Fifty years after Bimal Roy’s death, his gorgeously-filmed Madhumati still haunts Hindi cinema
7/5/2016 2:56:35 PM
|written By : Trisha Gupta|
Simultaneously derided and applauded as Bimal Roy’s most commercially successful film, Madhumati (1958) has a plot that combines two of Hindi cinema’s most abidingly popular narratives. The first of these is the educated city-dwelling babu falling in love with a simple village girl (an early example of that storyline was Raj Kapoor’s 1949 hit Barsaat, written by Ramanand Sagar). The second is reincarnation: a plot theme which Madhumati is said to have inaugurated in Hindi cinema - though Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal, which released the same year as Barsaat, also had the hero arriving in an old house for the first time and coming to believe that he is the reincarnation of someone who had once been associated with the place in a previous life.
Bimal Roy certainly took some inspiration from Mahal, but Madhumati - based on a script written by, of all people, Ritwik Ghatak - is much more comfortable with the reincarnation theme than Mahal was, not shying away from it in favour of scientific explanations. The ghost here really exists.
Roy shoots the house with painterly ghostliness - the doors that seem to swing open by themselves, the slowly swaying chandelier, the shadow of the old chowkidar’s stooping frame as he climbs the stairs is grotesquely enlarged.
Paintings - present and absent - are in fact a crucial element of Madhumati’s realisation of the unseen. The first thing that Dilip Kumar says on entering the empty haveli is “Wasn’t there a painting hanging on the wall here?” Later, like with Ashok Kumar in Mahal, it is a painting that helps brings the past back to him. Unlike in Mahal, though, the painting is not of our hero, but by him. I’ll come back later to why this seems of some consequence.
Ghatak’s script echoes what I once described (in a 2011 essay called ‘Tagore for Beginners’) as a classic Tagore narrative, and what might be a classic Bengali one: the urbane young man who arrives at a small provincial outpost, his head full of a modernity that seems to cut him off from his surroundings. In Tapan Sinha’s 1960 film version of one of Tagore’s most famous ghost stories, Khudito Pashan (The Hunger of Stones), for instance, Soumitra Chatterjee plays a young revenue collector in a remote area who is ostensibly too rational to listen to the locals, and ends up being haunted by a beautiful phantom.
A man becoming besotted with a spirit is perhaps one of the oldest ghost story tropes, extending across the world to Japan—I’m thinking of one of my favourite supernatural films, Kenji Mizoguchi’s marvellous The Tale of Ugetsu.