Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal is among Hindi cinema’s pioneering suspense thrillers. The movie, made in 1949, is also one of the earliest reincarnation dramas.
One of the defining features of a classic is its ability to create new meaning when it is revisited. On this score, Amrohi’s directorial debut casts a spell well into the present.
A 35mm print of Mahal was recently screened at Mumbai’s Regal cinema by Film Heritage Foundation, founded by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. While the movie is available on YouTube and the streaming platform ShemarooMe, its filmmaking virtuosity can best be appreciated on the big screen.
A dark, cavernous space is needed to fully absorb the elements that combine in Mahal to stunning effect: cinematographer Josef Wirsching’s atmospheric lighting and sinuous tracking shots, Khemchand Prakash’s melodious music, the ominous sound design, the sheer beauty of the lead actors, the cadences of Amrohi’s dialogue.
The Mahal screening had been preceded by shows of Fritz Lang’s German-language The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959) and Nosferatu (1922), FW Murnau’s silent classic based on Bram Stoker’s vampire novel Dracula.
Mahal shares with Nosferatu its Gothic theme of predestination, chiaroscuro lighting and supernatural elements. The hero of Mahal even resembles Nosferatu’s undead protagonist in his stiff movements and otherworldly manner. The mansion in Mahal is like a mausoleum filled with the supposedly dead and the soon-to-be departed.
Shankar (Ashok Kumar) has inherited the suggestively named Sangam Bhavan in Allahabad. The house comes with a portrait that closely resembles Shankar and lore about a tragic love story.
Soon after Shankar arrives, the clock strikes 2 am. A mysterious woman (Madhubala) materialises, singing a song about the lover who is destined to arrive. Aayega Aanewala, sung by Lata Mangeshkar, the film’s most famous tune, is a dirge for an impossible romance.
Shankar is mesmerised by the woman, who goes by the name Kamini and disappears at will. Is Kamini a ghost? Might Shankar be a reincarnation of the mansion’s original owner, who has been brought here by fate to be reunited with his beloved?
Shankar’s fixation threatens to tip him over the edge. His concerned friend Shrinath (Kanu Roy) sends him to a pair of sex worker siblings who have two black cats – introducing the theme of doubling that features more prominently later (as do other animals, including dogs, bats and a snake).
A forced marriage with Ranjana (Vijayalaxmi) is as futile as a decision to leave Allahabad far behind. The later portions of Mahal have a song too many and a creaky twist. What endures is the sustained mood of doom, which begins the minute Shankar sets foot in Sangam Bhavan.
The beauty of Mahal lies in the unity between the idea and its execution. Every element on the screen is there for a reason.
Amrohi’s complex examination of romantic obsession is perfectly articulated by Josef Wirsching’s bravura camerawork. The German cinematographer worked extensively in Indian silent and sound cinema, bringing to local stories Expressionist lighting, fluid movements, and a dexterous handling of filmic space.
The mansion is suffused with the strange feeling produced by Shankar’s longing. Several compositions have the geometric precision of silent cinema. Kamini is bathed in soft-focus light that gives her an ethereal glow. One of the songs is filmed in a single take.
Given that Shankar’s troubles begin with a portrait that resembles him, faces feature prominently: Kamini’s enigmatic visage, Shankar’s frozen countenance, Ranjana’s anguished expressions.
The editing, by Bimal Roy, M Shanker and RM Tipnis, is daring too. Ranjana’s face is superimposed on the letters she writes to her sister, in which she details Shankar’s emotional cruelty. During a courtroom sequence, the camera stays steady on Kamini even as Shrinath mounts a passionate defence of Shankar.
The slow-moving narrative has a hypnotic rhythm that mirrors Shankar’s walking corpse shuffle. Time moves slowly for a willingly spellbound man who wants to exist beyond time, extracting a great price from his hapless wife.
Forced to go along with Shankar’s unbalanced quest, Ranjana suffers deeply. Amrohi deals sensitively with Ranjana’s plight, giving her a prominent role in the love triangle.
The true meaning of Mahal remains elusive – another characteristic of the enduring classic. Amrohi’s film has the rare attribute of ambiguity. The motivations of the characters are opaque despite a fair degree of exposition.
Vast portions of Mahal appear to be playing out inside Shankar’s head, where romantic dreams are inseparable from the nightmares of the present. While uncanniness ricochets through the film, there are also unresolved strands that elevate Mahal beyond conventional yarns about lovers trying to reunite in another lifetime.
Amrohi’s subsequent movies were Daera (1953), Pakeezah (1972) and Razia Sultan (1983). Both Daera and Pakeezah have tragic heroines (played by Meena Kumari), luminous close-ups, and characters who are shaped by their physical surroundings.
Both these movies are also about the inexorability of time. This is perfectly captured in Mahal when Ranjana takes charge of her situation by attacking the clock that seems to have followed her from Allahabad and never leaves her or Shankar alone.