Poonam ki Raat (1965)

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.

Manoj Kumar in Poonam ki Raat

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.

Upstairs - and down

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.

Chandan receives bad news

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 overhears a conversation

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.

Prakash and Jyoti

[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.

Narendra and his wife

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.

By Lala Baijnath's side

“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.

Nandini

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.

Mukta and Chandan

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.

Ramesh plots with his mother and Mukta's father

[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].

Prakash with Nandini, in the trophy room

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.

The woman in white

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.

Chandan and Prakash visit Rani's apartments

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 woman in white, with Prakash in tow

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):

Prakash approaches the 'ghost'

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):

... and it turns out to be the nurse

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.

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57 thoughts on “Poonam ki Raat (1965)

  1. Funny, that you should write a review of it today. Just 2-3 days back, I came across the scene of Manoj Kumar discovers the well-preserved corpse of the drown nurse.

    The plot seems very intriguing but if you say the direction and screenplay was bad, it doesn’t help much, if it is the other way round, one can always watch it. I didn’t like Woh Kaun Thi nor Anita much, and if you say they are better films than these, then I better give it a miss. Reeba liked it and I was playing with the idea to watch it someday, when I’ve time (Did I hear somebody laugh?).
    Loved reading your review. It is much better than the film.
    So, Manoj Kumar had sort of a monopoly on suspense films in the 60s, it seems.

    • Madhu, was this scene in the version you watched? I saw this film a long time ago. Late 70s or early 80s on the screen (long story why & how).
      The scene above was like an unexpected vaar on the senses of the audience. Just when you had pushed the nurse into the background and forgotten all about her. The scenes preceeding were light & full of fun thus maximising the effect. It remained on my mind for quite some time. Quite horrific *shudder*
      Or maybe I was more impressionable then than now :-/
      Whether it was because of this scene or what I don’t know but I found the film quite good. Kishore Sahu made some very good suspense films. Tower House, Shikari. I watched the latter a few years ago & I must say the suspense was great.

      Last year I saw PKR was on youtube and watched it again but this scene was cut.

      • Yes, Reeba – this scene is there in the film version I saw on Youtube.

        I’d actually rented the VCD of Poonam ki Raat several years ago when I subscribed to a film rental agency, but I don’t recall seeing this scene back then. In fact, that VCD must have had a lot of other scenes missing or truncated too, because my overall impression was one of extreme bewilderment: I couldn’t figure out what was going on. This time round, I actually liked it better than I had that first time. :-)

        Long time since I watched Tower House and Shikari too. Must see them again some time. My next film review, though, is also of a Kishore Sahu film – in which he plays the lead.

    • It’s been ages since I watched Anita, so I remember too little of it, but Woh Kaun Thi? very well, and despite the problems with the scripting – the red herrings that are totally unexplained, for example – I think that film has more going for it. A gorgeous Sadhana, for one; great songs for another. And a generally more coherent plot. The problem with Poonam ki Raat is that they try to fit in so many red herrings (some of which remain unresolved and unaccounted for) that it becomes really confusing. And the acting is, by and large, awful.

      I do find it interesting that Manoj Kumar acted in so many of these suspense films. I wonder what it was that made him popular with directors of films like this…

  2. Madhu, this fits in with Greta’s tagline of watching bad movies so we don’t have to watch it. :) I have always been tempted to watch – haunted mansions, Salilda’s music – but the fact that it was Manoj Kumar, without the leavening of Waheeda or Sadhana, always made me pause. Halfway through your review – which had me wiping my tea off my keyboard, you bad woman, I also lost sight of who is who, and was too lazy (and too disinterested) to go back and check. There seem to be a veritable host of red herrings, and it appears that the tale gets fishier and fishier as it goes along.

    I liked that Manoj Kumar acts – puzzled. :)

    Thank you for my morning laugh. It’s much appreciated.

    • Yes, the vast numbers of people wanting that Lala Baijnath to cop it, and the many inexplicable things happening one on top of the other – it all becomes very confusing. If you are desperate to watch a suspense film, then see this. If you’re expecting a Woh Kaun Thi? or aBees Saal Baad, then Poonam ki Raat is best left unseen.

      And, oh, Nandini. So hammy!

      Glad you liked the review, Anu. Yes, as Greta would say: taking one for the team. :-)

  3. Manoj Kumar with all his stiffness makes it tough for me to watch him. Yes, he seems to have partaken more than his fair share of haunted movies/songs which happens to be the kind of movies/songs I like.. I do like the songs of this movie besides the ones you mentioned, especially Dil Tadpe Tadpaye. Rafi makes the tricky low notes look easy but it is actually quite challenging. This song somehow never became popular but I’ve always liked it.

    Thanks for the lovely review!

    • Yes, Dil tadpe tadpaaye is a lovely song, Ashish. I don’t think any of the songs of this film became popular – may have been because the film bombed, or it may be because (by Salil Choudhary’s usual standards), the music wasn’t that great.

      Manoj Kumar is one of the best actors in Poonam ki Raat. ;-) You can imagine the standard of the rest of the cast.

      • Oh boy! If Manoj Kumar is one of the best in the lot.. that says it all. :)

        I meant compared to saathi Re, dil tadpe was relatively unknown.. also the picturization of dil tadpe song doesn’t seem to meet the mood of the song, in my opinion..actually seems like a huge disconnect as I see it..

        The other point you raised in your review which is quite common in hindi movies, is that college trips to historic places somehow turn into a picnic. It’s pretty funny and shows how much attention to detail (or lack thereof) is given.. so to speak..

        • I really should ask my parents: when they were in college in the late 50s and 60s, did they go on college excursions and spend all their time picnicking? It seems kinda weird that that should have become the norm in Hindi cinema. On a related, and amusing note, someone – I don’t remember whether it was on this blog or another – remarked that one of their uncles married an American, and she saw a lot of old Hindi films before she came to India for the first time. She was taken aback (not to mention disappointed) when she attended a party, and nobody sang a song! :-)

  4. Madhu,
    Nice review. The film seems to have started well but strayed off the path midway. Like Anu, I too got confused in the maze of characters. At one point I got so mixed up that I thought of Rani as in ‘Rani Sahiba’ (of haveli), i.e. Chandan’s mother, and her bhoot was welcoming him (naturally, since it was a bhutiya film). It took me a while to notice that she was a 24 year old tawaif.
    AK

    • Hehe! Yes, I can imagine. There are so many characters (and I’ve not even got around to mentioning some of the minor ones – the nurses, the gardener, the servants, and so on), and eventually, only very few who really matter.

  5. In the sixties we had a series of such movies with Manoj Kumar as the hero like Gumnaam,Woh Kaun Thi,Poonam ki raat, Sajan, Anita etc. Many of these were big hits and the biggest hit was Gumnaam and justifiably so. With other heroes also like Mera Saaya ,Intaquam and Ai raat phir na aayegi. Many of these were very entertaining with good music also in those good old days.

  6. Tujh bin jiya udaas re…. Is the reason I watched this movie in the VHS days inspite of Manoj Kumar and others. I hardly remembered anything about the story except that it turned out to be so lame and poor acting ( if you can call it acting by any of the actresses ). Now reading your review, I know why I had forgotten all about it. You made the story a little more coherent than it was. Definitely, a better script writer and director would have made it much better. Did you find out from your parents if they did such excursions in college days ? I certainly did not go on any historic picnics or such outings as shown in the 60s movies. We certainly did not have any dancer of Bela Bose caliber :). The 60s movies also had the lead actress surrounded by friends all the time, a phenomenon not seen in real life.

    • I forgot about asking my parents, Neeru – but I have a feeling they never went for such excursions! I must ask the next time I meet them. :-)

      I first saw Poonam ki Raat several years ago, when I used to rent VCDs from a subscription service. Perhaps that VCD was badly chopped, because it seemed very incoherent to me (in fact, that is just the word I used for it in my notes for the film). This time, when I watched it on Youtube, it was more coherent, but there was still a lot of stuff that was badly done and slipshod. Plus, of course, the acting, which was awful.

  7. HA!HA! Hee! Hee!, If you are wondering why I have begun my comment with that, well I am actually giggling. Back in our childhood I remember those older to us would make fun of films like Poonam Ki Raat. These films were viewed with disdain, only hardcore film lovers bothered to see such films.

    • I can well imagine, Shilpi! This one was really such a waste of what could have been fairly entertaining. You need to be pretty dedicated to Hindi cinema to see Poonam ki Raat. ;-)

  8. To respond to all your comments in one: I hadn’t watched (and didn’t even know about) the video you’re talking about. I agree that Manoj Kumar was probably a better director than he was an actor, but for me he is a bit like Dev Anand in that he has an early phase where I really like him as an actor (Woh Kaun Thi?, Shaadi, Nakli Nawab, etc) – and a later phase, where his mannerisms have taken over so completely that he really irritates me. In the beginning, I thought he was really handsome, and his acting wasn’t bad. Not brilliant, but no worse than most of his contemporaries.

        • I am no more a fan of a man who allows himself to be mocked. Even I had decided to make a video sensing blunder. I didn’t make due to trusting Govt which made the video without any research. Ac to me with old age he has lost his mind. Kind of half mad. His career will be judged by that trash video by people who were present there. . No body has time to watch any other movie. I am no more his fan. He is mad acc to me. I wonder no body from his side bother which scene and pic to include. Like shashi ji documentary was made with utmost care. Cannot watch him any more. Every actor does horrid movies but if they are pointed out at the most crucial time then its very awkward situation. The phalkey video is royally disturbing. enough. I don’t know now how to approach his good films after seeing industry people laughing, amused over him that why he is getting even. Do guide me.

  9. After thinking about it for a long time, I finally decided to watch this movie today. Your review is spot on. The film had potential since it had all the typical classic elements. Which is why I felt very let down at the way all this potential was allowed to just go waste.

    The acting. Oh, the acting. I am still reeling from it. Especially Nandini. Vimi was terrible – she had a stoneless expression on her face all the time. Nandini goes one step further – she brings on an expression but it is so fake and laboured that you cringe longer than when Vimi is onscreen. I just couldn’t stand her.

    The other actors are also terrible. Like you said, Manoj was the best of the lot – says a lot about the rest of the cast.

    The scary scenes are scary enough though. Just that all put together, the film doesn’t produce the fizz you look forward to.

    Btw, I went through the comments here – and did muster the courage to watch the Dadasaheb Phalke award ceremony video linked here. I don’t see the fuss – it seemed quite ok to me. Many of his most important films are covered, as you’d expect. And messages from some co-stars, as is normal. Nothing damaging to his reputation.

    • I’m glad you agreed with my review, Raja – and yes, I agree that Nandini’s attempts at acting are even more irritating than Vimi’s poker-faced woodenness. She was simply awful. For someone who had such a major role, surely they could have got someone with better acting skills? There wasn’t a dearth of even minor actresses who could act better than Nandini.

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