Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mahal is such an OG (Original Gothic)!

I requested Mahal from Netflix for a couple of reasons – 1) I love Dadamoni and 2) I was feeling the need for a nice, slow, old-fashioned black and white film. Mahal provided both in spades. Mahal isn’t masala like Madhumati - the film that kept popping into my mind while watched this - it’s an atmospheric set piece, a psychological drama in which nothing much happens plot-wise until the final 20 minutes of so of the film. If I had been in a different mood, perhaps I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but for a lazy, lonely Saturday evening, it was perfect.



(The caretaker giving his story...)

Mahal, made in 1949 and setting the standard for haunted house films for years to come, opens with a man (Ashok Kumar) entering a beat-up old mansion on a dark and stormy night. The place has lain vacant for 40 years and the caretaker tells him the sad story of the haveli; a young woman used to live here alone. Her lover had it built for her to hide her away from the world. He would come by boat every night at midnight and leave before dawn. One night he is drowned in a storm and the young woman dies from the pain of it all.



(DADAMONI! UNF!)

The man, Hari Shankar, gets into the mood immediately and when he spots a portrait of the former owner and it looks
just like him, it’s all over. He is convinced that he was the man in his former life. So, when he spots a mysterious girl (an impossibly young Madhubala) flitting about the haveli, he is entranced and assumes she must be the ghost of his former lover.



(The bitter wife...)



(The mysterious woman...)

And that is the basic set-up of the plot. Hari Shankar becomes more and more obsessed with the
haveli and the girl and his family and friends become worried. They try to stage an intervention and get him married off to an unsuspecting young woman (Vijayalaxmi, in a superb bit of secondary female lead acting) but it’s no use. The rest of the film follows Hari Shankar as he alternately revels in and tries to escape the haunting call of his haveli.

(I won’t give away the ending but I will say that I figured out what was going on pretty early in the film but it didn’t ruin anything for me.)

While
Mahal is known for it’s music, I wasn’t too impressed with the songs themselves. They weren’t as good as I had been expecting, however, the picturizations were something else entirely, very moody and dark. I particularly enjoyed the two dance numbers – one from the courtesans and one from a tribal woman.







The real appeal of
Mahal, for me, was watching the slow descent into madness from Dadamoni. This was a master class in acting from him. There were no bug eyes or crazy hands, just a slow unraveling. Madhubala also puts in a fine performance. I really enjoyed her character and the manipulations she gets up to. And backing them up was the expert direction from Kamal Amrohi. I loved that we initially see things from Hari Shankar’s perspective. “What’s so crazy about a ghost-girl leading him around secret passages? OF COURSE he wants to stay with her!” we think. And then we’re ripped out of it in the second act by his wife, who shows us how crazy he really is. It’s a nice contrast and an expert bit of manipulation from Kamal Amrohi.



("Am I dreaming this?")



("Shit! I hope nobody saw me do that!")

I guess you could say that
Mahal is a slice of Bollywood gothic fiction, in the original sense of the word – a quest for atmosphere and a renunciation of the mundane. And I bought into it completely – laugh if you want but I actually cried towards the end when it looked like the lovers were going to be separated for all time. Hari Shankar is a tragic figure but the interesting thing is that he does it to himself. It’s never explicitly stated but Hari Shankar is pretty much just the lazy son of judge and I think we’re meant to think (and I did think) that he only gets caught up in this ghost nonsense because his mind is empty of other things. He’s the classic poor, little rich boy with too much time on his hands. The class lines are more explicitly drawn in Madhumati but I think you can still see them here.



(Excellent use is made of my favorite 'face in the letter' trick!)







(And such wonderful framing and lighting!)

So, if you are ever in the mood for a something slow, dark, and spooky, you could do a lot worse than picking up
Mahal.

(And I’m not great with the older actresses, so if anybody can identify the courtesans and the gypsy woman for me, that would be AWESOME!)

1 comment:

myrna-nora said...

I love Mahal!

I am always looking for Bollywood mysteries. I am adding Madhumati to my Netflix list.

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