Dir. Bimal Roy
I have a theory that as Bimal Roy sat in the editing room working on Kamal Amrohi's Mahal, watching that movie's bizarre story take shape, he was thinking to himself, "If I were telling this story, this movie would actually make some sense." A little less than a decade later, the result of that thought is Madhumati, a film that has nearly as much spiritual handwaving as its predecessor without any of the mental illness or wackadoodle plot detours. It is a much simpler tale, less weighed down by excess of embellishment, and as a consequence it is a much more entertaining movie.
Madhumati is not a mystery wrapped in an enigma, but it is a ghost story wrapped in a reincarnation tale. This packaging is a stroke of genius on Bimal Roy's part. It turns a melancholy, tragic love story capped by murder and suicide into a parable of hope, a paean to the concept of souls eternally connected by bonds strong enough to transcend death. It allows you to leave the movie feeling content, even though the characters you spent more than two hours getting to know wind up senselessly dead; their spirits, and their love, live on in a new pair of characters played by the same actors. Madhumati opens, like a Bulwer-Lytton novel, on a dark and stormy night, with rain falling in torrents. Devendra (Dilip Kumar), on his way to meet his wife and new baby, is waylaid by a washed-out road. He seeks shelter in a gloomy, looming mansion of the gothic variety, where Devendra is beset by waves of déjà vu so powerful that they flood his mind in narrative form, and in flashback we receive the story of Devendra's pichle janam.
Some decades before, Anand (also Dilip Kumar) comes to the mansion as manager to its owner, Ugra Narayan (Pran). Once there he courts a girl from the nearby village, the titular Madhumati (Vyjayantimala). Anand overcomes some resistance from Madhumati's father, but his insubordination to Ugra Narayan incites that jealous, megalomaniacal zamindar to kidnap and eventually murder Madhumati. Anand is haunted by the ghost of his love; the lilting phrases of her melody "Aaja re pardesi" lure him to distraction much as Madhubala's "Aayega, aayega" drove Ashok Kumar's midnight meanderings in Mahal. Soon Anand encounters a real live girl, Madhavi (also Vyjayantimala), who happens to look exactly like Madhumati, and for a time it seems the apparitions are explained. Anand hatches a plan to use Madhavi, dressed as Madhumati, to put the fear of God into Ugra Narayan and extract a confession from the evil man. Even if you have not seen Madhumati, anyone who watched Farah Khan's Om Shanti Om knows how that's going to turn out.
Did you catch that? Madhumati not only has ghosts and reincarnation going for it, but also the classic filmi device of the purely coincidental doppelganger, a character who just happens to be an indistinguishable double of an unrelated character. It almost starts to sound like a masala movie. It's not, of course; Madhumati is too noir and dramatic in tone (despite Johnny Walker's best efforts at levity) to be a masala film. But these masala elements are part of what makes Madhumati so satisfyingly entertaining, despite the fact that I'm no kind of Dilip Kumar fan, and I really have no patience for ghost stories. It's no matter here, though, because Madhumati has a lot to redeem all of that. For instance, there is Pran, is as gloriously, sneeringly horrible as ever.
Vyjayantimala is put to good use; the film has a number of delightful folk-style songs that take charming advantage of her dancing abilities. My favorite of these is "Chadh gayo paapi bichua," with its lovely visual arrangements, making rotating peaks and stars out of the girls' chunaris.
In general, Madhumati's visuals are among its strengths. It has its gothic, noirish moods, without being oppressive or self-indulgent; there is plenty of frolicking in the forest to balance out the dark and creepy stuff. There are some wonderful shots of the countryside as well; village women lining up to collect water, picturesque terrace farms, or lush hillsides with cheerful wildlife, somewhat like the Disney-song sort of stuff that comes later in Bees saal baad but not trying quite as hard.
Madhumati does hint at some allegorical substance. There is tension between the zamindar and Madhumati's father relating to some prior dispute about land rights. The result are well-defined territories that the villagers tend to respect; people from this side of the river don't visit that side of the river, and vice versa. Anand, a classic filmi interloper - and not incidentally the only character in the film who wears Western clothes - represents a modernized, egalitarian ideal; he arrives on the scene and shows immediate contempt and disregard for this traditionally-defined knowing of one's place. Anand goes wherever he wants in this land, shocking his servant and annoying both Narayan and Madhumati's father.
Ultimately, though, not much comes of these quasi-political themes (although Madhumati's father's distrust of Anand does set up a nice twist whereby Madhumati gets to propose marriage to Anand rather than the other way around). Madhumati is mostly just what it appears to be, a straightfoward tale of romance, haunting, reincarnation, and love that endures across the veil of death.