Madhumati’s enduring legacy of reincarnation turns 61

With close to a dozen tracks, Madhumati’s success is also attributed to the brilliance of composer Salil Chowdhury to the lyrics by Shailendra (screengrab)

If you are a fan of Indian films, reincarnation and clashes between memories of past and present lives may be a tad formulaic. From the likes of Milan, Karz and Karan Arjun in Hindi, Nenjam Marappathillai and Anegan in Tamil and Arundhathi, Magadheera, Eega and Manam in Telugu, the concept of reincarnation has caught the fancy of several generations of filmmakers. And they all have one film, released exactly 61 years ago, to thank – Madhumati, the magnum opus of acclaimed filmmaker Bimal Roy.

Starring Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala alongside Pran and Johnny Walker, the paranormal thriller hit the screens on September 12, 1958, and has since remained a film worth revisiting. It evolved a theme that has offered a whole gamut of emotions to explore — revenge, drama, romance and action.

A tale of love, hate and revenge

Set in the picturesque locales of Nainital, Igatpuri and Mumbai, Madhumati brought together some of the towering personalities of Hindi cinema on board – story of the edge-of-the-seat thriller has been penned by noted Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak while the dialogues were written by Rajinder Singh Bedi. Roy had earlier made Devdas with the same star cast. But, Madhumati deviated from the socialist themes that his films were known for.

The film spins the love story of Madhumati (Vyjayanthimala), a tribal belle, and Anand (Dilip Kumar), an estate manager. Narrated in flashbacks, their story is recounted by Devinder, the reincarnation of Anand, who is reminisced of his past life after he takes shelter in a mansion on a stormy night. Anand and Madhumati’s love story faces the wrath of the evil Raja Ugra Narain, who has set his eyes on the ravishing beauty. Pursued by the Raja, Madhumathi falls to her death while trying to save her honour. A heartbroken Anand roams around aimlessly and is occasionally haunted by the spirit of Madhumati who holds Ugra Narain responsible for her death.

When Anand meets her lookalike Madhvi, he devises a plan to make Ugra Narain confess. Madhvi agrees to act like Madhumati’s wandering spirit seeking revenge and a rattled Ugra Narain admits to committing the crime.

The police arrest him soon after the confession but Anand is left bewildered because Madhvi questions events that he hasn’t briefed her about. Surprisingly, Madhvi reaches the place after the arrest, apologising for the delay. And Anand realises it was Madhumati’s spirit that actually helped him unravel the mystery behind her death. He starts chasing her and eventually falls to his death, uniting with her in another world.

Immortal tunes

With close to a dozen tracks, Madhumati’s success is also attributed to the brilliance of composer Salil Chowdhury and the lyrics by Shailendra. In fact, the maker was forced to picturise the haunting Aaja Re Pardesi, on Lata Mangeshkar’s insistence.

Chowdhury who originally wanted Talat Mahmood, a primary choice to lend voice to Dilip Kumar, to sing Suhana Safar picked Mukesh on Mahmood’s request to help his friend who was facing a financial crisis. An anecdote that reminds us of the camaraderie between artistes of those days!

The songs were also tailored to complement the twinkle toes of Vyjayanthimala who dazzled in two dance sequences — Chadh Gaye Papi Bichua and Zulmi Sang Ankh Ladi. The music album was replete with adaptations — the lone duet of Dil Tadap Tadap sung by Mukesh and Lata was inspired by a Hungarian tune, apart from a touch of folk music in Bichua.

At a time when most albums had one or two singers dominating the tracks, the album comprised numbers by Mukesh, Mohammad Rafi, Manna Dey, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle and Mubarak Begum lending their voices to the tracks.

Inspiring generations

Madhumati was made almost a decade after Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949) that touched upon a similar concept. Yet, the movie set the mould for the genre with success that even Roy wouldn’t have anticipated, especially after the poor box office collection of Devdas. Possibly, the genre was chosen to pique the curiosity of film-goers to garner success.

Roy, who was known for his painstaking efforts to get the perfect and natural shots, banked on extensive outdoor shooting. The formidable team included Sudhendu Roy, who with his impeccable art direction had recreated the pine trees in different locations to match the hill settings. It was no wonder that the movie had a successful haul of nine Filmfare Awards, a record it held for almost 40 years, only to be broken by Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge.

At a time when filmmaking was still in its inchoate state, Madhumati beat Hollywood with the concept of reincarnation, as The Reincarnation of Peter Proud was made almost two decades later in 1975 inspired by a novel.

Madhumati also found a spinoff in a different proportion in Milan starring Sunil Dutt and Nutan, and Pran in the role of an evil uncle, bearing similarities to his role in Madhumati. Almost 50 years later, in 2007 the runaway hit Om Shanti Om borrowed a major portion of its plot from Madhumati, albeit in a satirical vein.

Reincarnation themes have gone from mystical to bizarre and even preposterous over a period of time. And, in the limited scape of experiments, Madhumati stands tall with its perfections.