Review Hindi

Madhumati review: The many-hued masterpiece of Bimal Roy

Release Date: 19 Sep 1958 / 01hr 50min

Cinestaan Rating

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Shoma A Chatterji

Madhumati was unlike anything Bimal Roy had made, or would go on to make. Yet, the film, released on this day 60 years ago, was also the biggest hit of his illustrious career.

Madhumati was Bimal Roy’s most commercially successful film. Though the filmmaker's admirers were taken aback by his sudden entry into a film spilling over with what seemed to be commercial elements and a compromising storyline, Madhumati bagged the National award for Best Feature Film in Hindi and nine Filmfares — Best Film, Best Director, Best Music Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Female Playback Singer, Best Dialogue, Best Editing and Best Cinematographer.

Critically, Madhumati remains the least written about by researchers and film scholars, perhaps because in their minds Bimal Roy, with Madhumati, distanced himself from his regular beat of rich literature with subtle social angles and low-key handling and they found it difficult to place this film within his oeuvre.

But there was a philanthropic reason why Bimal Roy made Madhumati, though he never spoke about it. Ritwik Ghatak, who went on to become a famous director and, probably, was a distant relation, had come to Bombay. He was in dire straits without any work. Roy asked him to write a story for his next film.

The result was Madhumati, very unlike Ghatak’s own films and Bimal Roy’s oeuvre. By this time, however, Ghatak had become an alcoholic and had no clue what the film would turn out to be. The story goes that he left midway through the making of the movie and Roy took over. The dialogues were by Rajinder Singh Bedi, while SK Paul Mahindra is credited with 'dialogue direction'.

Rinki Roy Bhattacharya’s book Bimal Roy’s Madhumati: Untold Stories from Behind the Scenes (Rupa Publications, 2014) charts the unpredictable journey of the story that actually created the film, and the long cinematic travel across a span of time — 57 years — and space, in hilly pastures and narrow rivulets difficult in those days to even access, let alone shoot in.

Vyjayanthimala in and as Madhumati

Madhumati is full of elements mainstream cinema demanded at the time. Like a beautifully prepared dish by a master chef, all these ingredients of entertainment are blended so harmoniously and lyrically, given the songs, the music and the positioning and orchestration of the songs, that despite its totally mainstream content, the film remains a milestone in Hindi cinema.

Romance, for example, has been explored beautifully in all its stages: love at first sight, love blooming and flourishing against the snow-capped landscape of a mountainous region, love between an educated, city-bred gentleman and a beautiful young tribal woman, love growing through meetings, songs and dance numbers in which the hero is just an admiring observer, love threatened by the lust and power of a womanizing timber businessman, love lost through death, love reborn in the next life ending in a happily ever after.

The beautiful setting, washed over often with fleeting floods of mist and a cloudy sky, captured in black and white by the magical camera of Dilip Gupta, invests the ambience with an eerie, surreal air even when things are happening in real time, which somehow hints at a love story that will not end happily.

The picturization of the song sequences deserves special mention. When the hero Devendra (Dilip Kumar) is singing 'Suhana Safar', with Mukesh lending his voice to one of his best numbers, the lighting is happy, cheerful, filled with the delight of discovery as Devendra basks in the glory of nature.

In 'Suhana Safar', the arrangement and the sound go hand in hand, the chirping of the birds, the use of the flute and the unmistakable ‘ohoho’, which is like an echo in the valley, followed immediately by a line that highlights the concept of paradise, 'Yeh asmaan jhuk raha hai zameen par'.

When he sings the sad number, 'Toote Huwe Khwaabon Ne', in Mohammad Rafi’s voice, the entire scene is dark to heighten the sadness of Devendra grieving for Madhumati.

When Madhumati (Vyjayanthimala) sings and dances to the tune of 'Ghadi Ghadi Mora Dil Dhadke', the camera focuses on the happy emotions nature expresses as she dances merrily across the mountainscapes with water gushing through natural waterfalls as if giving company to the happy girl-in-love who sings about her rapid heartbeats but has no clue why they are so rapid. The song-dance number is captured in mid-shots, long shots and close-ups where one gets to see the smiling, happy face of the beautiful tribal woman in love. The tune of the opening lines reappears in other songs between stanzas.

'Dil Tadap Tadap Ke Keh Raha Hai' is the sole duet sung by the lovers Devendra and Madhumati complementing each other at every step, stanza and beat of the number. But I think 'Aaja Re Pardesi' is the best cinematographed number in the entire film. It has a physical meaning and a metaphorical one. Gupta invests the entire picturization with an unreal mood, specially because in this song-dance number, Devendra is observing Madhumati from a distance, from a height, and her figure, down below beside a stream, is minimized next to his as he stands somewhere above and observes her.

Lata Mangeshkar counts 'Aaja Re Pardesi' among her 10 best songs ever. “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.”

The late Kishore Chatterjee, one of the best scholars of Western classical music, in his paper Mozart and Madhumati, stated, “I am fairly convinced that Salil Chowdhury had studied Mozart’s allegros carefully before composing the 'Bichua' song. The fugue in Mozart’s Jupiter symphony finale is present in the faster portions of this song.” This is a chorus number and a group dance with Devendra watching admiringly from a distance.

In the other group dance number 'Zulmi Sang Aankh Ladi', the frame opens with Dilip Kumar seen through the wheels of a bullock cart. The camera backs a bit to show Madhumati looking at him kneeling behind the cart and the song-dance unfolds like an unsaid hide-and-seek game between the smitten lovers. Devendra watches Madhumati dance with the chorus as the lead from behind a row of men. Madhumati sees him, her face lights up and she continues to dance.

Shailendra’s lyrics are so beautifully in symphony with the story, its flow and the characters that they bring out the essence of each mood, each sequence and each character. This applies to the 'Jungle Mein More Naacha' song as well, performed atop a tree by Johnny Walker, roped in to provide comic relief, and the kotha song number rendered by none other than Mubarak Begum, which went 'hum haal-e-dil sunaayenge suniye ke naa suniye'.

Johnny Walker and Bhudo Advani provide the comic relief
Johnny Walker and Bhudo Advani provide the comic relief

Another bit of comic relief is provided by Bhudo Advani, one of the oldest comedians in Hindi cinema, who is brought in as an ojha (exorcist) to 'cure' Devendra, who is believed to be 'possessed' after Madhumati vanishes.

The songs reflected the rich and enviable versatility of the music director and the lyricist in the way they put together different genres of music within the same film whose dominating mood was that of an ill-fated romance that finds happiness only in the rebirth of the lovers. In 2004, a bunch of music lovers did a survey on top 25 albums of individual choices. Madhumati topped the list followed by Guide (1965), Pyaasa (1957) and Hum Dono (1961). When the film was released, as many as seven of its songs featured on the Top 10 list of Radio Ceylon.

There is a dream-like quality in the cinematic unfolding of the tale that is narrated in flashback by Anand (Dilip Kumar, who, we discover, is Devendra reborn) to his doctor friend (Tarun Bose) when they get caught up in a thunderstorm on a steep hill road and are forced to seek shelter in a deserted mansion on the way, a place where Anand gets a sense of déjà vu.

Pran as the vicious Ugranarayan
Pran as the vicious Ugranarayan

But Madhumati in the flashback is a flesh-and-blood woman. She happens to catch the lusty eye of Ugranarayan (Pran) who owns the timber factory where Devendra comes to work. During Devendra’s absence, Ugranarayan manipulates Madhumati’s arrival at his mansion and tries to force himself upon her, whereupon she escapes to the terrace and jumps to her death.

Many students of cinema consider Madhumati a model lesson in black-and-white cinematography. KK Jaiswal, a faculty member at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, saw the film 14 times in a row as a student at the institute. The two song picturizations — 'Suhana Safar' and 'Aaja Re Pardesi' — are "next to impossible in terms of perfection", he said. It is impossible to say which shot was taken indoors and which outdoors, especially when the scene was supposed to be representing the exterior ambience. The hilly landscape with clouds dotting the skies is beautifully juxtaposed against the eerie mansion that forms the epicentre of the drama.

Reincarnation, perhaps used for the first time by Kamal Amrohi in his classic Mahal (1949), may have inspired Bimal Roy to make Madhumati. Madhumati, played expressively by Vyjayanthimala cast opposite Dilip Kumar, is a young tribal woman from the hills who believes in superstition. “Mat jao babu [Don't go, sir],” she implores Devendra when the flower falls off; she considers it a bad omen.

Dilip Kumar does more than justice to his role of Devendra in two phases — the first when he finds himself falling in love with this tribal beauty, innocent, ignorant and naïve; the second when he pines for her in grief, driven to a point where people think he is “possessed” by Madhumati’s ghost.

When Devendra returns from a brief trip and finds that Madhumati has disappeared without a trace but was last seen entering Ugranarayan’s haveli, he goes crazy. He accuses Ugranarayan of having done something and is promptly thrown out of his job. He stops eating or sleeping and wanders the hills in a stupor in search of Madhumati, filling his hours by sketching her face. That is when he chances upon Madhavi (Vyjayanthimala), a lookalike who has come to the area for a picnic, and beseeches her and her brother, a police officer (Jagdish Raj), to help him extract a confession from Ugranarayan. So ‘impersonation’ is also an integral part of this many-hued film. 

Devendra seeking Madhavi's help to nab Ugranarayan
Devendra seeking Madhavi's help to nab Ugranarayan

When the flashback ends, and the rains recede, Anand rushes to the station to receive his wife who has recently delivered a child and realizes, with pleasant surprise, that Radha is none other than Madhumati reborn.

The film blended many cinematic tools — reincarnation, romance, ghost, landscape, music and dance, atmosphere, villainy, comedy, the rural-urban divide, suggested exploitation by Ugranarayan of the tribals once headed by Madhumati’s father, flashback and impersonation — to narrate a dramatic story filled with twists and turns and cinematic coincidences without a social agenda. Yet, it remains a classic of Hindi mainstream cinema, inspiring enough for Shah Rukh Khan to make Om Shanti Om (2007), a glamorized, loud, melodramatic version set in contemporary times against a cinema-within-cinema backdrop.


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