It’s a stormy night in the hills, the kind you fear for your life. However, Devinder has no patience for these imagined horrors because the love of his life awaits on the other side. When he has to take refuge in a dilapidated haveli in the middle of the night, he experiences what we have come to think of as a quintessential Hindi movie cliché, his pichchla janam.
Madhumati, directed by Bimal Roy, is one of the first films to introduce the concept of reincarnation in cinema and has inspired countless filmmakers. Madhumati is named after the main character, played by Vyjanthimala, and the story here is a love letter to her, written by her beloved Anand, played by Dilip Kumar. It’s interesting to consider that concepts like a cross-class love story, a sheheri babu falling in love with a village beauty, a haunted house, doppelgänger, reincarnation and the ubiquitous ghosts are all neatly wrapped up in one entertaining ride by Bimal Roy. The concepts that have become clichés over the decades come from one source – Madhumati.
The music of the film is as captivating as it is memorable. Composed by Salil Chowdhury and with lyrics by Shailendra, it has such gems as the melancholic “Aa Ja Re” and the melodic “Suhana Safar”, .
Upon its release in 1958, Madhumati was praised for its gothic noir feel. The story of the film by Ritwik Ghatak is a wholesome story that must have enchanted viewers with the magical realism of the subject. Combined with Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s sharp editing and Dilip Gupta’s skilful camera work that almost immediately arouses the fear of the purani haveli, Madhumati was in the hands of a few technical masters.
It is satisfying to watch Dilip Kumar and Vyjanthimala play lovers who will find their way to each other in one janam or the other and that is mainly because both actors look innocent enough to perform these roles convincingly.
Vyjanthimala plays the titular Madhumati in the film. (Photo: Express Archives)
Madhumati’s story has been reworked in so many films that a new viewer may not find anything unique in it, but it is the simplicity and effectiveness of the story that continues to translate well even after six decades. Starcrossed lovers separated by death but coming together in the next life is as cinematic as it can get today, but at the time it was the fantasy of the subject that appealed to the audience.
Besides being one of the essential building blocks of Hindi cinema, Madhumati alludes to the theme of capitalism. After entering this paradise of a village for the first time, Anand discovers the constant tug-of-war between the tribes of the area and Raja Ugra Narayan who has invaded their land. The Raja, played by Pran, with all his might and money is nothing less than a villain to the village folk. He can crush small children under the galloping feet of his horse, and takes ownership of Madhumati when he lays his eyes on her, setting the conflict in motion.
The plot of the film is essentially a love story and the film builds on that through various songs. Madhumati’s music was one of the key factors in its success and while most of these songs are evergreen, there is a sense of detachment from the story every time a song starts. Watching 11 songs in less than three hours can be overwhelming, and they also hinder the storytelling process.
Madhumati has inspired generations of storytellers and a number of films have lifted scenes straight from the movie. Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om was a movie that took its hat off to Madhumati as it picked up the reincarnation angle.
At its core, Madhumati is a love story.
Madhumati is a hopeful fantasy for star-crossed lovers and given its influence on Hindi cinema, it is probably the fantasy that still fuels our desires for a happy ending, even if it takes more than one janam.
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Madhumati streams on ShemarooMe, MX Player and YouTube.