Bombay Talkies Mahal is a story of ghosts, spooks, apparitions, jitters, quivers, bats and snakes. It succeeds in giving one the creeps, but through more causes than one. In the initial stage the spine tingling chill of weird horror which slowly creeps down one’s back is because of the masterly genius ace cameraman Josef Wirsching whose brilliant use of the camera imparts to Mahal that dreaded foreboding of evil and terror which lurks there. But later on the cold shiver of fear which one experiences is the cumulative effect of director Kamal Amrohi’s excursion into the realms of meta-physics. In trying to tackle the subject of reincarnation Kamal Amrohi, to use the cricket parlance, merely swung the bat in the empty air. I give full credit to him for the daring and initiative that he has shown in taking up such a subject. But daring and initiative without good sense and logic are like boiled potatoes with out pepper and salt. In it’s final analysis Kamal Amrohi has failed in Mahal for the simple reason that the innumerable movie goers who go into fits of rapture over Mahal are still unable to cite a reason for their appreciation, except mumble a few words about the enthralling realism of it’s weird atmosphere. But that is a wonderful tribute to Wirsching and not to Amrohi.
According to me the greatness of Mahal as a picture lies in the towering achievement of Wirsching who photographed it. If the critics rave about it and the public applauds it, then it is because of Josef Wirsching, the wizard with the lens who has made of Mahal a milestone in the annals of the Indian film industry. The magic of his camera, has through the witchery of it’s crafts imparted to Mahal an atmosphere of awe and wonder. The fluttering curtains, banging doors, shaking chandeliers, fleeting shadows on the wall have all been so vividly captured on the celluloid that it throws a grim mantle of mystery over Mahal.
But now coming to Kamal Amrohi’s role in the picture as a director I fail to perceive any noteworthy part which he has played in the creation of Mahal, except for the boundless opportunity which he gave to Wirsching to exhibit his talents and prowess in his own field. One would have preferred a more sensible and logical solution of the mystery than the drivelling gamut of reincarnation which badly cripples whatever interest audience may have held in the story. From the moment Amrohi strove to bring the three generations hobnobbing into the picture he missed the mark and in trying to hit an overbound he failed to contact the ball.
In the first half of the picture the eerie atmosphere fits in well with the mood and the events depicted. But from the moment Vijaylaxmi steps in and Ashok Kumar drags her through an interminable process of climbing and panting, does Mahal from a well balanced picture suddenly merges into a blood curdling boredom, which, as I have already mentioned, also gives one a cold fright.
The most glaring inconsistency in the story was the letter written by Vijaylaxmi, in the role of Ashok Kumar’s wife, to her sister-in-law confiding the secret of suicide to her. If she wished her husband to die because of her false confession than why did she write that letter thus, most obviously ruining her own plans? Then again how did the last letter of Vijaylaxmi went to dead letter office when all others were delivered safely? Obviously to bring about the court scene and other following scenes which would otherwise could never have been presented as Amrohi wanted.
Kamal Amrohi’s idea of a Dak Bungalow seems to be a dilapidated broken down, dusty and inhabitable shack, nestling precariously on what seems to be a mountain. Its only dwellers appear to be bats, snakes and cobwebs. Such gross and blatant ignorance is ridiculous and Amrohi would have done better to see what a Dak Bungalow looks like before depicting it in Mahal. Granting even for the sake of argument that Dak Bungalows are a battleground for bat and snake fights and that this particular one was not inhabited for a long time, then one would question as to how a well regulated clock giving correct time happened to be there?
Ashok Kumar and Madhubala have both given the finest performance of their careers, thus adding extra luster to their already shining reputation. The rest of the cast including Vijaylaxmi, Kanu Roy, and Kumar did their parts well.
If only Amrohi had left spiritualism alone and wound up this mystery melodrama in a normal way, Mahal would have become the finest picture to come out of the Indian film industry.
Music by the late Mr. Khemchand Prakash was most melodious. Songs were well composed and dialogues were written intelligently. The defect of Mahal lay in it’s mystic phenomena. Kamal Amrohi’s direction was both brilliant and deft.
Mahal is an unusual picture. By all means it is worth a visit if only to see the superb photography of Josef Wirsching and to indulge in the luxury of seeing something new on the Indian screen. (The Motion Picture Magazine, December 1950)
Cast and Production Credits
Year – 1949, Genre – Mystery/Thriller, Country – India, Language – Hindi, Producer – Bombay Talkies, Director –Kamal Amrohi, Music Director – Khemchand Prakash, Cast – Madhubala, Vijayalaxmi, Kumar, Kanu Roy, S. Nazir, E. Tarapore, Sheela Naik, Neelam, Ashok Kumar