“Tu jahan jahan chalega, mera saaya saath hoga (Wherever you go my shadow will follow)”: these words from the title track of the movie Mera Saaya have taken on a sadly ironic meaning after the death of the lead actress, Sadhana, on December 25, 2015.

Sadhana was a leading name in the decade of the bouffant and the colour film set in Kashmir, but she wasn’t just the epitome of glamour. An understated and extremely competent actress, Sadhana was unfairly underrated as a performer in spite of her fine work in such films as Parakh (1960), Hum Dono (1961), Asli Naqli (1962), Woh Kaun Thi? (1964), Arzoo (1965) and, of course, Mera Saaya, which completes its fiftieth anniversary this year.

Mera Saaya (My Shadow) was Sadhana’s third film with the versatile director Raj Khosla. It is described as the second of the so-called mystery trilogy with the actor, the others being Woh Kaun Thi?, an adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s novel The Woman in White, and the comparatively disappointing Anita (1967). Common between the stand-alone films is the way Khosla most effectively uses Sadhana as an enigmatic catalyst who gets the plot moving. In all three films, Sadhana is the key to solving the mysterious events taking place around the leading men.

Mera Saaya is the third version of the story first seen in the Marathi film Paathlaag (1964) and then in the Tamil film Idhaya Kamalam (1965). Thakur Rakesh Singh (Sunil Dutt), a lawyer who has gone abroad for higher studies, rushes back home to his ailing wife Geeta (Sadhana), who dies in his arms. Shattered, he cremates her, builds a memorial for her and mourns her. One day, the police contact him. They’ve arrested a woman from a gang of dacoits who claims to be his spouse. When he meets the woman (Sadhana again), he is gobsmacked: she is a dead ringer for his wife. When efforts to prove her identity land up in court, she seems to know all the details of their wedded past, including the most intimate ones.

Though a remake the second time over, Khosla makes sure the film bears his trademark stamp. He keeps the narrative fast-paced, especially in the courtroom scenes. The mystery element holds its own right till the denouement. The final explanation is a relative letdown after a fine build-up. The film handles the romantic scenes in the flashback sequences tenderly and lovingly, most effectively juxtaposing them with the thriller track and the red herrings scattered across the present. The handling of the song sequences, which were Khosla’s big strength and a skill he picked up from mentor Guru Dutt, holds up well even today, making great use of the gorgeous Lake Palace in Udaipur that serves as Sunil Dutt’s house in the movie. However, the lengthy comedy track could have been done away with altogether. It adds little to the film.

While Sunil Dutt flawlessly plays the devoted husband mourning for his beautiful wife, it is Sadhana who owns Mera Saaya. Playing her second double role after Woh Kaun Thi?, she not only looks beautiful but also brings grace, dignity and even cheeky humour to her role as the ideal wife. Some of the photos of her wedding in the film were taken from her own nuptials.

Credit: A still from 'Mera Saaya.'

Sadhana brings just the right amount of greyness and ambiguity to the role of her bad twin. It is easily one of her better performances, and hardly surprising. Khosla was known in his time, like George Cukor in Hollywood, as a women’s director. Not just Sadhana, but also Suchitra Sen in Bambai Ka Babu (1960), Asha Parekh in Do Badan (1966) and Chirag (1969), Simi Garewal in Do Badan, and Nutan in Main Tulsi Tere Angan Ki (1978) all did extremely fine work under Khosla’s direction.

The other big star of Mera Saaya besides Sadhana is composer Madan Mohan. In a career studded with memorable music, Mera Saaya is one of his definitive scores. The songs, written by Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, are beautifully composed, be it the haunting title song, the soulful Aap Ke Pehloo Mein Aakar Ro Diye, the playful romantic ditty Nainonwali Ne Haay Mera Dil Loota, the ultra romantic Nainon Mein Badra Chhaye or the saucy Jhumka Gira Re. The title song, in particular, stays with you long after the film is over. Picking it as one of her 20 best ever songs for the Hindustan Times newspaper in 2013, Lata Mangeshkar said, “It’s a beautiful composition by Madan bhaiya about yearning for a loved one that you have lost. Exceptionally touching and close to my heart.”