The Way We Were: A tribute to desi film’s Gothic phase
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” That oft-quoted first sentence from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is emblematic of the novel’s massive success. Rebecca has never been out of print since it was first published in 1938, and it has been turned into films and TV series umpteen times. Filmmakers clearly can’t get enough of it — a new retelling starring Armie Hammer and Lily James is out on Netflix this October.
Maybe it’s the irresistible pull of the Gothic novel, an intoxicating cocktail of romance, suspense and danger, sometimes seductively garnished with supernatural elements. Rebecca had an illustrious ancestor — Charlotte Bronte’s Gothic classic, Jane Eyre, published in 1847, and also the subject of many films and TV series.
The Hindi film industry was quick to pick up this Western genre and adapt it, most notably in RC Talwar’s Sangdil (1952), a remake of Jane Eyre, and Biren Nag’s version of Rebecca, titled Kohraa (1964).
Sangdil crackles with Dilip Kumar and Madhubala’s chemistry. Kohraa is deeply atmospheric, with rich black-and-white frames capturing the grand interiors of the mansion in which the new bride Waheeda Rehman finds herself trapped and alone.
Think of strong Gothic influences and you think also of Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949), Biren Nag’s Bees Saal Baad (1962, loosely based on The Hound of the Baskervilles), and to an extent Bimal Roy’s Madhumati (1958). I recently re-watched all of them and was struck by how beautifully they portrayed the classic Gothic tropes: grand mansions lit by spluttering candles and eerily swaying chandeliers, wide curving staircases leading up to shadowed rooms, windows with billowing curtains overlooking rivers and swamps, booming clocks, swirling mists and violent thunderstorms.
But I was also struck by how seamlessly the films Indianised the genre. Even movies that were remakes, like Sangdil and Kohraa, have instantly recognisable Hindi film elements. Jane Eyre first meets the brooding Mr Rochester when she takes the position of governess in his house, but Sangdil turns the boy and girl into childhood sweethearts (a familiar desi trope — think Devdas, Deedar, Awara).
Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper in Rebecca, is creepy, unpleasant and unhealthily obsessed with her former mistress. But in Kohraa, the character (played by Lalita Pawar), makes up for her nastiness by an act of supreme sacrifice, elevating her to the status of a revered family elder in the eyes of the young bride. Sacrifice and redemption is a classic Hindi movie motif.
Unlike most Gothic tales from the West, where the central character is always an innocent young girl who arrives at an old mansion and faces deadly dangers, in the Indian films it was often the hapless hero caught in a web of strange, inexplicable events. The theme of punar janam (reincarnation) also became a template on which Gothic elements were skilfully overlaid.
In Mahal, when the hero Hari Shankar (Ashok Kumar) steps into the gloomy haveli, he sees a painting of its old, now-dead master — and the painting looks just like him. In Madhumati, Anand (Dilip Kumar) takes shelter in a haveli on a stormy night and realises that he knows the place. The rest of the film is a flashback of his past life.
In Madhumati and Bees Saal Baad, the haveli is at the heart of the mystery. It is a symbol of the cruel zamindar, who thinks that raping a village girl is his right. The rape — or attempted rape — has tragic consequences that reverberate across generations. There is a reason why stories of exploitative zamindars were a staple of Hindi films; they were the reality of Indian villages.
But for me, the most pronounced Indian touch in these Gothic films is The Song. The hero is haunted by a song sung by a woman: Aayega Aanewala (Mahal), Aaja Re Pardesi (Madhumati). In Mahal, Ashok Kumar sees Kamini (played by Madhubala) flitting through the haveli like an elusive, enchanting ghost, singing her signature song. He becomes obsessed with her, and it is a madness that can only result in his death.
In Madhumati, even after the love of Dilip Kumar’s life, played by Vyjayanthimala, dies, he keeps hearing her voice, singing. In the end, the besotted lover has no option but to jump from the parapet of the haveli, as his beloved did.
Gothic elements continued to show up in Hindi movies, but the later attempts never quite matched up to the early black-and-white films. Perhaps because Gothic as a genre largely went out of vogue. But the genre can be re-imagined — as has been done by a young Canadian-Mexican writer, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, in her latest novel, Mexican Gothic. And yes, it’s being made into a TV series, by Hulu.