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70 Years Ago, 'Mahal' Gave Us an Early Glimpse of Gothic in Bombay Cinema

An excerpt from Rachel Dwyer's 'Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood: The Many Forms of Hindi Cinema'.

Mahal was a hugely popular film, which shows all the major attractions of a Hindi film—stars, locations, music, etc., shot beautifully. It is a love story, full of passion, darkness, and obsessions, remembered today for its beauty, romance, and music. Surprisingly, few people seem disturbed by the darkness of the film and its morbid obsession about love and passion, but remember Kamini (whose name means ‘the lover’ or simply ‘woman’) as a beautiful and ghostly presence.

In addition to these key attractions, Mahal’s unusual Gothic features seem to have appealed to its audiences. One of these is the way the narrative intrigues the audience, as the story is far from predictable as there were no previous models to follow. Motifs and puzzles are presented to the audience, many of whom may not have been familiar enough with the Gothic idiom to follow the patterns but were drawn into the complexities of the story.

Even for those familiar with the patterns, the story is strange as there is a lack of suspense, and several false leads, such as a possibility that Srinath, the hero’s friend who seems to have the right to make him sell the house and thinks sending his friend to a brothel is a good way to distract him from his obsession, might be part of the haunting in league with Asha. The gardener who lights the chandelier and tells of deaths associated with the house seems to be a Gothic archetype such as Igor to Dr Frankenstein but his role diminishes after this initial scene.

Many ends are left dangling as we never find out who the first owner was, why he came at midnight and left at dawn (presumably the lover was his mistress and this was their ‘love-nest’?), and why he looked like Hari Shankar. Why did the ghost appear at 2 a.m. and how did the clocks seem to be connected so that any clock striking 2 a.m. reminded Shankar to return to the mansion, and why did his wife stopping a different clock seem to affect the main clock at the house?

Another feature which might have been expected to prove difficult for the audience is that Hindi film usually focuses on character and the star as a way of involvement in the film but here the story elicits curiosity and the desire to know the secret at the heart of the film. Nor does the film present an easy emotional engagement for the audience: there is no heroic or sympathetic character. The main character is a problematic anti-hero with whom there is no positioning of the audience in any obvious manner such as admiration, empathy, etc.

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Rachel Dwyer and Jerry Pinto
Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood: The Many Forms of Hindi Cinema
Oxford University Press, 2011

The wronged wife could be a figure of sympathy, especially when attention is focused on her in her songs, but even her role in the film is as an agent of the plot while her suicide and accusations of murder are far from the usual long-suffering expected for rejected wives. Kamini is beautiful and desirable but remote and puzzling (and presented as a ghost) and seems to be of unsound mind rather than an empathetic figure.

Other elements of the film’s narrative are typically Gothic such as the story of a haunted house where the normal man has problematic relationships with his family exacerbated by his obsessive passion for a mysterious woman (Curtis 2008; Tudor 1989).

Although there is not much horror in the film, the uncanny permeates it. The concept of the uncanny or the unheimlich (Freud 1919; Bhabha 1994) is seen most clearly in the centrality of the house itself, the eponymous mahal or mansion, which is unheimlich, in the sense of its literal translation ‘unhomely’ (Bronfen 2004; Vidler 1992) a place which is not a home to its owners, the former owner coming only at midnight and leaving at dawn to visit his lover, while Shankar never makes it into his home and tries to abandon it in an attempt to save his marriage.

The only people who seem at home in the mansion are the servants, the gardener, and his daughter. The gardener has lived in the house since it was built, and has tended it and its garden but did not even know what the owner was called. Asha (‘Hope’) embodies the house—she looks after it, but desires it and underlying the love story is her desire to become the lady of the house. The new elites, the lawyers, may be able to afford to buy these aristocratic mansions but they cannot live in them peacefully. The house is called Sangam Bhavan, the ‘House of the Confluence (of the three rivers)’, situated on the River Jamuna in Allahabad. No aspects of the sacred nature of the city or of the river, closely associated with Krishna, are ever mentioned.

The great house or castle is a staple of Gothic fiction, from the Castle of Otranto (1764) to Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher (1839), and Du Maurier’s Manderley in Rebecca (1938). Sangam Bhavan represents inheritance and money, and is a mahal, a ‘palace’ or ‘mansion’ rather than an ordinary house. It is an aristocratic house, built by a man for his mistress, in an Islamicate style (though it has a strongly ‘Hindu’ name) with its kiosks and pavilions with swings and fountains, apparently also having features of the Gothic house with its grand staircases, galleries, and mysterious underground passages, while its shadows and numerous doorways with long corridors and windows produce uncanny views.

Unlike many houses in Gothic narratives, it is neither abandoned nor decayed. It does not show the anthropomorphic features of many Gothic houses, where windows appear as eyes that return the gaze of the viewer and nor does it appear monstrous at any point. The house does not decay as the hero’s body decays and his health fails but, like other houses such as Manderley or Wuthering Heights, is closely identified with women, with Asha/Kamini the only one who lives there (the gardener is ultimately killed by falling off the roof), and who seems to be its mistress by the end of the film. Yet the mahal pulls people back, playing on the anxieties that people have about old buildings, suggesting that the dead seek to revisit the places where they have lived.

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The mise-en-scène suggests the film is set in the 1940s: the cars being of that date, the spelling Cawnpore is seen on the signposts though the city was renamed Kanpur in 1948, and the police use Urdu script, even though Ranjana writes in Hindi and the court is conducted in a mixture of English and Hindi/Urdu. However the house does not have electricity, even though the Nehrus’ house in Allahabad was electrified in the early twentieth century (Frank 2002: 7), suggesting the timing of the film is either deliberately confusing or vague (like Pakeezah, see above).

The uncanny is seen also in a fear of objects, which are no longer confined to what they should be but seem to become almost anthropomorphic. The film is obsessed with clocks and with time itself, in the sense of the passing of time and repetition within time, notably the two times of the narrative of Kamini and Asha and the idea of rebirth. While the clock may be associated with the western imposition of time on India, other non-Indian films show an obsession with clocks and the passing of time and hence death, for example in Fritz Lang’s Der müde Tod (1921) or in the clockface that looms over Joh Fredersen’s office in the New Tower of Babylon in Metropolis (1927) (Gunning 2000).

In Mahal, the clocks tick loudly and when they chime two in the night, the ‘ghost’ appears. The wife and husband try to keep the ghost away by stopping the clock but a bat flies into it to start it again. The same night (it seems), the heroine’s father dies when he tries to start the clock on top of the old house just before 2 a.m., whose stopping is connected to the wife stopping the clock. Kamini’s advent is always sounded by the clock making her represent time itself in the film. The wife is aware of the power of the clock and addresses the clock and even tries to summon her missing husband by talking to the clock.

The clock also represents the repetition of time, striking two every night (and afternoon) as well as its passing. The hero is lost in the present and seeks his place in the past by thinking he is the original owner and should be reunited with his lover, and wants to recreate the past in the future where this reunion will take place. He is willing to sacrifice his present by dying for the sake of this past and the future. The song ‘Aayega aanewala’ is repeated many times in the film; ‘he will come’, the future tense repeated again and again within the song.

The film does not state explicitly why the clock strikes two as the owner used to visit his lover at midnight and leave before dawn. Two is the number of the couple and two is also a double, and the couple becomes a double with the supposed reincarnation.

Mahal is obsessed with doubling, a common feature of the uncanny (Freud 1965: 356–8; Bhabha 1994: 143), here coupled with seeing and not seeing. Visual doubles are seen in mirrors, where it seems someone has been shot or has a ghostly image that is soon revealed as a mirror image, while the hero believing he has a double in the portrait which he sees representing him more truly than he does himself. He seeks to find himself through the portrait but cannot find his wife when shown her photograph. Asha, hidden under a veil, creates her double Kamini, and Shankar loves Asha even when she has revealed the true story, just because of her appearance, rather than any imagined reincarnation.

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Kamini demands to be seen and her voice invites the audience to what Mulvey (2006) calls the ‘erotics of looking’. The tawaifs or courtesans are unveiled and invite Shankar to look at them (‘Yeh raat phir na aayegi, jawaani beet jaayegi’ (This night will not return and youth is fleeting) but the other women in the film are veiled. Asha, the servant, is veiled until she shows her beauty in court as she reveals the story she has invented, while the wife is veiled to her husband but not to the audience who can see her beauty, almost fetishized in the song ‘Main woh hansi hun’ (I am that smile), as she dresses herself in all the finery of a suhaagan, a married woman.

Shankar sees Kamini but he is blind to everyone and everything else: he cannot even recognize his wife’s photograph as he has never looked at her. The film plays on the fear of invisibility coupled with the desire to be seen alongside the fear that the beloved will keep vanishing, so only her voice can be heard.

When Mahal was released, Ashok Kumar was its only major star, having achieved great popularity with his earlier films with Bombay Talkies which are said to have inspired a generation of young men to imitate his dress and style. In Mahal, the irony is that he does not know who he is and seeks answers from Kamini about his identity, while the audience all recognize him as star and hero. The young Madhubala was relatively unknown when the film released and this added to her mystery as a newcomer and beautiful stranger. Was she the kind of a heroine who would redeem the hero with her love or was she really a vamp who caused the hero’s wife to commit suicide and drove him mad?

Madhubala in the movie Mahal. Photo: Nav Sikand/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The film is perhaps most famous for launching the career of one of the greatest figures in film history, Lata Mangeshkar. Playback singing was becoming established by the time the film released, but was still relatively new and certainly Lata Mangeshkar’s voice would not be identified closely with the singer as it would by the of 1949, when she also sang Raj Kapoor’s hit score for Barsaat (1949) and for Mehboob Khan’s Andaaz (1949). Not only was this ethereal voice mysterious, but also its purity and unearthliness was ideally suited to the haunting songs of Kamini.

It is striking that only one of Kamini’s songs, the sad ‘Ek teer chala’ (An arrow was shot), was sung by Rajkumari, where she sounds like Noor Jehan, evoking the ghostly memory of the great singer who had migrated to Pakistan, while the images of the song are also ghostly with Madhubala wearing a black veil while bare trees set the opening before white muslin curtains billow in a ghostly manner. This song is also of key importance as it suggests Asha has fallen in love with Hari Shankar and is singing this song to herself, perhaps having become more human than ghostly.

All the songs in this film are sung by women. They are songs of passion for a man who will not fulfil their desire. The wife sings of a sexually rooted desire while the ghostly woman sings haunted songs about love in its melodramatic and asexual forms, more mental desires than those of the human body. The disembodied and ghostly are not figures of horror or fear but ones of love and despair.

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The most famous song, ‘Aayega aanewala’ (see Lata Mangeshkar singing and discussing the song in 1990), is almost the theme of the film, the certainty that the lover will return, while a song where the seemingly endless repetition of the future tense ‘he will come’ reminds the listener that this is a film which eschews the present. The first time the song begins, we see the clock hands reach two, and instead of a chime, two piano chords sound, as they will in all the future versions we hear.

A slow introduction to the song is longer than many songs of the time, before the actual verses begin. During this time, Hari Shankar searches the house for this mysterious and invisible singer. It seems at first that only he can see Kamini—and only he can hear her song and her words—although Ranjana does when she herself seems to become invisible and silent as she watches her and her husband talk. This song, as others in the film, uses contemporary music and many Western instruments and arrangements rather than evoking any sense of the past in the film.

Rachel Dwyer is a professor of Indian culture and cinema at SOAS, University of London. 

Excerpted from Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood: The Many Forms of Hindi Cinema with permission from Oxford University Press.