Hindi cinema does not have a great reputation when it comes to horror films. This phrase might sound like a bold statement, but you and I both know that the horror road in Bollywood is littered with plenty of Papi Gudias and Purani Havelis, and while these movies look gold, they are at times. kilometers of the genre that was first established by films like Madhumati and Woh Kaun Thi. Although there have been screenings of great horror films like Raat, Bhoot and in recent years Tumbbad, Hindi cinema has more failures than successes in the horror space and with the introduction of the horror comedy, the filmmakers seem to have given up entirely.
To trace the history of this genre in India, we went back to the first horror film made in Hindi cinema – Mahal. This 1949 film is considered a classic even 72 years after its release, and for good reason. The first Hindi cinema horror film established certain definitions of the genre which have been followed for many decades and conditioned us to seek out certain clues even as a viewer. The model of an old haunted mansion, or a haveli purani, is a global clichÃ© in horror movies and stories, but for the Indian movie buff it first took on visual form with the Kamal film. Amrohi.
Mahal opens its doors with a mansion that has been abandoned for decades. When Ashok Kumar’s Hari Shankar moves into the house, the caretaker tells the story of a couple in love. The man, who built this “mahal” for his beloved Kamini, rowed across the river every night just to see it, but one day he drowned in the river and a few days later, she died too. Tradition leaves Hari Shankar spellbound as if she had some power over him. He walks around the mansion and finds an old portrait of the owner, which looks exactly like him. He is even more intrigued by the mystery of the “mahal” when he sees Kamini walking around the mansion late at night. When she sings ‘Aayega Aanewala’, he walks towards her, dazed.
Hari’s best friend and father is extremely concerned for his well-being and tries to get him out of this state, but he is in a trance, just like the viewer. Candlelight chandeliers, narrow hallways, mirrors that could be doors or doors that could be mirrors – Mahal traps you with her clever production design. Much like Hari, you don’t know what’s around the corner as he walks through the dark corridors of the “mahal”. You walk alongside him because at this point you are also curious about Kamini. Is she the fruit of her imagination or a ghost who has lived in this “mahal” for decades?
Madhubala, who played Kamini here, was only 16 at the time and Mahal scored his first big success. The song from the movie “Aayega Aanewala” was the first big hit for 19-year-old Lata Mangeshkar. It has been said that the producers of the film Bombay Talkies, who had suffered heavy losses before Mahal, were not too keen on making this film. Their logic was: âWho would want to see a thriller again? But Mahal turned out to be the biggest hit of the time and presented audiences with the Hindi film “Punar Janam”. Director Kamal Amrohi, who later directed films like Pakeezah and Razia Sultan, directed Mahal as his first film. Bimal Roy, known to manufacture Devdas, Madhumati, Sujata and Bandini, edited the film, and you can see how he was influenced to make Madhumati after working on it.
Mahal is essentially a love story that takes a dark turn when Kamini plants the idea that Hari Shankar should murder a woman, so that she can take back her body. Hari, who is won over by the apparently otherworldly figure, is ready to help. The film tries to address the dark side of love but never fully explores it. Even though Mahal is ruled by a male protagonist, his actions are ruled by the woman who enchanted him, Kamini. His wife Ranjana, played by Vijayalaxmi, is linked to Hari as he follows a ghost every night, but the filmmaker sympathizes with her. It is quite progressive for a film made in the 1940s to talk about feminine desire and through Ranjana, Kamal Amrohi tackles this subject.
Over the past seven decades, Mahal has gained cult status and while he may not have the same impact on the viewer that he might have had in the 1940s, this surely explains why Hindi cinema longest remained true to its stereotypical horror structure. It worked then, and with good execution, it could work even today.