27 March 2016

When the Spirit Moves You

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

Fifty years after Bimal Roy's death, his gorgeously-filmed Madhumati still haunts Hindi cinema.

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 urban 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

But Madhumati is not set in a timeless past. Between Ghatak and Roy, it is not surprising that the script features quite a specific politico-historical structure: a tribal hill milieu in which we're told that a rebellion against the feudal-capitalist landlords has been crushed brutally in the past. The decadent, exploitative zamindar at the top of the social hierarchy is challenged by the educated young Nehruvian socialist hero. The young hero works for the zamindar's timber company and thus represents the same extractive interests, but his relationship to the locals is one of attempted egalitarianism. 

In Madhumati this relationship between the new, modernising world and the old one is not one of proselytisation. Instead it's in what I'm going to call the 'Discovery of India' mode: conjuring up an urban, rational viewer only to let the hero experience the inescapable sweep of the land that surrounds him: through its natural beauty, its music and dance, its beliefs. 

The Dilip Kumar we meet first is a typical shehri babu: hurrying his hapless chauffeur along the rain-lashed mountain road, acting irritable when a landslide blocks the path, and only very reluctantly walking up to the old haveli to take shelter. But once inside, this city-slicker who was least interested in anything except reaching his destination, finds himself gripped by the old house. The house seems to pause time, and allow us to enter another time. 

The Dilip Kumar of that previous time is a much more open, curious sort. He arrives in the same hills walking, not being driven. As he pauses to take in the sights and sounds, so do we. Painting emerges as his way of documenting this world: he draws the trees and plants and hills, but also the merry-go-round at the local mela. Finally he requests a sitting with local belle -- and it is while painting her that love happens. 

The painting reappears in the narrative after Madhu has disappeared: the image is now a ghostly surrogate for the missing girl, even seeming to come alive with jealous rage when her lover is distracted from the thought of her. It is also a form of evidence on whose basis Dilip Kumar persuades a real-life double of Vyjayanthimala -- a modern young woman called Madhavi who is coincidentally holidaying in the region - to enact the part of Madhu, prompting the murderer (a superbly effective Pran) to confess. (That particular part of the plot was used without credit in Farah Khan's Om Shanti Om, leading to Bimal Roy's daughter Rinki Bhattacharya filing a complaint). 

Unlike, say, Hitchcock's Vertigo, where the hero's obsession with a face is such that he manages to fall 'in love' with a different person bearing the same features, Madhumati suggests a more binding union of souls. The sophisticated "Miss Madhavi" may reproduce Madhu's seductive 'Bichhua' in a proscenium performance of "Santhal dance" for "poor schoolchildren", but she cannot embody the untainted folk spirit.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 27 Mar 2016.

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