Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Crossed connections: love in Madhumati and Vertigo

[From an on-off series about little connections between generally unrelated movies that happened to be made around the same time]

The films: Bimal Roy’s Madhumati and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, both released in the summer of 1958

The case: Hitchcock’s film (one of his least successful when it came out, but now among the most celebrated movies ever made) has a detective, Scottie (James Stewart), becoming obsessed with a woman named Madeleine (Kim Novak); they fall in love, but then she dies (or so he thinks) by falling from a great height, and he comes to believe he is responsible. Shortly afterwards, he meets Judy, who bears a strong facial resemblance to Madeleine – he emotionally arm-twists her into dressing up as his lost love so he can immerse himself in a fantasy.

In Madhumati, a tragic love story is similarly followed by an attempt at remaking/play-acting. Anand (Dilip Kumar) falls in love with a village girl named Madhu (Vyjayantimala) but loses her (she falls from a tall building, though this is not immediately revealed) and wallows in grief and guilt until he meets Madhavi, who looks just like Madhu. He persuades her to dress up as the woman he lost.

A strong similarity in plot points then, but there is a big difference in the two men’s personal imperatives and in the nature of the love depicted in the two films. The obsessed Scottie believes that Judy can somehow become the dead Madeleine, and his “love” has an ugly element of control or possession in it. Madhumati takes the more sentimental position. Once Anand realises that Madhavi is someone else altogether, he doesn’t show the slightest romantic interest in her; he asks her to pretend to be Madhu only so he can trap the villainous Ugranarain (Pran) into a confession.

The point is clearly made in an important scene where Madhavi comes to meet Anand in his cottage. Here is a flesh-and-blood woman who strongly resembles the dead Madhu, and who is sympathetic to his plight – yet he leaves her mid-conversation and dashes outside because he has heard the plaintive song of Madhu’s ghost. It might be said that like Scottie he is chasing a shadow, a woman who doesn’t exist – except that in the world of Madhumati the ghost does exist. A defining difference between the two stories is that Roy’s film believes in the supernatural, and this in turn allows it to posit an eternal version of love, built on the idea that Anand and Madhu are soulmates for all time. (Vertigo pretends for a while to believe in the supernatural – and in reincarnation – but this is eventually revealed to be a red herring.)

The twin motifs of climbing towards a height, and then falling from it, feature strongly in both films too (and in different ways suggest the vertiginous feelings that accompany romantic obsession). Both are breathtakingly good-looking films – one in colour, the other in black-and-white – and the cinematography has an ethereal quality: in Vertigo there is a scene in a cemetery where Scottie (and the viewer) sees the enigmatic Madeleine from a distance, as if through a mist; when Judy first emerges from the bathroom having “transformed” into Madeleine, she seems ghostly too. In Madhumati the mist is a palpable, living presence almost throughout the film, and Madhu is sometimes presented as an apparition, as someone not quite of this world, even before tragedy strikes.

In both films (I know, I’m stretching now) a tree plays a central part in the lovers’ assignations: Madhu and Anand use a tree’s shadow falling across a rock to mark the time of day they will meet; Madeleine counts the rings on an ancient redwood to reflect on the transience of human life. That might seem a minor detail, but the redwood scene is also a reminder of the big divergence between the films: Madhumati is built on circularity and the idea that nothing ever really “ends” – if Anand and Madhu can’t be together in this life, they will always have another chance in the next one – while Vertigo suggests that there are no such second chances and that an attempt to artificially construct one can only result in tragedy; lives are finite and circumscribed, and too often wasted in pursuing an ideal rather than in appreciating what stands in front of you.

And lastly, one of those pleasing coincidences that often occur when one is watching many (varied) films over a short period. Last month I saw two films – on consecutive days – that were dramatized stories about real-life directors. One was Hitchcock, which I wrote about here (and which made a reference to Vertigo’s plot as a variation on Alfred Hitchcock’s real-life treatment of blonde actresses). The other film, Meghe Dhaka Tara, was about Ritwik Ghatak, who was the story-writer of… Madhumati. (If this blog had a soundtrack, this would be the cue for an ululating ghostly wail.) Which brings me to an irony in the Vertigo-Madhumati association: Hitchcock – the “commercial” director, usually associated with escapism – made the more hardheaded film, a cynical work with many scenes that make a viewer feel like he has bitten into a sour lemon; while Roy and Ghatak – both archetypes of the "socially conscious" artist – created a lush melodrama (I don’t use the word pejoratively) about stormy nights, wandering spirits and immortal romance. It’s a pleasing reminder of cinema's limitless possibilities, and of the limits of classification.


  1. What a wonderful piece of writing! Such knowledge, such insight! And the last para, out of this world. All your writings are great, but this one puts you in the league of the best in the business globally - make way Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, we have Jai Arjun Singh. Man gaye ustad!

  2. and once again I get that eerie feeling (cue theremin) you're writing just for me! great column!

  3. Well, see...this is the problem with too much analysis. One tends to see similarities between movies when there aren't any. Nevertheless, its an interesting idea, to compare one movie with another.

    What this post has done to me is to make me think of "inspirations" a euphemism for good, old plagiarism. Although in this case, it doesn't seem to be plagiarism of content, but I wouldn't be surprised if this was inspiration in terms of ideas . Let me give an example. Here's a blog post of India's popular blogger, Amit Verma:


    Although on the face of it, there are no similarities (nothing as egregious as Farid Zakaria), but one can't help but think that Amit was inspired by this post (by Scott Adams). There is a marked similarity in the language, tone, and the way of "asking questions" (exactly what Scott does in 90% of his posts)

    I can't find the link, but when I do, I will put it in the comments space.

  4. One tends to see similarities between movies when there aren't any.

    Uh no, there are very clear similarities between these films, some of which I have written about in the post. Do read it again. But more to the point, I have used those similarities to comment on the important differences between the plots and philosophical positions of the two films. And that is very much a valid function of engaged criticism/analysis.

    (Also, I don't believe there is any such thing as "too much analysis". But I suspect you already know that.)

  5. Mike: glad you liked it. We have discussed the similarities between Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, haven't we? (Both 1962 films too.)

  6. OMG! Blog needs soundtrack AT ONCE.

  7. Interesting.
    Vertigo is ofcourse a much greater film for the simple reason that Jimmy Stewart's character is so very fascinating and many-sided unlike Dilip Kumar's (for no fault of his, ofcourse). As you said, Anand is a very decent and upright man unlike Scottie - who actually betrays his "friend" by getting involved with his wife - something that we tend to gloss over.

    I see a better parallel between Vertigo and Sangam (a '65 melodrama which also stars Vyjayanthimala). No similarity in the plots ofcourse. But Raj Kapoor in the latter film is brilliant as a hurting, self-pitying lover and husband oozing with self-righteousness. Reminds one a lot of Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. In fact I see a few things in common between RK and Stewart in their screen personas.

  8. Shrikanth: that's an intriguing parallel. I was watching some of Sangam on TV the other day (a greatly shortened version, I think - the original was 4 hours long and had two intervals!) and was marveling at Raj Kapoor's capacity for self-pity/self-absorption. Hadn't remembered the film too well, and didn't realise that the "Dost Dost na Raha" song was NOT a commentary on Kapoor's buddy stealing his girlfriend - had seen the video of the song itself many times earlier, and he played the scene with such martyred pathos.

    Kapoor and Stewart I'm going to reserve judgement on - Stewart's "screen persona" accommodated such vastly different films/role types as The Shop Around the Corner and the hard-edged Anthony Mann Westerns. Certainly more interesting to my eyes as an actor (which is not a putdown of RK).

  9. An alternative way of looking at it as Madhumati is that it is a parable narrating the clash of civilizations..

    Anand, the man from the big city represents an unwelcome intrusion of Western civilization in a small Oriental village steeped in hierarchy and exploitative institutions.

    From this perspective I find a parallel between Vertigo and two great Hollywood westerns - Anthony Mann's Man of the West and Ford's The Man who shot Liberty Valance. In both films we have a civilized and enlightened outsider who has a head-on collision with the ways of the Wild West. All three films grapple with the conflict between the new value systems of the big city (as represented by the protagonist) and the old ways of looking at the world (as represented by men like Pran, Wayne, Lee Marvin and Lee J Cobb)

  10. didn't realise that the "Dost Dost na Raha" song was NOT a commentary on Kapoor's buddy stealing his girlfriend - had seen the video of the song itself many times earlier, and he played the scene with such martyred pathos.

    Yes. In the film Kapoor seems to get a kick by facilitating meetings his wife and his buddy. It seems to be a fetish of sorts with him. Similar to Stewart's fetish for making Judy look like Madeleine. Underrated film, Sangam. In some respects it draws inspiration from the great Sirk melodrama Written on the Wind.

  11. Sorry in my previous comment there was a typo.

    It should read -

    "From this perspective I find a parallel between Madhumati and two great Hollywood westerns - Anthony Mann's Man of the West and Ford's The Man who shot Liberty Valance"

  12. Great article, Jai. Enjoyed it, very much.

  13. dustedoff: thanks. Good to hear from you, since you know so much more about old Hindi cinema than I do - I'm still very much in a process of discovery/rediscovery.

  14. Jai - Nice post and since I watched Vertigo recently, could connect to it. Vertigo was a visual treat. It seemed to me that Hitchcock was impressed by American cities and shot them like a curious kid from angles, which one perhaps can not imagine in British cities. At the level of story, I felt I have seen Vertigo in many other films.

    That actress who played double role was superb. The acting is so good! I felt a connection with Chinatown. Both the films were made by directors from outside of the US. Both explored cities. Both have detectives and both have superb female leads.

  15. Pessimist : Hitchcock was practically an American by the time he made Vertigo. I wouldn't say he was still infatuated with America as a curious English kid would be after staying there for nearly 20 years!

    Chinatown is a rather turgid neo-noir lacking the emotional richness and depth of Vertigo.

    I find a stronger Vertigo connect with Indian melodramas as I mentioned earlier in the thread. Films like Sangam and the Rajesh Khanna starrer Aap ki Kasam. Also the truly underrated James Cagney masterpiece - Love me or Leave me