Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949) has been variously described as India’s first horror film, a pioneer of the reincarnation genre and a good example of what came to be known as Bombay gothic. Serious film students have analysed its debt to German expressionism and noir and history buffs know it kickstarted the careers of Madhubala and Lata Mangeshkar.
All this is true. But most of all, Mahal is about unfulfilled love, of a yearning so deep that it goes beyond life and death. Hari Shankar and Kamini are doomed lovers who never get to live happily ever after and are caught in an endless cycle of death and rebirth.
In a sense, all of Amrohi’s films told us stories of lovers who were unable to cross the barriers imposed by social convention (Pakeezah), royal traditions (Razia Sultan) or marriage (Daera). He directed films of note that were made with elegance and style—stories about his obsession with detail are legendary. Even as a writer, his contribution to films like Pukar and Mughal-e-Azam has been masterly. He was a published poet, but most of his film songs have been forgotten, save Mausam hai aashiqana .
Yet this renaissance man, with a career bookended by Mahal and Razia Sultan—one a monster hit, the other a flop—has been forgotten today. His name is faithfully invoked whenever there is any mention of Pakeezah, but cinema historians, somewhat over-obsessed with Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor, with an occasional nod towards Bimal Roy and Mehboob Khan, tend to overlook him. The fact is that as far as Hindi cinema history is concerned, Amrohi has fallen through the cracks.
Amrohi’s fame has been forever linked with the grand, Muslim cinema of the Pakeezah kind, which beautifully evoked the atmosphere of Awadhi culture, with its mannered ways and plush, if gaudy, lifestyles. But that does him a disservice. It is said that Amrohi, who had had to suspend the shooting of Pakeezah for over a decade because of a falling out between him and his wife Meena Kumari, had poured his heart, soul and personal fortune into the film. Carpets, jewellery and chandeliers were bought at great expense to lend an authentic look. Even the junior artistes, who appear only in long shots, were picked up for their dancing skills; this is plainly visible in the song Chalte chalte . When the film was released—to a lukewarm reception initially—the effort showed. On screen, the effect was mesmerizing, the period authenticity stunning. Though no specific era is mentioned, one can assume that it is set sometime during the 1920s-30s, an interesting period when the nawabi way of life had still not completely faded away and the more modern and educated among the upper classes had moved into the administrative services. Raaj Kumar’s forest officer is at the cusp of that change, while his family is still steeped in its old-world patriarchal ways. The menfolk continue to visit the nautch girls while expecting the women to cover their heads. Amrohi himself had come from that kind of world and it is said that the character of the stern grandfather was based on his own father, with whom he had quarrelled and then left behind to study Persian in Lahore.
Razia Sultan effectively put the seal on Amrohi as the maker of films with Islamic themes. For all its grandeur and superb music, it was an insipid film, marred by poor casting (though its implied kiss between two female stars got it iconic status in the queer community). Hema Malini just couldn’t rise to the heights the role required and her pronunciation left a lot to be desired. Amrohi did not direct any film thereafter, though he had grand plans to make “Majnoon” with Rajesh Khanna.
Mahal having long being forgotten, Amrohi became, for all practical purposes, a director of Muslim stories. But it would be a pity to view him merely through the prism of that kind of cinema. Amrohi knew the Lucknavi universe of formalized language and etiquette but was not a slave to it and his first film is a good example of his eclectic sophistication.
It is to Mahal that we must return to re-evaluate Amrohi’s singular contribution to Indian cinema. He was barely 30 when he pitched the story to Ashok Kumar, then running Bombay Talkies, insisting that he wanted to direct it. Kumar took the lead role and the heroine was a 16-year-old Madhubala with no worthwhile films to her name till then. Josef Wirsching’s chiaroscuro lighting and Khemchand Prakash’s moody music were deftly used by Amrohi to make a classic gothic story, full of chiming grandfather clocks, stray black cats and mysterious girls rowing boats on the lake in the moonlight.
Any memory of the film is dominated by The Song, but there is more to Mahal than Aayega aanewala . Watch Mushkil hai bahut mushkil , sung on screen by Madhubala; the entire song has been filmed in one single shot, with smooth but minimal camera movement. The viewer gets drawn in, slowly and compellingly, as Kamini sings of her despair; it is a mesmerizing sequence that bears repeat watching. The film itself, seen six decades later, is slow and full of plot holes, but effectively set up the model for reincarnation films to come.
Amrohi followed the successful Mahal with Daera, about a young girl married to an old man and dreaming about the young man next door, but by all accounts it was a flop. He then turned all his attention to Pakeezah, which was to be his magnum opus but which took over a decade to complete. With just a handful of films as director or writer, his portfolio remains woefully inadequate, but is enough to show that he was a man of refined sensibilities. The centenary of Indian cinema is a good time to remember Kamal Amrohi for giving us films that are landmarks on that journey.
Sidharth Bhatia is a columnist and the author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story.