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Musings on Mahal (1949)

The last post that I wrote on the solos of Lata Mangeshkar – Vocal preludes special – started off with the iconic song Aayega Aanewala from the movie Mahal made in 1949. The song was indeed special in terms of the experiments that were made, which I have already described at some length in my post. This song became the cause of ‘the song leading to the movie syndrome‘. I am writing this post to tell you about the insufferable duress that I experienced as a result. The fact that Mahal is a celebrated movie need not be overemphasized. Reams have been written about the movie and its greatness. Thus, I do not intend to write another review of the movie. Let me tell you that those who write reviews never reveal the ending in order to ensure that the suspense remains intact. However, after watching the movie, I am of the view that not much harm would have been done even if the ending was revealed in the reviews as nothing can be fathomed about the plot of the movie – neither by reading nor by watching.

The man from Munich: Josef Wirsching's remarkable journey to Bombay Talkies
Josef Wirsching
Image Courtesy : https://www.cinestaan.com/articles/2017/mar/22/4933

Since the movie was on the theme of reincarnation – the first of its kind in Indian cinema, it was no doubt a trendsetter and a milestone. Further, the cinematography – especially the use of illumination – in several of the sequences and closeup shots – is marvellous. The cinematography of the movie, which plays a major role in creating the eeriness, is all due to the brilliance of Josef Wirsching (1903-1967), a German gentleman who settled in India. He had an enduring relationship with Kamal Amrohi and worked with him in his magnum opus Pakeezah as well. The songs of Mahal – especially the haunting Aayega Aanewala – are exquisite. It is ironical that when the movie was being made, it was believed by many of the team that the music would not become popular. But it is the music of the movie that is more memorable than the movie itself!! The individual performances, in absolute terms, are commendable. The actors have emoted stupendously before the camera. The problem is that it is only flashes of individual brilliance that one can talk about. The movie as a whole is a complete letdown as the plot has too many (gaping!) loopholes and loose ends.

I had seen just about 45 minutes of the movie when my head started reeling. There was something terribly wrong with the plot. It almost felt like a Govinda movie of the 1990s where one would not need to take one’s brains along to watch. But Govinda’s movies at least had light moments which would make you smile, if not guffaw. Mahal is a dark and dreary movie. There is just no scope for any light moment. The problem is compounded by the fact that its sobriety borders on unwarranted macabreness. The scenes of the wife being taken to a godforsaken Dak Bungalow so that the male lead can forget his purported lover of the previous birth are extremely excruciating and tortuous. The song and dance followed by an adulterous woman being killed by the mountain tribesmen (very ironic as the male lead himself would be undertaking a journey on the path of deceit), the detailed sequences shot at the absolutely uninhabitable dak bungalow with snakes and bats for company, where the hapless wife spends lonely nights as the husband does the vanishing act – all these were absolutely avoidable. They only add to the duration of the film and the exasperation of the viewer.

Many have reviewed the movie; so I shall just copy the links here for any one who is interested in reading the reviews. For those who want to read the entire plot, the same is available on Wikipedia. But let me warn you, that even after reading the whole plot, you would not be able to make much sense of it. There have been reviews which somewhat second my opinion about Mahal. In fact, before writing this post, I checked to see if there were viewers who actually felt the same because the movie is considered momentous.

Unnecessary lunacy is the highlight of the movie. The point is not about having characters who are imperfect because perfection is boring. The problem begins when the behaviour of all the characters of the movie starts getting illogical. The male protagonist (Ashok Kumar) is bewitched from the word go. The female lead (Madhubala) is also in some kind of a trance every night living in a complete make-believe world. The male protagonist’s unfortunate wife (Vijaylaxmi) tolerates mental and physical torture for two years and does not lift her veil (for two years!!) hoping her husband will do the honours. The male protagonist’s friend (Kanu Roy) gets courtesans to dance and entertain his friend believing that would deflect his attention from the wandering woman of the Mahal. The male protagonist’s father (M.Kumar) uses the bullet to emotionally blackmail his son into marrying a girl of his choice instead of reasoning with him through discussion. The female lead’s father, a gardener by profession, has no clue about his daughter’s midnight escapades and in fact dies unsung with nobody – not even his daughter (at least ostensibly) – grieving for him. He has spent 40 years of his life as the gardener of the Mahal but he has not seen the portrait which is in the palace, of the man, who resembles the male lead.

Weapons are flashed out by almost all the male characters without any compunction. Shots are fired but (thankfully!!) never hit any animate target! The male lead hurts his head quite frequently in the movie. For me this was poetic justice as he really has something wrong in the top storey; this could perhaps be attributed to his frequent falling.

What is most disappointing and bizarre is the ending. Everything happens very fast and it just does not sink in; in the high voltage court room drama, the male lead is convicted for the murder of his wife; then he is acquitted as it is proven to be a suicide; but the damage has been done already, for the male lead’s friend has as per his own dying wish, married (well, whether he actually married the female lead or not is also not clear) his lover. Why on earth he asks his friend to marry his lover is something I couldn’t understand. She could have just waited for him to be born again!! And then he dies whether of shock or repentance, no one knows! The point is no one is happy at the end of all of this. Nor does anything appeal to logic.

The manner in which the male lead’s wife commits suicide but implicates the husband did come as an interesting twist. But the way in which her bluff is called is again baffling. Just before she goes to the police station to give her dying declaration after consuming poison, she posts a letter to her sister-in-law – whom she has been confiding in about all the injustice she has been subjected to by her husband (regularly through her letters) – where she clearly mentions that she is committing suicide. While all the earlier letters have been delivered (to the same address, I presume), this critical letter is never delivered and is opened at the dead – letter office just in the nick of time to get the male lead off the gallows. I would believe that if not murder, there was full scope to prove him guilty of abetment to suicide. I also strongly feel that a psychiatrist’s clinic would have been the ideal place for the climax instead of the courtroom.

As I sign off, all I can say is that just like Caesar dead was more powerful than Caesar alive, Mahal as a movie, in my opinion, is more important while judged as what it paved way for, rather than (a movie) in absolute terms. As a movie, it was pathetic in terms of the weak and desultory plot. But It proved to be the harbinger of a new genre of cinema – the Gothic fiction genre with the Indian flavour of reincarnation being added to it. It was this movie’s music that catapulted Lata Mangeshkar into everlasting fame. It also established Madhubala as one of the brightest stars of the firmament of Indian cinema. It is these reasons for which one must watch Mahal; and of course, remember to give your brains a short break while you watch it.

6 thoughts on “Musings on Mahal (1949)

  1. Not a good view. We should see this with open mind knowing that it was made way back in 1949 – very early period for the glamour to come as a style

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  2. Even Pyasa was not liked at all when it was released. Now, its story is different. Similar is the case with Brief Encounter – 1974 English Movie with Richard Burton and Sophia Loren (Carlo Ponti produced, Duane Bogie produced). I saw both recently and liked so much. But, 1974 film was disliked by too many. I felt that they lost the charm of enjoying this Sophia-Richard 1974 movie by comparing with equally good well made movie (according to me) 1945 British romantic drama film directed by David Lean.

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    1. Thanks Sir, for your comments. My view has nothing to do with what the reception of the movie was like when it was released. In fact, Mahal did very well and was a blockbuster of sorts. I have acknowledged the contribution the movie made to film making. My only issue was about the lack of coherence in the plot and the overall (needless) macabreness of the movie.

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  3. You might have seen my comments on your view on 1949 Hindi movie Mahal. I referred 1957 Hindi Film Pyaasa and English Movie – Brief Encounter made in 1945 and 1974. No issue in reading views of any type. I request you to see the two English movies and give your comments. Interestingly, Sophia Loren and her Husband Carlo Ponti sheltered Richard Burton in their house during making of the 1974 film to help him to recover from his split with his wife Elizabeth Taylor. Thank you for reading this note.

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