The Enduring Allure of Madhumati by Deepanjali B. Sarkar SignUp

The Enduring Allure of Madhumati
Deepanjali B. Sarkar Bookmark and Share

Madhumati , for me, is the quintessential ghost story. It has all the right “ingredients”, in just the   right proportion and concoction, to create a haunting tale that has stood the test of time. Madhumati is half a century old and yet feels fresh. It remains a hugely entertaining film, and to me, the manner in which it captivates the audience’s attention is by alternately intriguing the audience and enchanting it; it is spooky alright, but also so radiantly romantic.

As an aspiring screenplay writer I was particularly impressed by the first ten minutes of the movie. It has everything that a text book definition of a setup demands: it “hooks” the audience’s attention right away.

It’s a “toofani raat”. The hero, Devendra, is stuck in the middle of the road, with not a soul in sight. As the driver goes off to get help, Devendra and his friend find their way to the “haveli” looming at a distance. The pounding rain, the whistling of the wind, the white dome of the zamindar’s palace glistening through the fog, the front door creaking open, very mysteriously on its own, and the old caretaker, the only inhabitant in the entire palace greeting the hero with a flickering lantern, each of these, individually would have build up the suspense gradually, but Bimal Roy puts them all together, and the effect is spine tingling.

The first scene has the hero Devendra mention that his wife Radha would be anxiously waiting for him at the station. What seems like a stray comment achieves far great significance towards the end of the movie as not only does it serve as a bookend (the film’s last scene has him reunite with Radha), but is also a brilliant set-up for the final pay-off, which is also the film’s resolution: for the hero’s wife is none other than Madhumati, reborn as Radha.

The first shot of the haveli, glistening through the rain, which Dilip Kumar in his present life as Devendra, sees through the sheets of mist, is identical to the shot when Madhumati enters the haveli for the first and the last time. Again a set-up and pay-off that works beautifully – the viewer is made aware that Madhumati might be rushing to her doom, but the story does not, cannot end with her death – for how else could one explain Anand Babu, the estate manager’s rebirth as Devendra the engineer?
The first ten minutes of exposition are still not over. The ghostly atmosphere is primed up to a perfect crescendo: a girl shrieks in the middle of the night. As the hero leaps out of bed to investigate, he hears the jingling of anklets running down the corridor. But the corridors are empty. As he comes back into his room he hears the sound of a woman sobbing, echoing through the palace walls. And then with a masterly stroke, without letting the audience’s interest lapse even for a moment, the filmmaker switches the ghost story into a tale of rebirth. Through a rapid succession of “clues” he establishes the rebirth plot: how did Devendra know a picture used to hang in that exact spot in the wall? How did he know there was a stream outside the haveli, when he had never been to this area before? And then, he sees Ugranarayan’s portrait, which he himself had drawn, and it all comes rushing back to him.

Ugranarayan’s portrait is a critical plot point, for it is when Anand is making the portrait that the climax of the movie occurs – Madhumati the ghost appears; the petrified Ugranarayan confesses to his crimes, and the lovelorn Anand follows the ghost to the haveli’s parapet and falls to his death. I find it remarkable how something that has been introduced so early in the film, in fact within its first ten minutes, ties up so neatly with the film’s climax.

The film has countless other instances of set-ups and pay-offs, each adding to the sense of ominous doom that builds up rapidly over the course of the movie. Charan, Anand’s domestic help, warns Anand not to cross the river, for the forest was full of wild animals. Anand answers in his characteristic wry manner, “jaanwar to yahan bhi hain”. Madhumati sings “tum sang janam janam ke phere/tarpat hoo mein sanjh saware”. Unknown to her, that, will be her fate, to pine for her beloved, even beyond this life. One of the most pivotal plot points and set-ups is the portrait of Madhumati. Anand woos Madhumati by drawing her portrait. It is the very same portrait that captures Ugranarayan’s attention. Once he has laid eyes on the portrait, he can thinking of nothing else and plots on seducing her. Later, after Madhumati disappears Anand wanders listlessly in the forests, sketching her unfinished portrait. Madhavi, Madhumati’s look-alike finds the portrait and realizes Anand had indeed been speaking the truth. He hadn’t been harassing her. He had truly mistaken her for someone else. And thereby her sympathies are completely won over and she readily agrees to impersonate Madhumati to wring out a confession from Ugranarayan.

Another scene that has a very effective pay-off is where Ugranarayan chases Madhumati through the forests. She reaches the edge of the cliff and stops just in time. Another step and she would been dashed on the rocks below. A chilling omen of her final leap from the terrace.

Charan is introduced as a drunkard. He forgot to pick up Anand babu from the station because he was lolling around drunk, dangling from tree tops! We think he is a comic side-kick and his drunken antics (including the famous song “jangal mein more nacha) are mere comic relief. However, he too serves a critical link in the plot. Once Anand is sent away, Charan too needs to be removed before Madhumati can be seduced. So he is plied with alcohol until senseless. And knowing Madhumati will trust him implicitly, he is made to bring her to the palace. Who would have thought the harmless buffoon would ultimately lead Madhumati to her death!

These set-ups and pay-offs go to show how superbly well constructed the plot is. One of the most memorable, and what I feel a brilliantly edited scene is when Madhumati manages to escape from Ugranarayan’s room. She runs down the corridor and throws herself against the door at the end of the passage. The door is locked. We are not shown what happens next. We see a dog howling and torrential rains engulfing the haveli. The very next scene is that of a sunny bright morning and a cheerful Anand returning from his tour. We presume Madhumati has been seduced. We don’t know as yet that she has died, or indeed how she died.

The film’s climax is as skillfully crafted as the exposition. Personally, I feel the climactic sequence is among the most dramatic in Hindi cinema. Anand is painting Ugranarayan’s portrait. Is that a shadow behind you, he asks Ugranarayan? Ugranarayan leaps out of his chair, rushes to the door, and with trembling hands parts the curtains. When he turns around Anand exclaims there is blood on the portrait. Just then the tinkling of anklets can be heard approaching the room; simultaneously a wolf starts howling in the background. A violent storm breaks outside. The chandeliers inside the room start swaying in the wind that blows open the windows. Even as Ugranarayan screams asking the windows and doors to be bolted, the door is thrown open and a dark silhouette stands at its entrance. No matter how many times I see this film, I find I am always thrilled by the sudden twist in the climax: Anand looks from Madhavi, standing at the door, to Madhumati standing with a mysterious smile on her lips, at the staircase, and the truth slowly daws upon him, and upon us, the audience. He follows her blindly to the terrace and unites with her in death. But an even cleverer twist is still awaiting the audience. I remember when I first saw the movie I had absolutely no inkling that as Devendra would draw his tale to a close, his present life still had its own love story to be told. Who could have guessed that Radha, his wife, would be Madhumati re-born!

Madhumati disappears, Madhavi appears, Madhavi re-appears as Madhumati while Madhumati re-appears as a ghost, and finally Madhumati is re-born as Radha, what an ingenious way of handling the plot!

Madhumati might be a blockbuster kind of a movie, unlike Bimal Roy’s other movies which had a social message and greater in-depth characterization. And yet, he takes care to give subtle nuances to his characters, especially to Anand’s character, thereby lifting them above the stereotypical. Anand is a nature lover (his song suhana safar establishes that). He has a gentle, almost sardonic sense of humour, seen in his interactions with his domestic help Charan Das (Johnny Walker). He is conscientious and upright. He is keen to untangle and set right the mess that he finds in the estate’s financial records. He is also brave and a man of integrity – he dislikes the cruel, high handed zamindar and doesn’t bother to socialize with him, even at the risk of earning his employer’s displeasure. And if Sunil Dutt romanced Nutan by serenading her on the phone in Sujata, Dilip Kumar caresses Vaijayantimala’s face teasingly with a leaf and woos her by painting her portrait.

Madhumati’s ageless charm lies in its evocate cinematography. The swirling mists, the foaming waterfalls, the flight of butterflies, the play of sunlight, shimmering through the dense forest leaves and dancing on the river, and the lengthening shadows that creep up on the tree stump that marked the rendezvous spot for Madhumati and Anand and then as the film progresses, engulf Madhumati’s hut, lend the movie a mysterious beauty, something not seen in any other Hindi film of the same genre. And Salil Choudhury’s music blends ever so seamlessly into this world of natural beauty. His suhana safar starts with the twittering of birds, followed by a shepherd herding his sheep together by calling out “hurr hurr”. All his songs in the movie are lilting pahari tunes, accompanied by indigenous drums, jal tarang, flutes and other folk instruments that together make the mountains echo with a music that is so intrinsically its own.

Madhumati, for me, is a rare example of a Hindi film in which script, music, cinematography, editing and direction are each superbly crafted and honed to perfection, and together produce a perfect gem of a movie.

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Comments on this Blog

Comment  An excellent presentation of a movie I like very much. How many times have I seen it? I have lost the count. And 'Ajare' is perhaps the topmost hit among Hindi film songs.

09/03/2012 04:50 AM

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