The debt that Indian cinema owes to Wilkie Collins and his ‘The Woman in White’

From ‘Raaz’ to ‘Humraz’, the British novel has directly or indirectly inspired several films made in the subcontinent.

British author Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860) has given popular culture some indelible images, the most powerful being a mysterious, distraught woman dressed in white standing by the side of the road.

The popular novel has inspired several adaptations, and India too has not been able to resist the yarn of two similar looking stepsisters, a valuable marriage settlement, scheming friends and relatives, and identity swaps. Over 1958 and 1959, even as Guru Dutt was making Kaagaz Ke Phool, the first Indian film in CinemaScope, he simultaneously announced a project for his assistant, Niranjan, to direct. The thriller was also planned as a launch pad for RD Burman as an independent music director. It was to be called Raaz and was to star Waheeda Rehman in the double role of two sisters and Sunil Dutt as an Army doctor. Kum Kum was to play the third sister, while character actor S Nazir was to round off the cast as the villainous uncle.

Production on Raaz proceeded in fits and starts. Guru Dutt replaced Sunil Dutt as the lead and some scenes were shot in Shimla with the new pair. Burman recorded a song with Geeta Dutt, Shamshad Begum and Asha Bhosle, which was to be filmed on three nautch girls. However, Guru Dutt was unhappy with the way the film was shaping up and scrapped it.

Courtesy Film Heritage Foundation.
Courtesy Film Heritage Foundation.

According to Nasreen Munni Kabir’s seminal book Guru Dutt: A Life In Cinema, Raaz was based on The Woman in White. Collins’s tale revolves around the switching of stepsisters Anne Catherick, the mysterious woman in white who is committed to a mental asylum, and heiress Laura Fairlie, in order to grab Laura’s inheritance. Apart from radio, film and television adaptations, The Woman in White has also been made as a stage musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber in 2004. One of the better-known screen versions is the 1948 film by Peter Godfrey, which stars Eleanor Parker in the dual roles of Laura and Anne.

The Woman in White (1948).

Although Guru Dutt had abandoned Raaz, the movie was destined to be made. His former assistant Raj Khosla, who was by then a successful filmmaker in his own right, got permission to use the unfinished film’s story. Khosla reworked Raaz with writer Dhruva Chatterjee as the well-crafted suspense drama Woh Kaun Thi? (1964). The film starred Sadhana in the enigmatic roles of twin sisters, one good and one evil. Both are switched at will by the villain (Prem Chopra) to drive the hero (Manoj Kumar), who is married to the good one, insane and cheat him out of his inheritance. Woh Kaun Thi is the first in a trilogy of mystery films that Sadhana did with Khosla, the others being Mera Saaya (1966) and Anita (1967).

Even though Woh Kaun Thi? works beautifully as an engaging thriller and is aided greatly by Sadhana’s performance and KH Kapadia’s moody camerawork, its greatest accomplishment is its brilliant musical score by Madan Mohan. In a film in which every song is perfectly composed, the anthemic Naina Barse and the deliriously romantic Lag Ja Gale, one of Lata Mangeshkar’s great numbers, stand out.

Lag Ja Gale from Woh Kaun Thi?

When Khosla’s films started failing after Dostana (1980), he revisited the mystery genre with Naqab (1989), starring Rishi Kapoor and Farah. The film, a Muslim social with thriller elements, is actually a closer adaptation of The Woman In White than Woh Kaun Thi? However, Naqab also flopped miserably, bringing about an undistinguished end to Khosla’s filmmaking career.

The success of Woh Kaun Thi? inspired remakes in Tamil and Telugu, both starring the up and coming J Jayalalithaa. Yaar Nee? (1966), the Tamil version by Sathyam, co-starred Jaishankar as the befuddled hero, while in the Telugu film by BS Narayana, Aame Evaru? (1966), Kongara Jaggaiah played the male lead. Both films, produced by PS Veerappa, were faithful copies of the Hindi movie, to the extent that music composer Vedha re-used most of Madan Mohan’s tunes in both films.

Ponmeni Thazhuvamal from Yaar Nee?

The Woman in White also travelled across the border. Acclaimed music director Khwaja Khurshid Anwar’s Humraz (1967) stars Pakistani star Shamim Ara in the double role of the sisters. While one is a Westernised woman with a terminal heart problem, the other is the traditional type. Anwar also co-produced and scored the music for Humraz. Mohammad Ali plays the doctor trying to solve the mystery even as he falls in love with one of the sisters, while the actress from the Lara Lappa song, Meena Shorey, is seen in one of her last roles of any substance. She plays a wicked governess who is the wife and accomplice of the villainous uncle who is eying the family property. Humraz is an extremely loose adaptation of the Collins story and is clumsily plotted and tackily produced. Anwar’s music just about passes muster, and cannot be compared with his more memorable scores in such films as Intezar (1956) and Koel (1959).

The lobby card of Humraz. Courtesy Omar Ali Khan.
The lobby card of Humraz. Courtesy Omar Ali Khan.

While the novel was published in 1860, all adaptations have been set in contemporary times, thereby proving that Collins’s story has a universal quality and has held up well down the years. The Woman In White has also been adapted as a Marathi television serial, Swetambara, sometime in the 1980s. The serial is still remembered for the fine performance of character actor Raghuvir Nevrekar, besides being the debut of actor Mohan Gokhale.

The title sequence Marathi serial Swetambara.
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