Hindi cinema does not hold a great reputation when it comes to horror movies. That sentence might sound like a bold statement but you and I both know that road to horror in Bollywood is littered with the many Papi Gudias and Purani Havelis, and while these movies are cringe-watching gold, they are miles away from the genre that was first established by movies like Madhumati and Woh Kaun Thi. While there have been splashes of some great horror films like Raat, Bhoot and in recent years, Tumbbad, Hindi cinema has more misses than hits in the horror space and with the introduction of horror-comedy, filmmakers seem to have given up entirely.
To trace the history of this genre in India, we went back to the first horror film that was made in Hindi cinema – Mahal. This 1949 film is considered a classic even 72 years after its release, and for good reason. The first horror film in Hindi cinema established certain definitions for the genre that were followed for many decades and conditioned us to look out for certain clues, even as a viewer. The template of an old haunted mansion, or a purani haveli, is a global cliche in horror movies and stories but for the Indian moviegoer, it first took visual form with Kamal Amrohi’s film.
Mahal opens with a mansion that has been abandoned for decades. When Ashok Kumar’s Hari Shankar moves into the house, the caretaker narrates the story of a lovelorn couple. The man, who built this ‘mahal’ for his beloved Kamini, would row across the river every night just to see her but one day, he drowned in the river, and a few days later, she died too. The lore leaves Hari Shankar spellbound as if it has some power over him. He walks around the mansion and finds an old portrait of the owner, who happens to look exactly like him. He is further 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 in a daze towards her.
Hari’s best friend and father are extremely concerned about his well-being and try to yank him out of this state but he is in a trance, and so is the viewer. The candle-lit chandeliers, the narrow hallways, the mirrors that could be doors or the doors that could be mirrors – Mahal traps you with its clever production design. Much like Hari, you don’t know what’s around the corner as he walks around the darkened halls of the ‘mahal’. You walk beside him because, by this point, you are as curious about Kamini. Is she a figment of his imagination or a ghost who has lived in this ‘mahal’ for decades?
Madhubala, who played Kamini here, was just 16 at the time and Mahal marked her first big hit. The film’s song “Aayega Aanewala” was the first big hit for the then 19-year-old Lata Mangeshkar. It was said that the film’s producers Bombay Talkies, who had incurred some heavy losses before Mahal, were not too keen on making this motion picture. Their logic was – ‘Who would want to see a thriller again?’ But Mahal turned out to be the biggest hit of the time and introduced the Hindi film audience to ‘punar janam’. Director Kamal Amrohi, who later made movies like Pakeezah and Razia Sultan, directed Mahal as his first movie. Bimal Roy, known for making Devdas, Madhumati, Sujata and Bandini, edited the film, and one can see how he was influenced to make Madhumati after working on this.
Mahal is essentially a love story that takes a dark turn when Kamini plants the idea that Hari Shankar should murder a woman, so she can take over her body. Hari, who is beguiled by the seemingly other-worldly figure, is ready to oblige. The film tries to touch upon the dark side of love but never really explores it completely. Even though Mahal is led by a male protagonist, his actions are directed by the woman who has enchanted him, Kamini. His wife Ranjana, played by Vijayalaxmi, is tied to Hari as he follows a ghost every night but the filmmaker sympathises with her. It is quite progressive for a film that was made in the ’40s to talk about female desire and through Ranjana, Kamal Amrohi touches upon that subject.
Over the last seven decades, Mahal has gained cult status and while it might not have the same impact on the viewer as it might have had in the 1940s, it surely explains why Hindi cinema stuck to its formulaic horror structure for the longest time. It worked then, and with good execution, it could work even today.