A Class Apart
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Let's take it from the top of the scorecard: Bimal Roy, Ritwik Ghatak, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Dilip Gupta, Sohan Lal, Shailendra, Salil Chowdhury, Dilip Kumar, Vyjayantimala, Pran, Johnny Walker.
Just the names are enough. Imagine the conversations during the story and music sittings, the bakchodi during the recordings, the magic during shooting, when such creative geniuses come together to make a movie. The result is Madhumati — the mother of all reincarnation films in Bollywood.
The images are still fresh — the happy young mountain girl singing Zulmi sang aankh ladi, the dashing new-in-village-shehri babu discovering the verdant beauty of his surroundings as he hums Suhana safar aur yeh mausam haseen, the menacing Raja Ugra Narayan (Pran) who bellows at his servant, "Joota khol janwar kahin ka." The frames are picture perfect, the misty lighting adds to the mystic mood of the film while Salilda's music is as timeless as Anand and Madhumati's love story.
Though hailed as his career's biggest success, Bimalda was criticised for toeing the commercial line with Madhumati after classics like Do Bigha Zameen, Biraj Bahu and Devdas. In an earlier interview, Dilip Kumar recounted how Roy was discouraged to make this film because the audience would find it difficult to absorb the metaphysical layers of the story. The idea of Madhumati was born when Bimalda envisioned a tribal girl who disappears into the wilderness. Hrishikesh Mukherjee prodded his director to go ahead with his conviction and Ghatak translated the image into a story and came back with a bound script.
Vyjayantimala looks back with fondness: "Bimalda's approach to realism was his biggest forte. He never relied on gloss and glamour, but wanted his characters to step out. The first appearance of Madhumati as the fog clears up is a close-up shot of mine. I think it's one of the best shots of my entire career."
Madhumati is replete with beautiful shots. Dilip Gupta's light and shadow framing is of epic standards. The shot of Madhumati with her hands spread out, trapped in front of the wall, and the archway of the purani haveli as Devendra goes looking for the voice calling out to him are all etched in the audience's memory. The entire chandelier sequence — ripped off by Farah Khan in Om Shanti Om — has tremendous recall value.
And then, of course, there is Dilip Kumar. After his emotionally taxing performances in Amar, Daag, Musafir, Deedar and Devdas, the tragedy king was advised by his doctors to take on lighter roles. He chose to act in Madhumati since it was to be shot in Nainital. As Devendra and Anand, Dilipsaab plays the lover boy to the hilt. Case in point: The scene in which he is making a portrait of Madhumati, and stops short, cups his cheek, gives her a look and sighs softly. The dialogue is simple but effective. She: "Kya dekh rahe ho?" He: "Tumhe."
For her part, Vyjayantimala gets to play three different roles — Madhumati, Madhvi and Radha. The promise she makes to her lover, "Main marr jaungi toh bhi tumhare paas hi rahungi" is the soul of the film. Madhumati also remains a testimony to her brilliant dancing abilities. "I was required to dance barefoot on the hills. During a take, I fell on a stone and injured myself. I was in deep pain but the shooting could not be stopped. Bimalda was in a quandary since all my scenes required me to either dance or run around. Then he got a brainwave and made cloth sandals for me," she says.
The music of Madhumati deserves an entire book to itself. Salil Chowdhury and lyricist Shailendra came up with an album of a lifetime. Incidentally, 11 songs were recorded, but only 10 were used. Majrooh had written the deleted song, Tan jale mann jalta rahe sung by Dwijen Mukherjee. The theme of the film is the immortal Lata Mangeshkar rendition Aaja re pardesi. The tune was first used by Salilda in Jagte Raho as the film's recurrent theme. He reworked the tune for Madhumati by adding the haunting melody of the seventh chord, which in itself is incomplete, matching Madhumati's longing. Film lore suggests that Bimalda was not completely on board with the tune, but Lata was adamant that the song was perfect and convinced him to go with it.
Even Suhana safar has a story behind it. Salilda was keen to get Hemant Kumar as the playback singer, but Shailendra persuaded him to choose Mukesh. Incidentally, the lyricist kept the director and composer waiting for long before turning in his words for this song. Apparently he was unable to find a thought that would match the line "Ye gori nadiyon ka chalna uchchal kar." It was on a visit to a hill station when Shailendra saw a young girl walk by, and came up with, "Ki jaise allhad chale pee se mil kar."