Scene by Scene: Moghul-style Madhubala

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This week we shine the light on one of Andrew’s favorite scenes. It is from the classic 1949 film Mahal and is the debut of one of the legendary actresses of Bollywood. Read on to find out who that is and why Andrew can go on and on about this scene and film.

THE SCENE: The film Mahal (1949) launched the careers of Madhubala and playback singer Lata Mangeshkar. It also starred Ashok Kumar in the lead role of Hari Shankar – a lawyer suffering from a nervous breakdown who decides to retire to the abandoned ancestral home, an old Moghul-style palace known as the Shabnam Mahal. Nothing is wrong until he sees a portrait of an ancestor on the wall – the portrait looks exactly like him and in his stressed state of mind, he begins to ponder on the concept of reincarnation. The only other occupant of the house, the housekeeper, tells him the tragic tale of two lovers and the ending that befell them. The housekeeper then leaves and Hari continues to stare at the remarkable painting in the half-light of the candlelit hall. It’s then that he hears an ethereal voice singing – ‘Oh My beloved, He will come’, a song that has become an evergreen classic. He follows the trail of the voice through the Gothic corridors of the palace, catching glimpses of a ghost-like presence of extraordinary beauty walking down the stairs, on a rooftop swing, on a boat in the lake. Can he be dreaming, or is it real…

I could spend all day talking about this scene – people, dogs, even garden gnomes have been known to fall asleep in my presence as my ravings drift into the third and fourth hour of delivery, so I will try to keep it short…

Firstly, there’s the thrill of realising that for the first time you are seeing on screen the remarkably beautiful Madhubala – could she only have been seventeen? She looks much more mature than that delicate age she was when she made her debut here. In retrospect, of course, there’s also the knowledge of the real Gothic tragedy of her life. At the same time, there’s Lataji singing with each note at perfect pitch in a scale that she could only have stolen from the angels. Then there’s Ashok Kumar, with a look of anguish that seems so real you wonder whether he is really acting at all. Most of all, however, there’s Kamal Amrohi’s expressionist direction. It’s unbelievable that this was his debut as a director because the whole movie has a firm structure and poetic style throughout that is missing from most modern Bollywood movies. He only made four movies altogether and seeing Mahal it’s clear that his main career was as a poet. The film is full of lyrical images, depth of distance and contour and characterisations that inter-relate on several levels at once — the logical, the psychological, the emotional and the metaphysical. The scene in question is full of gloomy corridors, ghostly images and shadows (the second time you watch it, watch the shadows!), fog and mist, the dark Moghul d

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