wogma rating: Add to 'must watch' list (?)
The first Indian commercial film that dealt with the theme of re-incarnation, Madhumati had Ritwik Ghatak, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Bimal Roy on-board to create a classic combination of romance, tragedy and ghosts. It has memorable music, a very handsome Dilip Kumar and a plot that inspired so many other apologies and successes in Bollywood. You must watch where they all learned it from.Read more
You know you’re in for a treat when you see the title credits roll for Bimal Roy’s Madhumati. There’s Roy, the director; Ritwik Ghatak, the story writer; Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the editor; and Salil Chowdhury, the music director. On paper, it is one of the most lethal combination of Bengali biggies in a solitary film.
The film is perhaps the first Indian film to deal with the theme of re-incarnation in a romantic setting. I’m not surprised. It’s a very Hinduvian love story - timeless love after all, is meant to last through seven births, when solemnized through marriage.
After 50 years this film is a classic is because despite many films exploring the theme (Karz, Karan Arjun, Hamesha, Om Shanti Om), the story still seems convincing, with a fair amount of leap of faith. I truly believe that most well-made films are those that are difficult to spoof, and I’d consider Madhumati as one amongst them.
If you’re from the post 1970s generation as I am, the film’s progress makes you go through a particular cycle of emotions. It begins with admiration - at the extremely handsome Anand (Dilip Kumar), whose mannerisms and charm are complimented by the beautiful hillside locales where Madhumati is set.
You then proceed to respect - at the detailed characterisation, not just for the leading starcast, but also for the supporting cast. There’s Anand whose skills as a painter are well-intentioned, later coming in handy not just to woo his lover, but also at the climax of the film. Ugranarayan (Pran), the owner of a timber estate where Anand is employed appears as if he was born to be despised. And there’s the beautiful village belle Madhumati (Vyjayanthimala) whose beauty is almost one with the scenic hills. (In addition to the scriptwriters, I’d give much credit to Lata Mangeshkar for Madhumati’s characterisation. 'Aaja re...pardesi' is the ultimate paean beckoning a lover.)
Ghatak’s setting of the film seems just right, and his description of the village, its people and their history, has enough intrigue in it to let you know that, while the hills may appear beautiful on the outside, all’s not well when you probe deeper. It’s exactly the friction one needs for the love story to unfold and that’s where Ugranarayan plays villian.
Your respect for the film, is followed by awe - towards Ghatak and Roy - for pulling off the first film about re-incarnation, in the history of Indian cinema. Although mythology and religion are deeply rooted in Indian culture, it must have been challenging for the film-makers to produce this on a commercial scale. It is however, the biggest commercial success of all of Roy’s films - his other films have a deep social fibre running through them e.g Do Bigha Zameen (highly socialistic), Parakh (satire, democracy), Sujata (untouchability) and Parineeta, Devdas (class divide).
Thankfully, by the time the film ends, you’re sure that despite some Red Chillies making an Om Shanti Om out of it, it is Madhumati which has more soul to it. “They can beat you up, they can torture your body, but they cannot touch your soul,” seems true.
I cannot explain enough how important a role the film’s music plays in the film. This is Salil Chowdhury’s best work. 'Suhaana safar aur yeh mausam haseen' (Mukesh), 'Zulmi sang ankh ladi' (Lata Mangeshkar), 'Chadh gayo papi bichua' (Lata Mangeshkar, Manna Dey), 'Jungle mein mor naacha' (Mukhesh) and 'Aaja re pardesi' (Lata Mangeshkar) are not just timeless classics, but they play an invaluable role in heightening the film’s commercial and aesthetic sensibilities. 'Aaja re pardesi' for example, is more haunting than the sound of creaking doors, hooting owls and repetitive shots of the full moon going under the clouds - each of which have become clichés of films that have an element of spook in them.
Madhumati deftly combines the concept of timeless romance, re-incarnation, class discrimination and feudalism in producing something that stays long with you after the film is over. It is a film that so proudly sits on the fence of being a romance, a tragedy and ghost story, a feat rarely achieved.
I watched the film on the newly launched Poster Series by Shemaroo. It’s a fabulous concept, where you get the replica of the original film poster, free along with the DVD pack that has the digitally mastered version of the original film. I wish there would be more DVDs like these.
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