In this monthly column, I’ll spotlight a horror movie from a country outside the United States that has flown under the radar. The goal is to showcase the talents of horror filmmakers around the world and make sure their voices don’t go unheard.
MOVIE: MAHAL (1949)
When I started this column, my goal was, and continues to be, to expose people to more international horror films. I wanted to feature films that were not made in the United States that deserve just as much attention as any mainstream horror releases. But in doing so, I have focused on contemporary releases, which are admittedly my strong suit. I have also neglected certain regions of the world and focused on continents and countries with a steady stream of releases to choose from. However, this month I challenged myself. With the theme Black & White Frights, I wanted to look at a country’s horror film history and pick something older. I could have easily picked November, or A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. But instead, I chose to dive into the world of Bollywood and its first horror movie, Mahal (1949).
Bollywood cinema is comprised of Hindi language films made in Bombay. It’s important to differentiate because the subcontinent of India is divided into several regions each with their own language and cinema. Bollywood cinema is only one type of filmmaking in India, but it accounts for over 40% of box-office revenue. It is often comprised of singing and dancing, which dictate important moments of action, as well as provide impressive set pieces and radio-worthy hits. Many Bollywood films can be classified as melodrama, with elements of romance and action films, too. However, there is also room for horror films, which director Kamal Amrohi proves with Mahal.
To put it simply, Mahal is a gothic haunted house story about reincarnation. It very obviously borrows from Western traditions of horror cinema, while imbuing the film with elements of Bollywood filmmaking and Hindi beliefs that make the story wholly unique. On an Indian riverside sits a massive home, built by a husband for his wife. However, tragedy strikes and he dies at sea, with his wife following soon after as she waited for him to return. 40 years later, the young Hari Shankar (Ashok Kumar) moves into the house. He feels strangely drawn to this place but cannot explain why. Then, he sees a portrait hanging on the wall.
“[Mahal] borrows from Western traditions of horror cinema, while imbuing the film with elements of Bollywood filmmaking and Hindi beliefs that make the story wholly unique. “
The man in the portrait looks just like Shankar. Shankar believes he is the reincarnation of the previous homeowner, which at first does not seem like a problem. But then he meets the ghost of the man’s wife, Kamini (Madhubala). She pines for Shankar and haunts him each night, taunting and enchanting him. Shankar begins to unravel, despite marrying his betrothed Ranjana (Vijayalaxmi) and thus begins a years-long obsession with a spirit and a spiral into tragedy.
There’s no denying the gothic influence on Mahal, particularly in the use of the domestic space, as well as the cinematography and lighting. Shankar’s mansion is labyrinthine, an elaborate maze of gorgeous rooms full of ominous shadows. It is a place of beauty and despair, which is conveyed from the very first moment Shankar walks through its threshold. Mahal’s cinematography emphasizes the despair that lurks in this place as cinematographer Josef Wirsching emphasizes shadows, while also illuminating the protagonists’ eyes.
One particularly stunning moment is when Ranjana is singing on a cliff about wanting to die. As she is perched on a delicate precipice, the camera views her in long shot, placing her body in shadow and making her seem like a ghost. At the cruelty and neglect of her husband, she is losing sight of herself, fading away. She becomes like Kamini, a spirit that is tied to a man’s will. While Mahal focuses on Shankar’s obsession, it becomes a film about the role women are destined to play, how they often must do everything for their husbands, and the consequences of such blind devotion.
Woven throughout these gothic elements is a crucial Bollywood trope: music and dancing. While both men and women sing and dance in Bollywood films, only women sing in Mahal. In having only the women sing, they are afforded their own space where they can freely express their love and pain. Kamini is often shown singing alone about pining for her lost lover, while Ranjana, Shankar’s wife, sings alone to express her disdain for his husband and disappointment about the reality of her marriage. The music of Mahal becomes an outlet for female pain and desire.
“Mahal, while ultimately a tragedy, was still able to capture the hearts, and ears, of the audience through its love songs.“
The power of Mahal’s music extends outside of the film’s diegesis as it rocketed both Madhubala and Lata Mangeshkar, who sang Kamini’s songs, into stardom. The song “Aayega aane wala” was played on the radio and was immediately a hit, with listeners calling in demanding to know the name of the singer. The world of Mahal wasn’t confined to the screen; it existed in the real world through music. Bollywood movies aren’t just about the onscreen spectacle, but about how they can be experienced in everyday life through the power of song. Mahal, while ultimately a tragedy, was still able to capture the hearts, and ears, of the audience through its love songs.
Importantly, the version of Mahal I could find (the Eros DVD on Amazon) is missing footage, potentially due to damage done to the original print. The film is a shining example of why it is crucial to preserve cinema, and also how difficult such a project can be. Physical film deteriorates relatively quickly, and pieces of national horror cinema can easily be lost forever. Despite a missing sequence, we are lucky that Mahal still exists in almost its full form to be watched, analyzed, and enjoyed.
Ultimately, I am so glad I had this column to force me to think outside of my typical viewing habits and start dipping my toes into Indian horror film. Mahal marked the beginning of a new era for Bollywood films and showcases a marriage of Western filmmaking sensibilities with Hindi religious beliefs. Amrohi elevates gothic storytelling with Bollywood’s trademark music and dance numbers, making the story all the more complex and melodramatic. Mahal is a perfect introduction to the world of Bollywood horror, and overall an integral part of film history.