Madhumati was the biggest hit of director Bimal Roy. His hallmark neorealist images and social concern are evident in this unusual reincarnation/ghost story scripted by Ritwik Ghatak, later acclaimed as one of India’s greatest directors. Two of the top stars of Hindi cinema, Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala, take multiple roles in this complex narrative.
Devendra (Dilip Kumar) is on his way to collect his wife and child from the station when he and his friend are forced to take shelter from the storm in an old mansion. Devendra has a sense of déjà vu and tells the story of his previous birth. Anand (Dilip Kumar) was a manager of a timber estate who fell in love with a tribal girl, Madhumati (Vyjayanthimala) he met during his walks in the forest. The owner of the timber concern is Ugranarayan (Pran), who comes to hate Anand. When Anand confronts Ugranarayan about his connection with Madhumati’s disappearance, he is beaten up. He meets a girl in the forest called Madhavi (Vyjayanthimala), who looks identical to Madhumati. He gets her to pretend to be Madhumati’s ghost, whose appearance so frightens Ugranarayan that he confesses to her murder and is arrested. However, Anand realises that Madhavi really is Madhumati’s ghost when she shows him where she fell to her death running away from Ugranarayan. Just as Devendra reveals that his present wife is Madhumati, news arrives that her train has crashed. However, when he reaches the station, his wife Radha (Vyjayanthimala) appears, unhurt, with their child.
Although the story was much criticized as melodramatic and unconvincing, it is gripping and well told. The film depicts negotiations in a transitional society between powerful social groups of zamindars (landowners), tribal rulers and new middle-class professionals. Bimal Roy creates an atmosphere to suit the uncanny in this almost gothic ghost story, which he connects to the theme of reincarnation.
Dilip Kumar is as charming as ever as the middle-class professional with a passion for art and nature, while Vyjayanthimala, besides looking stunning in the Hindi-film idea of tribal clothes, shines in both her acting and dancing. Pran is wonderfully villainous and it was films like Madhumati that established him as India’s top villain.
Salil Choudhury composed a set of songs for this film that I think constitute one of the best scores of any Hindi film. Many people (including Lata Mangeshkar) would choose ‘Aa ja re pardesi’ as one of their favourite Hindi film songs, but there is also the ever popular ‘Suhana safar’ and the catchy ‘Dil tadap tadap’ or ‘Ghadi ghadi mera dil dhadke’ as well as the sad ‘Toote hue khwabon ne’. With the exception of the latter, the songs are mostly joyful and happy, which may seem surprising in view of the uncanny, romantic atmosphere of the film, but they work wonderfully within the film itself too.
Year – 1958, Genre – Mystery, Country – India, Language – Hindi, Producer – Bimal Roy Productions, Director – Bimal Roy, Music Director – Salil Chaudhary, Cast – Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala, Johnny Walker, Tiwari, Pran, Misra, Jayant, Tarun Bose, Baij Sharma, Bhudo Advani