On a stormy night, Devendra (Dilip Kumar), an engineer, drives down a hill road with his friend, to fetch his wife and child from the railway station. A landslide blocks their path and the friends take shelter in an old mansion just off the road. Devendra finds the house uncannily familiar. In the large front room he finds an old portrait, which he recognizes. His friend and the old caretaker join him, and Devendra, amidst flashes of memory from another life, sits down to tell his story while the storm rages outside. Anand (Dilip Kumar) had come to Shyamnagar Timber Estate as its new manager. An artist in his spare time, he roamed the hills and forests with his sketching pad and fell in love with a tribal girl, Madhumati (Vyjayanthimala). Soon Anand meets his employer, Ugranarayan (Pran), a ruthless and arrogant man. Ugranarayan comes across Madhumati and lusts after her. He sends Anand away on an errand suddenly and when Anand returns, he finds that Madhumati has disappeared. He learns that Madhumati had been taken to Ugranarayan in his absence. He confronts Ugranarayan whose men beat him unconscious. Anand’s life is saved, but his mind wanders. One day in the forest, he meets a girl who looks exactly like Madhumati. She says she is Madhavi (Vyjayanthimala again), but Anand refuses to believe her, and is beaten up by her companions when he tries to plead with her. Madhavi finds a sketch of Madhumati in the forest and realizes Anand was speaking the truth. Meanwhile Anand is haunted by the spirit of Madhumati, who tells him that Ugranarayan is her killer. Seeing Madhavi at a dance recital where she dresses as a tribal girl, Anand appeals to her to pose as Madhumati and appear before Ugranarayan and help him get a confession out of him. She agrees. Returning to Ugranarayan’s palace, Anand begs permission to do a portrait of him. Next evening with a storm brewing outside Anand paints Ugranarayan. At the stroke of eight, Ugranarayan sees Madhumati in front of him. Shaken, and goaded by Madhumati, he confesses the truth. The police, who have been waiting outside the room, take him away. Anand suddenly realizes that the questions the false Madhumati asked were on matters unknown to him. At that point, Madhavi dressed as Madhumati rushes into the room. She is late, for the car failed on the way. Anand realizes that Madhumati herself had come and runs up to the terrace where her ghost beckons him. She had fallen from the same terrace trying to escape Ugranarayan. Anand follows her falling to his death. Devendra’s story is over. Just then news comes that the train in which his wife was travelling has met with an accident. The road has been cleared, and the two friends rush to the station. From one of the coaches, Devendra’s wife, Radha (Vyjayanthimala yet again), appears unhurt with their baby…
Madhumati has often been criticized as one of Bimal Roy’s most formulaic films. Undoubtedly, it is highly formulaic it is in its choice of theme and content but Bimalda’s sheer skill as a filmmaker transcends above everything to give us an extremely engrossing tale of reincarnation and revenge, which is further boosted by the fine performances, cinematography, editing and above all its scintillating musical score by Salil Chowdhury. True, coming after sensitive masterpieces like Do Bigha Zamin (1953), Biraj Bahu (1954) and Devdas (1955), it does appear odd that Bimalda took up such a conventional story but the final film remains one of his most enduring cinematic efforts. In fact, that very year Bimalda came up with another relatively lightweight film again starring Dilip Kumar, Yahudi (1958), which incidentally was also a huge success at the box-office.
Madhumati had all the elements of a typical Hindi film potboiler – The haveli or mansion in which the hero experiences a sense of deja vu (ala Mahal (1949)), the naive and innocent village belle, the ‘pardesi babu’ and the lecherous zamindar lusting after the belle but Bimal Roy brings out all his considerable skills as a filmmakers and uses these elements to his advantage rather than be hampered by them. Madhumati has all the right qualities of an eerie yet romantic film that hooks the viewer right from the beginning as Dilip Kumar takes shelter from the storm and enters the old haveli. It shows what powerful storytelling expertly using cinematic tools can do!
Bimalda’s ability to recreate just the right mood and ambiance is displayed throughout the film be it the luscious romantic interludes outdoors or the swinging chandeliers and dark noirish shadows within the haveli but none better than in the scene of the mela or village fair where the several documentary-like establishing shots beautifully capture the sheer rustic flavor of the event. The sensitive filmmaker in Bimal Roy is seen as it isn’t merely coverage but the little human touches in these shots like a young boy hungrily eyeing a food stall or the various times that both Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala cross each other’s paths without noticing the other (they do so finally at the end of the sequence) – a good 37 years before the much talked about crossing of paths of Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge (1995). This eye for detail in capturing the right flavor is seen once again in Images of Kumbh, a film put together by Bimalda’s son Joy Roy from footage that Bimalda shot of the Kumbh Mela to be used as part of a feature film Amar Kumbh ki Khoj, which sadly never got made. Incidentally, the ambiance sound of the crowd in the Kumbh film is the ambiance sound from the mela scene of Madhumati! Another masterful touch in the film is the shot of Dilip Kumar’s hands holding up the painting of Madhumati in the foreground and when he brings down his hands in the background we see Madhavi standing there. We are as shocked as he is to see her. The climax, where the ghost of Madhumati comes to take her revenge on Ugranarayan, is a masterstroke and the highlight of the film. It was re-used by Farah Khan years later in Om Shanthi Om (2007) as well…
Admittedly, on the fall side, there are elements catering to the commercial requirements of mainstream Hindi Cinema that do stick out and take a toll on the story for example the entire lengthy ‘comic’ sequence with Johnny Walker and the exorcist, which adds nothing of value to the film and slows down the otherwise engaging film.
The performances are right on-key. While their roles are none too demanding, both Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala turn in most capable performances. For the latter, the film showcases both her acting as well as dancing abilities and the dizzying success of Madhumati took Vyjayanthimala to the highest rungs of stardom in Hindi cinema. Sadhna (1958), coming the same year, saw a remarkable and sensitive in-depth performance from her (She won the Filmfare Award for Best Actress for the same) to cap off an extremely successful year for her. Both, as an actress of considerable dramatic merit and as a star. Pran, in particular, scores heavily as the lecherous zamindar, strongly reinforcing his status as perhaps the greatest villain ever to grace the Indian Screen. Such was his impact on moviegoers that an unofficial survey of schools in the 1970s revealed that not a single child had been named Pran for as many as 10 years!
The film, Bimalda’s biggest commercial success, was scripted by fellow filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, one of his rare forays into Hindi cinema. It is Ghatak’s script that aids Bimalda tremendously in lifting Madhumati way above the ordinary. The climax, as mentioned, is what truly makes the film. In fact, many of the people involved in this film had worked together on Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s directorial debut, Musafir (1957), also based on a Ghatak story. The film is stunningly shot by Dilip Gupta and much of it is actually shot outdoors on location unlike most ghost stories. The evocative song picturizations by Bimalda further help to elevate the film.
But above all, the film is a total triumph for Salil Chowdhury seeing perhaps his best and most popular musical score ever. Each song be it the haunting Aaja Re Pardesi, the folksy Bichua or Zulmi Se Aankh Ladi, Toote Hue Khwabon Ne, Suhana Safar or the romantic Ghadi Ghadi Mera Dil Dhadke, Dil Tadap Tadap Ke Keh Raha Hai Aa Bhi Jaa or even the comic Jungle Mein Mor Naacha is tuned to perfection. In fact, Lata Mangeshkar counts Aaja Re Pardesi from Madhumati as among her ten best songs ever. To quote her, “I love all the songs of Madhumati,” she confessed and remembered how happy everyone was on the day Aaja Re Pardesi was recorded. “Lyricist Shailendra gave me flowers. The director Bimal Roy came forward to congratulate me. The song was beautiful and it was such a big hit too.”
In Madhumati, Salil Chowdhury seems inspired by the verdant hillsides of Assam, where, as a child, he had roamed with his forest officer father. When the songs of Madhumati were composed, the tweeting of birds, the flight of an eagle, and the patter of rain all seemed to seep into the melody. And as always Salilda’s background score is right on target lifting the film several notches as he effectively helps in enhancing the eerie mood of the film.
Though some critics slighted the film as lightweight, Madhumati walked away with nine Filmfare Awards including Best Film, Director, Music, Best Playback Male (Mukesh) and Best Playback Female (Lata Mangeshkar).
Hindi, Suspense, Black & White