For many years now, I’ve been fascinated by what I call the ‘supernatural’ subgenre of Indian suspense films. Offhand, I can’t recall too many [any?] non-Indian films that used a supposedly supernatural theme to veil what was a definitely corporeal, criminal deed. Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi, Mahal, Woh Kaun Thi?, Bees Saal Baad, Poonam ki Raat, Anita—all of these (and plenty more) used tropes such as spooky songs, ‘ghosts’ (invariably women in white), mysteriously creaking doors, swinging lampshades and seemingly haunted havelis, all forming part of a grand plan to convince someone that they were surrounded by bhoots when in reality they were surrounded by crooks.
In which Joy Mukherji single-handedly (with some help from the snow-clad Himalayas) defeats an invading army of Chinese guerrillas, thus lending a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘humsaaya aasmaan ka’.
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.
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.
I hadn’t heard of this version of the Mahabharat till a few days back (not, of course, that the existence of this film is surprising; given Hindi cinema’s love for mythology, there was bound to be at least one version of this epic floating about). Then, commenting on my jewellery songs post, blog reader Afsal posted a song from Mahabharat, and mentioned part of the cast: Pradeep Kumar as Arjun. Dara Singh as Bheem. Padmini as Draupadi. And good songs.
I won’t narrate the complete story here; the Mahabharat is too well-known for that (and if you aren’t familiar with it, I’d advise checking it out first before watching the film). Suffice to say that the film begins right in the middle of some action, without setting any preliminary background in place. At the court of the blind King Dhritrashtra in Hastinapur, the entire court is watching the two cousins Bheem (Dara Singh) and Suyodhan/Duryodhan (Tiwari) engage in a wrestling match.
…which could probably have been more appropriately titled How to Jump to Conclusions and Mess up Lives. Or Never Trust a Sinister Mamu. This is one Muslim social – a genre I have long admitted to being very fond of – which has been recommended to me so often, I’ve lost track of the recommendations. On the one hand, I wanted to see it because it has some lovely songs; on the other, the thought of watching Meena Kumari in one of her last few films – well, that wasn’t something I was really looking forward to with anticipation. But all those recommendations tilted the balance.
Whenever people ask me what my movie blog is about, I say pre-70s cinema. Pre-70s, yes, but with a few (very few) exceptions, and those are films released in the very early 70s, but with a distinctly 60s feel to them. Pakeezah is the example I invariably give: a film released in 1972, but with an aura that’s recognisably of an earlier period about it, whether it’s in the fashions, the actors, or the overall look of the film.
Since I generally steer clear of reviewing very well-known films, the format of this review is going to be slightly different from my usual film review. I’ll begin with a much briefer synopsis than usual, then go on to discussing—in far greater detail than I normally do—what I liked about the film, what I didn’t like, and sundry other musings regarding Pakeezah.
The other day, a fellow blogger, mentioning her distaste for Manoj Kumar’s films said that while she has “nothing against the man himself”, she really hates his films. I know what she meant (at least I think I do): I hate that insufferably xenophobic “all that is Indian is good, all that is Western is bad” philosophy espoused by films like Upkaar or, even worse, Purab aur Pachhim.
But I tend to shove that lot of films to the boundaries of my recollection of Manoj Kumar’s films. For me, his best films are the outright entertainers, the romances and suspense thrillers he worked in. Especially the suspense thrillers: Woh Kaun Thi?, Anita, Gumnaam—and this one.