal Baad, Gumnaam, Raaz: all of them used this trope to the hilt.
As did this relatively lesser-known film [and you’ll probably realize, by the end of this post, why it’s little-known]. Poonam ki Raat was made by actor/writer/director Kishore Sahu, who played an important role in this film, the star of which was Manoj Kumar, quite a veteran of these suspense thrillers.
The film begins with a brief but wordless scene. A scream is followed by the sight of a young woman lying dead at the bottom of a staircase. An older woman comes rushing out on hearing the scream, and is horrorstruck on seeing the corpse. She glances to the top of the staircase, where a man (DK Sapru) stands. He glares at her, she gulps, and—we move on.
To what looks like some cave temples (Ellora? Ajanta? Elephanta? I’m not sure). A group of college students have come here for a visit [and no, they’re not admiring the art or gushing over the age of these works of art; they are on a picnic—singing and dancing]. A visitor, Sumer Singh (Rajendranath) arrives, asking for Chandan (? Shiv Kumar?), who is one of the students. Sumer has come bearing news: Chandan’s father is in a bad way, and it would be best if Chandan were to hurry to his bedside. Chandan asks his friend Prakash (Manoj Kumar) if Prakash will come along to provide support and solace, and Prakash agrees—it will give him a chance to give Rekha (Bela Bose), a flirty classmate, the slip.
Prakash does most of the driving, and they arrive on the outskirts of Chandan’s home town long after sunset. Prakash is yearning for a cigarette, but neither Chandan nor Sumer have any. “The town’s shops will have shut by now,” they tell Prakash, and add that he’d be better off stopping at one of the small paanwallahs’ stalls nearby.
As Prakash is waiting for the paanwallah to give him the cigarettes, he overhears a conversation between two men sitting nearby. Isn’t that Chandan in the jeep over there? asks one. Lala Baijnath’s son? Things have been very odd at the family’s haveli for the past 10 years or so, ever since Rani died. They say the haveli is haunted—and why should it not be; after all, a restless spirit will continue to roam until it finds peace…
Prakash is puzzled, but goes back to the jeep. They drive on, to Lala Baijnath’s haveli, where Chandan’s mother greets them, followed by Chandan’s sister Jyoti (Kumud Chhugani, in her debut role), all bubbly and irritatingly cheery. We are [ill]treated to some silly banter between brother and sister, followed by some equally mindless chattering between Jyoti and Prakash, when she comes to his room bringing a glass of milk. Prakash is much taken with Jyoti, even though to me she comes across as a prize pest.
[It also seems to me odd that this family goes about merrily chattering and frolicking about when the head of the family has supposedly both legs dangling in the grave].
When Jyoti’s gone, Prakash reaches for the glass of milk she’d left behind—and finds it’s moved, God knows how, from the table where he’d placed it to a table near the door. He mulls over it, and not being able to figure out how that happened, drinks the milk [risky thing to do—what if the moving also involved poisoning?].
Minutes later, the action begins. A woman starts singing a spooky song, calling to a beloved, and Prakash, convinced the voice is coming from beyond a tightly shut door in one wall of his room, attacks the door.
When it bursts open (after several tries on Prakash’s part), he sees a staircase beyond, and a black cat staring up at him. The cat turns and races up the staircase, before leaping through the broken glass pane of a window on the landing opposite. All very bhootiya.
The next morning, when Prakash tells Chandan and Jyoti about this, they laugh it off. He mentions what he’d overheard at the paanwallah’s too, and they look flummoxed.
Prakash, wandering about the house, now overhears another conversation [this eavesdropping is fast becoming a habit]. Chandan’s older brother Narendra and his wife are having an argument, and the wife is nagging her husband, urging him on to do away with his father.
Eventually, Prakash is taken to meet Lala Baijnath [who looks in pretty good health—what they needed here was not a DK Sapru, but a hollow-eyed Nana Palsikar]. A doctor (a grim-faced Kishore Sahu) comes by to examine him. The nurse (whom Lala Baijnath treats with an unsettlingly easy familiarity bordering on lechery) reminds the doctor that she needs a week’s leave, and he tells her that a replacement has been asked for. When she comes, this nurse can go on leave.
“But who needs a nurse when I am here to help?” suddenly asks a newcomer (Nandini). This is Nandini, Chandan’s other sister. She sits down beside Baijnath while the nurse makes her escape. Prakash is intrigued by Nandini (though nobody’s yet told him who she is) and she gives him a boldly come-hither look back even as she starts cooing over her father.
Shortly after, another character is introduced. Mukta (Praveen Choudhary) arrives, to play badminton with Jyoti, Chandan, Nandini, etc. Chandan is obviously quite batty about Mukta, but she manages to give him the slip.
In the meantime, Mukta’s father (Brahm Bhardwaj), who’s accompanied her, goes into the haveli to meet Lala Baijnath’s sister (Leela Misra). Buaji is not one of those loving and caring sisters; she makes no bones about telling Mukta’s father (a lawyer) that she wishes her brother would hurry up and make his will before copping it. After all, as his sister, she too has a share in the property; it’s not as if it’s all Baijnath’s. [If he’s the one to be making a will, surely he can’t bequeath property that’s hers…? But perhaps she’s not being technical, merely greedy].
Buaji wants her son Ramesh to get as much of this wealth as possible. And if the lawyer can work things out that way, she says, Ramesh and Mukta can get married.
Meanwhile, Mukta is getting cozy with Ramesh (? Rabindra Banerjee?). They go on upstairs to where their respective parents are plotting. Ramesh has been out hunting, and now says, in a burst of bravado, that anybody who comes in the way of the wealth that is rightfully his [um, how?] is going to get shot.
[Narendra’s wife. Buaji. And now Ramesh. All of them hoping, and seemingly aiming for, Baijnath’s death. I think I can see where this is all leading up to].
We are now treated to a song in a garden, and the realization that Prakash and Jyoti have fallen in love [how could they not, with names like that? Made for each other]. Barely has Jyoti parted ways with him than Prakash glances up to see Nandini giving him the eye. He hurries after her, and she leads him up to the family’s trophy room, where she proceeds to lop off the stems of a bouquet of flowers with a whacking big battle-axe. [This family is loony]. Prakash is puzzled [yes, he spends most of the film very puzzled], but his question draws nothing but a derisive laugh from Nandini [which, I concede, may not have been meant to be derisive; the actress is about the same level as Vimmi when it comes to histrionics].
As if all that’s been happening so far isn’t complicated enough, we now have both Jyoti and Nandini in love with Prakash. Prakash, chump that he is, doesn’t realize –though his interactions with Nandini have made it obvious—that she’s fallen for him.
Late that night, the song starts up again, and Prakash is—yes, puzzled. But more is to come, because this time that mysterious woman, whoever she is, doesn’t stop at merely singing in the background. The window in Prakash’s room swings open, and even after he’s shut it and lain down in bed, it opens (seemingly of its own volition) again. This time, as Prakash stares, a female in a wispy white gown stretches and writhes and basically makes sure Prakash sees her framed in the window. He rushes out, but catches only a glimpse of her as she moves down a garden path and vanishes.
Prakash is now firmly convinced that this is, indeed, the ghost of the dead Rani. So, the next morning, he collars Chandan and asks for the truth. Who was Rani? A tawaif’s daughter from Lucknow, whom Lala Baijnath brought and installed in the house, says Chandan. His candour is so beguiling that Prakash is emboldened to ask: why did Lala Baijnath murder her, then? [Tact is not one of Prakash’s virtues]. Chandan is very miffed; his father may be an aiyyaash, but he’s not a murderer.
Prakash then manages to coax Chandan into showing him Rani’s rooms. Rani lived in a separate annex, and her rooms are plush and luxurious [by B-grade Hindi film standards], what with curtained bed, carved screens, and so on. There’s also a photo of her (though we never get to see it closely) and Prakash is goggle-eyed at her beauty. Chandan tells Prakash that Rani was about 24 years old when she died; she slipped and fell down the stairs.
As the days go by, things get weirder and weirder. There’s a death and what seems like an attack on a now-paralyzed Lala Baijnath. Who is responsible? Is it really, as Prakash is beginning to think, the ghost of Rani, intent on avenging her murder? And why is her ghost now haunting Prakash and telling him she’s fallen in love with him?
All the basics are in place: a long-ago wrong that needs to be righted; a restless spirit supposedly seeking justice; a man loved by two women and a ghost; lots of people hoping desperately for the death of one man. In the hands of a good director of suspense films (Raj Khosla and Vijay Anand spring immediately to mind), this could’ve been a film as entertaining and intriguing as Woh Kaun Thi? or Bees Saal Baad. What does Kishore Sahu do with it? Muff it.
What I liked about this film:
The very basic premise, which is intriguing enough in itself. The full moon night that seems to herald disaster for Lala Baijnath and his household: what is its significance? There is lots here that is puzzling: the woman who wanders the haveli, singing; the long-abandoned apartments, which look as clean and fresh as if they were still occupied; the black cat that roams the haveli. Is Prakash losing his mind, or is there really a spirit that has fallen for him? Neat enough.
The music, composed by Salil Choudhary, to lyrics by Shailendra. This, I admit, isn’t vintage Salil Choudhary; those signature tunes and beats do appear now and then in the interludes, but as for the songs, they’re good—though not of Salilda’s usual calibre. The best of the lot is the oft-repeated Saathi re (for which one of the interludes, late in the song, is the tune of Baagh mein kali khili bagiya mehki); other good songs include Ta deem taana deem and Tum kahaan le chale ho.
What I didn’t like:
Where do I start?
The problems are manifold. Firstly, in an effort to magnify the drama of it all, the inexplicability and the suspense, some outright absurd plot elements have been put in—the sort of stuff that doesn’t make any sense. The table-hopping glass of milk in that early scene, for example. And, most notably, a scene where Prakash finally gets close enough to creep up behind the ghostly woman who’s been singing Saathi re (note the black hair curling around the neck):
He puts a hand on her shoulder, and she turns around, to be revealed as a nurse who’s chatting with Sumer (note that unmissable white headgear):
Second (and related to this), the red herrings. The plot is packed so thick with all these people who want Baijnath to kick the bucket—and yet, in some cases, it’s not clear why. I can understand the greed of Buaji and Ramesh (and their assertion that they are entitled to a share in the property), but why does Narendra’s wife want him dead? No explanation is given. Also, if much of the town is convinced that Lala Baijnath killed Rani, how come the police are in the dark? And if the police did investigate Rani’s death (which they should have) and are convinced of the man’s innocence, why haven’t they made that public knowledge?
How come everybody in this household (including Baijnath’s devoted wife) seems to pretty much take Baijnath’s affair with Rani—down to keeping her in the house—in their stride? (Yes, it might be a case of being broadminded, or it may simply be that everybody’s too scared of getting into Baijnath’s bad books and being left out of his will, but somehow one never gets that impression).
Third, the sheer bad writing. The complete forgetting of the fact that there’s a man who’s bedridden, for example. Yes, life does go on, but when the pater familias is hovering on the brink of death, would you really invite a bunch of noisy friends for a big garden party with much singing and dancing? And spend the rest of your time either going hunting or singing love songs?
Lastly, the acting. After Manoj Kumar, Nandini has the most prominent role, and she’s awful. Very stylish, but terribly hammy. Kumud Chhugani , Shiv Kumar, Rabindra Banerjee and Praveen Choudhary are marginally better, and in their combined presence, even relatively better actors like Manoj Kumar, DK Sapru and Leela Mishra resort to much eye-rolling and madly exaggerated expressions.
Verdict: What Poonam ki Raat needed was a scriptwriter who could mould the basic story into a tight, logical screenplay—and a director who knew how to make a suspense film. In the absence of both, this is a disappointment.