In 1942, the breakaway group from Bombay talkies formed itsown Film Studio - Filmistan. As Filmistan grew from strength to strength, Bombay Talkies began to decline and was making huge losses. Ashok Kumar, who used to be Bombay Talkies biggest star and who was part of the breakaway group to Filmistan, returned to his alma mater so to speak in the late 1940s to try and turn the company around. In the wake of this effort came Mahal, perhaps India's first suspense and ghost story!
Mahal was Kamal Amrohi's first film as director and immediately sets him apart as a filmmaker. It was a film that was startlingly different in its times, a tragic psychodrama - thriller with overtones of a ghost story. At that time Amrohi was a scenarist at Bombay Talkies and writer of some repute. He took the story to Ashok Kumar who immediately agreed to produce the film. Mahal was among the earlier efforts to improve not only the content but also the form of Hindi Films. The film is till date known for its richly textured visuals, the imaginative use of sound, its tantalizing ambiguity and of course its haunting music.
Mahal is held solidly together by its two central performances - Ashok Kumar and Madhubala. Along with Motilal it was Ashok Kumar who brought a more natural style of performing to Indian Cinema. Dadamoni was one of the earliest actors who understood the cinematic medium and realized that acting was reacting as well. Before Dadamoni, most artistes would just say their lines and that was it but Dadamoni knew that silences and reactions in fact constituted more of acting rather then just dialoguebaazi. In Mahal, Ashok Kumar plays the obsessed lover to perfection. Just see the look in his eyes as he follows the 'ghost' leading him on.
Mahal finally made Madhubala a star. Though she had already been a heroine for a couple of years starting with Kidar Sharma's Neel Kamal (1947), it was Mahal that made her a star. For the first time her famous looks came into focus as well as she began to blossom into the most beautiful Hindi Film heroine ever. Madhubala is spot on as the spirit that haunts Ashok Kumar bringing a haunting quality to her performance as well. What is ironic was that Madhubala was never the first choice at all. Many actresses including Suraiya were considered for the role before Madhubala was finally chosen. Today it is impossible to think of anyone but Madhubala in Mahal. Incidentally, it was a sort of coming home for Madhubala too as she had been a child star in one of Bombay Talkies biggest hits - Basant made in 1942 and here she was playing the heroine and that too opposite the studio's top actor.
But even more than Ashok Kumar and Madhubala, perhaps the biggest reason for Mahal's success was its superhit music. Khemchand Prakash scored the music of Mahal. The soundtrack of Mahal was light-years ahead of its time in terms of its music, use of sounds and orchestration. A pioneer in the field of classical music and Rajasthani folk music, Khemchand Prakash had a complete grasp of Marwar folk songs, thumris and ghazals. He was among the major Music Directors of the 40s along with Ghulam Haider, C Ramchandra, Anil Biswas and Naushad and is considered to be his Guru by Naushad. The key song Aaega Aanewala sung by Lata Mangeshkar is brilliantly used as a leitmotif for the ghost and set the trend for a suspense and ghost film to always have a song that works as a leitmotif throughout the film be it Madhumati (1958), Woh Kaun Thi (1964) or Mera Saaya (1966). It is said the recording began with the mike placed in the center of a large hall with Lata in the corner of the room. As the prelude began she inched her way to the mike singing Khamosh Hai Zamana (an early use of prelude before the actual song - here lyrics were written by Amrohi himself). Mahal, without a doubt, represents the finest work of Khemchand Prakash at his peak. Interestingly, during the production of Mahal, someone carelessly remarked to the studio authorities that if the film did not prove to be a hit it would be because of the music. When the film was released, of course it proved to be extremely popular. He received innumerable letters from all over India. In spite of being ill, Khemchand Prakash took a cab to the man's house and forced him to read all those letters.
While Aaega Aanewala proved to be a turning point in her career, 1949 was also the year that the Lata Mangeshkar phenomenon took off as apart from Mahal, her songs in other films released the same year such as Andaz, Barsaat and Dulari reached hithertho unknown levels of popularity. Such was Lata Mangeshkar's impact that within a year she had changed the face of the playback singer as her highly trained high-pitched singing rendered the nasal, basy voices of the day totally obsolete. At least music directors had found the voice that could stretch their creative experiments to the fullest. The only two singers to survive the Lata onslaught were Geeta Roy and, to a certain extent, Shamshad Begum as Lata went on to conquer all and sundry with her magical voice and become the greatest singer that India has ever seen. Incidentally Mahal sees two other wonderful Lata solos as well - Dil ne Phir Yaad Kiya and Mushkil Hai Bahut Mushkil both on Madhubala.
Besides turning around Lata Mangeshkar's career, It was Khemchand Prakash who gave Kishore Kumar his initial break with Marne ki Duayen Kyon Mangoon in Ziddi in 1948 and gave him one of his earlier assignments in Rhim Jhim coming the same year as Mahal. Unfortunately, Khemchand Prakash couldn't live for long to enjoy Mahal's stupendous success as he passed away the following year when still in his early 40s. But not before giving another scintillating musical score in the Raj Kapoor - Nargis starrer Jan Pehchan (1950).
The other singer that Mahal is a triumph for is Rajkumari. Rajkumari began her career in the late 1930s as a singer actress with Prakash Pictures. But the love of food and a resulting weight problem forced her to concentrate on playback singing only. Rajkumari sang in an era when the rupee had value, petrol cost 6 annas a gallon and she was paid the princely sum of Rs 50 a song! Such was her success that even before partnerships like Mukesh - Raj Kapoor or Talat Mahmood - Dilip Kumar or Mohammed Rafi - Dilip Kumar were formed, heroines like Shobhana Samarth had stipulations in their contracts that Rajkumari would sing for them! Mahal sees some of Rajkumari's greatest work as a singer with splendid use of her sweet voice that was strong yet not sharply high pitched. The song Ghabrake jo Hum Sar ko Takraye to Achcha Ho on Vijayalakshmi is perhaps the greatest song sung by Rajkumari in her entire career.
The original Bombay Talkies cameraman Josef Wirsching shot the film and he does a splendid job of playing with light and shadow to maintain the mood of the story. Interestingly, the lighting inspired by the German Expressionist Films of the late 1910s and early 1920s was initially far darker and moodier with a much more sombre use of light and shade but the studio executives felt in India, the audiences must see everything and so the look of the film was made a little brighter. The film is further enhanced by its deep focus photography creating haunting images of Madhubala walking down long corridors of the haveli.
Released in 1949, Mahal was a tremendous success at the box office. Even as it made the careers of Kamal Amrohi, Madhubala and Lata Mangeshkar, sadly however the film offered but a temporary relief to Bombay Talkies' declining fortunes and by 1954 this great institution of filmmaking finally folded up. One cannot help but notice the influence of Mahal on Bimal Roy's Madhumati made a good 9 years later as Dilip Kumar too comes to a strange mansion at night and in the dark, eerie atmosphere of large shadows, swinging chandeliers he sees his own portrait there... Madhumati also makes use of the 'ghost' song as a leitmotif this time with Aaja re Pardesi sung again by... who else but Lata Mangeshkar. And coincidentally, Lata considers both Aaega Aanewala and Aaja re Pardesi among her ten best songs ever!