With the use of lightning and thunderstorm, “Madhumati” begins like a typical horror movie. Devendra (Dilip Kumar) is on his way to meet his wife at a train station late at night. Unfortunately the car he is in breaks down and he is stranded in the middle of nowhere. With a friend, they both decide to stay for the night at a creaky
haveli. The horror ambience extends to the doors of the haveli visually opening by itself. But that is where the horror clichés end and what begins is a flashback of a love story. For Devendra suddenly goes through flash memories of a previous life. He recognises places inside the mansion… He feels as if he has been there before. He knows that haunting voice he hears… A voice that echoes, “Aaja re pardesi, Main to kab se khadi is paar”. Overwhelmed by all this, he goes into a hypnotic state and reveals everything to his friend about his previous life…
Anand arrives in a village from a city to work as a manager for a timber firm. He meets Madhumati (Vyjayantimala) and becomes enchanted with her carefree nature. Ugranaryan (Pran) is the boss of the entire firm that Anand works for. They do not hit it off after their initial hostile meeting. Ugrnarayan is urked by the fact that Anand refuses to cater to his every whim and has no qualms about saying what he thinks. Meanwhile, Madhumati and Anand slowly fall in love much to the initial resistance of Madhumati’s father (Jayant), who accepts when Anand promises that he will marry her. Ugranarayan is also enamoured by Madhumati’s beauty and begins to see her as a potential way of getting one over on the man he envies and detests. Left on her own for a few days while Anand and her father make important trips out of the village, Madhumati is tricked into falling into Ugranarayan’s trap where she meets her tragic fate. Making this tragic discovery on his return to the village, Anand plunges into grief and despair. He knows that Ugranarayan is responsible for what has happened to Madhumati but how can he prove it? Her look-a-like, Madhavi, enters the picture. By acting as a ghost of Madhumati, can she get Ugranarayan to admit the horrendous crime that he has committed?
“Madhumati” is probably Bimal Roy’s most commercial movie ever. And an extremely successful one at that. Roy weaves all the usual conventions of commercial Hindi cinema into a film and stamps it with the “Bimal Roy” mark of excellence. Critics at the time were dismayed by the overt commerciality on display here. There is a comedy track with the popular Johnny Walker, a sneering villain, a fairytale romance with the air of a charming folklore tale. But for a plot such as this one, the commercial touches are welcome. The director was not intending for a “Sujata” or a “Bandini” here…. This is a simple film that manages to touch your heart. That feeling of watching a fairytale never goes away when viewing “Madhumati”. The way the tale has been narrated can be compared to other fairytales or popular mythical stories such as “Snow White”.
Like Snow White, Madhumati’s beauty shines and enthrals everyone and everything wherever she goes. The nature is her friend and it’s almost as if she is part of nature herself. The shot of her first appearance in the film is inter-cut with shots of flowers. This is an obvious way of saying that she is just like a phool… beautiful, masoom and a romantic at heart. Roy outlines the affinity that the female protagonist shares with nature. Madhumati tells time by looking at the shadow of trees reflecting over a rock. She knows when rain might be forthcoming by looking for ants going in a certain direction. These touches are unsubtle but are very cute and make the title character very endearing. Sound effects of birds tweeting permeates the whole romantic scenario. Moreover, the birds are actually friends of Madhumati and attempt to warn her whenever she may be in danger from Ugranarayan (just like in “Snow White” when the birds try to warn the girl about the white witch). They chirp ferociously when Ugranarayan eavesdrops on a conversation between Madhumati and Anand. We are also shown a shot of birds restlessly flying out of the woods as she is chased by her nemesis.
This is what makes the final fate of Madhumati so distressing. “She was such a lovely character… Why did that have to happen to her?” I often find myself asking that. Nobody wants to see her suffer when she has this likable magic quality to her, which makes her popular with people, animals and nature. Since she is portrayed as being a part of nature, it could be that her eventual ruin is a metaphor for the fact that humanity has always destroyed or disrupted nature and will always continue to do so. Ugranarayan portrays the worst side of human nature… that of a ruthless predator who cares only about the materialistic things in the world. Twirling chandeliers spell out his decadent lifestyle. But as they go round and round, they also spell out the inevitable circle that life travels in. Ugranarayan may have committed some terrible crimes but karma ensures that he’ll get his comeuppance one day. Oh yes.
The character of Madhavi is then brought in and questions of whether her character is actually needed or not are irrelevant. She may look identical (she is also played by Vyjayantimala) but the difference in Madhavi’s personality establishes that Madhumati is a unique and special person. As a character, Madhavi is less interesting. A bland but genuinely helpful person brought up in the city without having any special inside knowledge regarding countryside or nature. Vyjayantimala has never been one of my most favourite actresses but this is one of the few performances where I am completely bowled over by her. Her expressions while playing both the main characters are perfect. With Madhumati, she brings the wonder, surprise and innocence needed in the person. With Madhavi, she brings the poise, the curiosity and pity for the grief that Anand is going through. It is a testament to Pran’s acting ability that he manages to make Urgrnarayan so detestable and so frightening. Here is a great example of a villain that leaves a big impact and successfully makes the audience hate his guts. The role of an emotionally tortured man pining for his lover was Dilip Kumar’s forte and here he excels. Without his excellent expressions of trauma and helplessness, the second half would be less gripping. Music plays an important part in this romantic saga and Salil Chowdhary’s superb work is atmospheric and evocative of innocence. All songs are first-rate but special mention must go to “Aaja Re Pardesi”, “Suhana Safar Aur Yeh Mausam Haseen” and “Toote Hue Khwabon Ne”. The background score has a magical feel to it highlighting the supernatural theme of the story.
With Hrishikesh Mukherjee (editing), Ritwik Ghatak (story/screenplay) and Rajinder Singh Bedi (dialogues), “Madhumati” sure can boast of top talents in the production team. Dialogues are brilliant and natural (particularly the lines uttered by Madhumati), which contribute to the evocation of a nostalgic era. I also really like the lines spoken by Anand in his tense talks with Urgrnarayan. Story is, as already mentioned, influenced by folklore tales and maybe that is why people like it so much. The reincarnation theme of “Madhumati” has inspired other films such as Subhash Ghai’s “Karz”, Ram Maheshwari’s “Neel Kamal”, Vijay Sadanah’s “Janam Janam” (an awful remake) and Satish Kaushik’s “Prem”. Mukherjee has kept the editing simple and it works for a timeless love story. Roy and Mukherjee decide to leave things more to the imagination in the scene in the interval where Madhumati is ensnared by Ugranarayan in the castle. She runs towards a window and there is an exterior shot of her running into the window. This is a powerful image as window is a symbol of opportunity/chance but as even that is closed for Madhumati, it conveys that she is ultimately trapped and will die. Rest of what happens in the scene is revealed in a flashback at the climax, a tactic that helps generate suspense. The commercial elements are fine but I feel that Roy went one comedy scene too far (the one where the hero’s sidekick goes to see an exorcist to get rid of a ghost). That scene simply carries on for far too long and seems misplaced in the moody second half. If that is cut out, then “Madhumati” would be a completely perfect film.
The Dilip-Vyjayantimala pairing was hugely popular and more of their sweet onscreen chemistry can be witnessed in Bimal Roy’s “Devdas”, B.R. Chopra’s “Naya Daur” and Nitin Bose’s “Ganga Jamuna”.