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5 reasons Mahal made its way into the film buff's psyche: Kamal Amrohi centenary special

Mahal is considered Hindi cinema's first horror film. On Kamal Amrohi's birth centenary (17 January), we look at his first directorial and see what made the film the runaway success that it was.

Anita Paikat

Writer-director Kamal Amrohi's Mahal (1949) is considered Hindi cinema's first experiment with the horror genre. The film brought in the idea of a singing female ghost who would appear on a swing in a garden one moment and row a boat on the river the next.

The audience of the day loved these tricks and showered its love on the 16-year-old lead actress Madhubala and playback singer Lata Mangeshkar, who was still to taste success despite having begun her career in 1942.

Amrohi, too, established himself as a director of repute with this film, having previously written the screenplay, lyrics and dialogues for such films as Sohrab Modi's Jailor (1938), Prem Ki Jyot (1939) starring Sulochana aka Ruby Myers, Mazaq (1943) starring Pahari Sanyal, and AR Kardar's Shahjehan (1946), the last big hit of the legendary singer-actor Kundan Lal Saigal.

Mahal ran for about 2 hours and 30 minutes with a series of twists and an unexpected, jaw-dropping ending. On Amrohi's birth centenary today, we revisit his directorial debut and see what made the film the runaway success that it was. But first, a quick run through the story.

One night, Harishankar (Ashok Kumar) visits the mahal (palace) that his aristocratic father has recently bought in a government auction. The gardener-cum-caretaker of the property welcomes him and soon begins a rant on the tale of the original owners of the palace.

An unnamed man had built the mansion for his lady love. Once it was complete, the woman stayed in the palace and was visited each night by her lover on a boat. One stormy night the boat capsized, killing the man. Shortly thereafter, the lady, too, drowned in the river.

Since their story didn't have a 'happily ever after' ending, the gardener says, the woman's ghost wanders in the palace waiting for her man to return.

Though Harishankar is mesmerized by the story, he only buys into it when he sees a life-sized portrait of the former owner, who looks exactly like him. Wasting no time, Harishankar concludes that he is the man reborn. He soon hears and has visions of the lady love who speaks with him, convincing him of her love.

Harishankar is besotted by her beauty and tricks and pulled towards her even when he is away from the palace. Kamini, as the ghost (Madhubala) calls herself, has a proposition to revive herself. Harishankar has to find a young woman he thinks is pretty enough to spend his life with and kill her. Kamini's soul will then enter her body and get a physical avatar. She also has a target in mind — the gardener's niece.

The supense-thriller had enough drama to grab the audience's attention and became a blockbuster.

1. Mild horror:

The idea of a ghost is always associated with the past. An event in the past creates a ghost for the present. The palace in question had all the elements that represent the past — huge candle-lit chandeliers, life-sized portraits of the original owner, secret passages, and a tale of a discontented soul wandering about. These put together gave an eerie feeling but only to the extent of stoking curiosity. At no point was the audience actually scared out of its wits or fearful of watching the tale unfold.

2. Beautiful, human ghost:

Apart from the appearing and disappearing act, the 'atma' shows no particular traits that one usually associates with a ghost. Simply put, she is a beautiful lady yearning for her love. Even as Harishankar gets married to another woman and travels as far as possible from the palace, Kamini is seen crying for the man she can never have. Most of her scenes are intensely emotional, melting the viewers enough to sympathize with her.

3. Society as the villain:

As in most love stories, society plays the villain here too. Harishankar's father, friend and, later, wife are the reasons he cannot accept Kamini's proposal. Therefore, here is a couple deeply in love but separated by the binds of society, and the lead pair got all the sympathy they wanted.

4. Dramatic end:

Mahal had probably the most dramatic end witnessed in Hindi cinema till then. The gardener's niece is called to testify against Harishankar in court where she reveals that she is, in fact, Kamini!

Born into a poor family, Kamini had always wanted to be loved as the original mahal owners loved each other. So she tricks Harishankar into believing she is the ghost and has her plan in order. If Harishankar had 'killed' the gardener's niece as she had suggested, he would not be burdened by the thought of marrying a gardener's niece and she could begin life anew in love and luxury.

The audience was able to forgive Kamini's misdeeds for two reasons. One, the ghost that it so admired was, after all, no ghost; two, she was just a naive, poor girl who wanted to be loved and lead a decent life.

5. 'Aayega Aanewala' song:

What probably brought the film its instant success was this haunting number sung by Lata Mangeshkar. It brought Mangeshkar the fame she had been deprived of since her debut in 1942. Composed by Khemchand Prakash and written by Kedar Sharma, the song had an eerie, slow tempo while the lyrics defined the pain a lover feels on separation.