Updated: Sep 12
I once watched a three-hour and twenty-minute Bollywood movie about cricket (Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India, 2001). Against all expectations, the movie was fantastic! I know, I know… if I didn’t think I’d like it, why did I watch it? Well, I like to think I’m open-minded and it was something I just had to see for myself. I’m glad I did.
It was inevitable that I’d someday see a Bollywood horror movie, complete with singing and dancing. How could that possibly be scary? Again, against all expectations, Mahal (1949) was really very creepy. The dancing is limited to individual performances and the singing effectively expresses the deep, dark emotions of the characters.
40 years ago, a man built a palace where his lover, Kamini (Madhubala), lived, waiting every day for him to come to her at midnight. One stormy night, his “boat of love” was caught in a whirlpool and the man drowned. Before dying, he promised that he would come back again. She waited, but eventually committed suicide by drowning herself.
Now, a man, Hari Shankar (Ashok Kumar), the son of “a famous judge,” buys the “desolate and vacant bungalow” at auction and arrives to find the old gardener and his daughter still reside there. While giving himself a tour of the estate, a painting falls to the ground. The man in this painting is the spitting image of the man who built the palace and later drowned at sea.
Hari then hears a woman singing a slow and lovely song: “…my beloved will come back...” He follows the sound and sees a woman on a swing outside. When he reaches for her, the swing is empty and a black cat crosses his path. He touches a lit cigarette to his hand to make sure he’s not dreaming. Back inside, he sees her again and she says, “I am not a hallucination; I am real.”
From that moment on, Hari is obsessed with this woman. He’s led to believe that she is the ghost of Kamini (Madhubala) and that he is the reincarnation of the lover from “his last birth.” Shrinath (Kanu Roy) sees what is happening to his friend and tries to convince him to leave because he’s engaged to be married to Ranjana (Vijayalaxmi).
This is where my limited knowledge of Indian customs and beliefs fails me. For one thing, if people are reincarnated, how can there be ghosts? Wouldn’t they just keep coming back in other lives? Also, do men never see their fiancées before marriage? Mahal keeps mentioning the “lifting of the veil.” I thought that was a sexual euphemism, but the literal removal of a veil becomes an important plot point later.
I kind of learned as I went and my ignorance didn’t keep me from ultimately understanding the story. Hari and Shrinath try various methods to distract him from Kamini. When all of them fail, Hari decides he must take Ranjana far away to “some desolate place” so that he can love her. Two years later, they’re still travelling and he still hasn’t “lifted her veil,” euphemism or not.
Up to now, Mahal has been a romantic ghost story with some terrific mood and atmosphere. From here, though, it takes unexpected routes to reach its conclusion. There are more twists and turns than I expected, giving the movie a real boost in its final third. I must admit that until this point, the repeated songs from Kamini about “how difficult it is to forget love” were growing tedious.
I’ll end my summary here so you can enjoy the surprises of the movie. I will say that it reminds me of Lagaan in that it combine disparate elements into an entertainingly coherent story. Mahal has elements of soap opera and courtroom drama. There’s even a giant bat and snake that at one point threaten Ranjana. It’s an unusual movie, but it’s also fascinating to watch.
Written by Kamal Amrohi
Directed by Kamal Amrohi
Starring Ashok Kumar, Madhubala, M. Kumar, Vijayalaxmi, Kanu Roy
Released 1949 (India)
RT 165 min.
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