Friday, 25 September 2009

Mahal (1949)

I am still on something of a Bollywood kick, since Channel Four is running a brief season of classic movies, fortunately only two per week since they are all long and take some watching. I was actually quite charmed by this entry, the title of which translates as 'The Palace' or 'The Mansion'.

A young lawyer overnights at a deserted mansion which his father has recently purchased and learns the legends of its haunted history from the resident gardener, who tells him that it was built for a mysterious man and his forbidden lover, both of whom died before they could live there together. He is puzzled to find a portrait from some forty years previous which is self-evidently a representation of his own face and he decides that he has been reincarnated solely to revisit the scene of his previous love. This is compounded when he views a beautiful woman through the screens and shadows, who seems to come and go like a ghost. Despite being betrothed to another, he is smitten with this vision and it begins to obsess him. An attempt by a close friend to lure him away by employing some sultry dancing sirens fails and ultimately his father must drag him away to fulfill his marriage contract. However, even some years of wedlock (during which he has not once viewed his wife's face) and distancing himself to a remote cabin can not protect him from the siren's lure. His spurned wife eventually learns the cause of his disdain, poisons herself, and frames him for her murder.

The ghostlike beauty is played by Madhubala who is called "The Venus of the Indian Screen" and who is considered the most beautiful of all Indian actresses. She died aged only 36 and left some 70 films. She was certainly a lovely presence in this movie, but last week I saw her in one made some six years later, "Mr. and Mrs. '55" in which I found her heavily pock-marked skin distracting. Never mind, in this film she made a strong impression and the atmospheric photography as she appeared amongst the elaborate architecture and ornate gardens was enthralling. Her would-be lover was played by Ashok Kumar, one of the most famous of Indian screen actors with a long and distinguished career. The shock revelations set in the court where he is being tried for murder show that everything had a non-mystical explanation after all, but this does not detract from the overall appeal of this film.

The only problem I had was my failure to have an educated ear for the long love dirges which took up such a proportion of the film's running time. To call the sound caterwauling is I know both unfair and ignorant on my part, but I do admit to fast-forwarding through one or two of the neverending numbers. Shame on me!
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