The Archetypal World of Madhumati
‘Madhumati‘ is one of the most successful films of the legendary filmmaker Bimal Roy. A revenge-drama, thriller, romantic, mystery film, it presented to the audience, who had already seen Mahal in 1949, the idea of reincarnation in a more believable manner.
The highest-grossing Hindi film of 1958, Madhumati’s story was written by one of the most influential Bengali filmmakers and screenwriter Ritwik Ghatak, while the prolific Urdu novelist Rajinder Singh Bedi wrote the dialogues. The melodious soundtrack was composed by Salil Chowdhury and the lyrics were penned by Shailendra. The film won nine Filmfare Awards and the National Film Award for the Best Film in Hindi.
The duo, Roy and Ghatak, created a piece that has inspired every Hindi film dealing with the theme of reincarnation. Let us try to understand the novelty of the screenplay of Madhumati.
The storytellers often use a literary device – hook or narrative hook – at the very beginning of a story to immediately grab the viewer’s attention; the starting sequence of Madhumati is a brilliant example of this.
On a dark, rainy night, the hero (Dilip Kumar), along with his friend, is on his way to a railway station. The thunderstorm, mountainous road and hero’s restlessness creates tension; he tells his friend that he does not want his wife and child to wait at the platform on such a night. Thus, the story hooks the viewer instantly, so much so that one involuntarily starts expecting something dramatic that will stop the hero from reaching on time. This hunch proves right; a landslide compels the hero and his friend to take shelter in an old mansion until the driver can fetch a few men from a nearby village.
The Haveli’s door creaks open itself, an old man comes walking towards them with a lantern in his hand, his ghostly expressions and the overall setting subtly triggers the mysteriousness that will be present throughout the story; subtly because logic is still entertained here – the old man explains that he opened the ‘automatic’ door which has a switch in the hall.
Until now the audience is with the anxious hero, worried for him that something external, probably a spirit, might cause him harm, but as the hero starts recognizing the place as if he had been there before, the audience detaches itself to observe the hero more objectively. This is the writer’s masterstroke that in a few minutes the audience connects with the hero and in another second sits back to listen to the hero’s saga.
The saga links the hero with the Haveli, with a particular portrait and with a girl’s voice that only he can hear. The wild storm sets the mood for a revelation; the girl’s sob leads the hero to a portrait that he claims he had painted; it is the painting of the late owner of the Haveli, Raja Ugranarain (Pran) and thus, the hero starts to narrate as he remembers his past life’s story.
The entire love story, the twists and turns, the climax; happen in the flashback. The melodious songs, the scenic surroundings build the atmosphere of otherworldliness and the enchanting love story hypnotises and makes one forget that it is a tale within a tale. Anand (Dilip Kumar) meets Madhumati (Vyjayanthimala). He is struck by her beauty and simplicity, she is charmed by his bravery and honesty; the city-bred Babu, boasting the egalitarian progressive ideas, is not threatened by his colleagues who worship the corrupt and biased elite class.
The Archetypal Characters
An archetypal character has come to be considered a universal model. Archetypes are found in mythology, literature, and the arts, and are largely unconscious image patterns that cross-cultural boundaries. All the main characters in Madhumati are archetypes.
Raja Ugranarain is an archetypal villain whose sole purpose is to oppose the hero; in every scene, his inherent wickedness is highlighted. For example, in his entry scene, riding on a horse he almost crushes a little child when Anand comes and saves the child on time. He is arrogant and behaves rudely with his servants, treating them as his slaves. When he sees the alluring Madhumati for the first time, he attempts to grab her but fails.
Considering himself to be invincible because of his wealth, all he knows is to seize. He goes to every extent to get Madhumati and once he traps her in the Haveli, he tries to rape her. After she jumps from the terrace, he, showing no remorse, makes sure that her dead body is buried in the jungle. In the end, when he is cornered by Anand and Madhumati’s spirit he admits to his crime and is, subsequently, arrested by the police.
Charan (Johnny Walker) is Anand’s valet who is given the archetypal role of the Fool (for comic-relief) in the story. He often warns Anand not to trust anyone or mingle with the wrong sorts, but mainly cares only for a drink. Through a satirical song, he questions the questioning society and reminds the viewers that evil thoughts and actions are more harmful than alcohol. He does support Anand when he is devastated, but never leaves his character trait. The scene in which he urges a psychic to help Anand puts him back in command as the comedian and after doing his bit by the climax this character exits the story.
Similarly, Anand is a true Hero with the archetypal qualities of being kind as well as brave. He will do anything to help others and kill or die for his love. Throughout the story, Anand, directly and indirectly, keeps challenging the villain. He takes a stand for the downtrodden and is not afraid of the king.
When Madhumati dies, in his anger he attacks Raja Ugranarain in the Haveli who is enjoying a dance performance. Anand beats up Ugranarain, but soon his goons take over him. The hero is defeated and a period of lull passes; just as an insane man, he runs around looking for his love, until one day he finds a girl – Madhavi – who looks exactly like Madhumati.
Anand then regains his strength and plans wisely; he acts like a repenting man and requests Ugranarain to let him make a painting of his so that he can earn something.
Anand and Madhumati trick Ugranarian to speak the truth and thus, after hearing his confession the police arrests him. Alone with Madhumati, Anand realises that it is Madhumati’s spirit that helped him and not her look alike Madhavi. Anand follows her and jumps off the roof to meet his love, his Madhumati.
Madhumati is the archetypal rebel – the one who cannot be tamed; she is innocent and full of warmth, but also strong and independent unlike the usual heroines of the 50s. She is portrayed as the queen of the jungle (she is after all the tribal chief’s daughter) running around in the forest, leaving behind the hero who is not used to the tribal ways. In a scene, when the hero asks her if she is not afraid to return to her house through the forest at night, she laughs loudly at the question and then leaves. Confidently, she takes the hero to her father who, upon finding out that Anand works for Raja Ugranarian, warns her never to meet him again, but this does not stop her and later Madhumati herself asks Anand if he would marry her.
Overshadowing a tragic episode, Madhumati tells Anand that she was never afraid of death, but she is now as she wants to live for Anand’s sake. Immediately after this, she is ambushed and trapped in the Haveli; there too instead of giving in, she chooses to end her life and thus, jumps off the terrace.
Madhavi, not just by looks but by character traits, is also like Madhumati. She represents the modern woman, who after knowing the truth, decides to help Anand.
The complete album of Madhumati, composed by Salil Chaudhary, was a super-hit becoming one of the many reasons for the film’s massive success. Songs like Aaja Re Pardesi, Suhana Safar Aur Ye Mausam Haseen, Dil Tadap-Tadap Ke Keh Raha Hai, Chadh Gayo Paapi Bichua, Jungle Mein Mor Nacha in the voices of the legends like Mukesh, Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammad Rafi and others added to the strength of the story. Shailendra’s brilliant lyrics worked superbly with the tribal folk music, giving the film an authentic appeal.
Suhana safar aur ye mausam hansi, humey dar hai hum kho na jaye kahin (a wonderful journey and this beautiful weather, I am afraid that I might get lost)… this melodious number sung by the hero is like an introductory song, he is welcoming himself and the viewer to the picturesque landscape which is so fascinating that one can get lost in its vastness. The stanzas talk about how the hero is hopeful that all his dreams might come true in this magical place, and so it does, as he meets the love of his life, Madhumati, here.
The mystical song – Aaaja re pardesi, main to kabse khadi is paar ki akhiyan thak gayi panth nihaar (Come O parted-lover, I have been standing here for so long, my eyes are tired of staring down the path) – has become a symbol of unfulfilled love yearning to reunite in life or death.
List to this mystical track now –
Madhumati is a landmark film, every aspect of it complements the other; the scenery and the sequences shot in the studio are compelling and the images are very powerful. The only scene that appears as a misfit is the last scene when Divender (Dilip Kumar) meets Radha (Vijayanthimala) at the railway station, Radha does not say a word, but is happy to see Divender who, as if to underline the theme, tells her how they are meant to be partners in every lifetime. The film ends as we see the little child smiling happily at his parents. According to an online article Ritwik Ghatak never wrote this last sequence, which probably means that the film ends in the mansion where Divender says that he has finally got his Madhumati in the present birth as his wife Radha.
Madhumati is a fantastic study of Hindi cinema as it shows how our storylines incorporate mysticism in romances, make the mundane grand, celebrate emotions via songs, heighten the drama, leaving the audience enthralled. The greatly detailed script of Madhumati gives it superb clarity and makes it a compulsory study for a screenwriter.
[Originally written for the Screenwriters Association (SWA), you can check the same here.]
Complement with another post on archetypal characters in a South Korean show Arthdal Chronicles.