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Haunted Havelis, Thieves, and Auto Wallahs: Bollywood checks into the Hitchcock Motel

03 Mar, 2020 | Long Features by Cinemaazi Team Member Madhubanti De
Biren Nag's Kohraa (1964). Image courtesy: Wikipedia.

Hollywood directors like Quentin Tarantino, Roman Polanski and Francis Ford Coppola have often made appearances in Indian cinema—with films like Kaante (Sanjay Gupta, 2002), Manorama Six Feet Under (Navdeep Singh, 2007) and Sarkar (Ram Gopal Verma, 2005) respectively—but the one popular filmmaker from Hollywood with a sustained influence on Indian cinema, from the 1960s onwards, has been Alfred Hitchcock. With their clever mix of murder, suspense and romance themes, Hitchcock’s films have been smoothly adapted in a number of Indian films. With films like Saavi (Karthik Raghunath, 1985) in Tamil, Hitchcock easily transitioned from a mainstay in Hindi-language films to other genres and languages as well. A few notable examples include Biren Nag’s adaptation of Rebecca (1940) with Kohraa (1964), The 39 Steps (1935) made into Basu Chatterjee’s Chakravyuha (1978), Vijay Anand’s Jewel Thief (1967), inspired by the universe that To Catch a Thief (1955) operated within and the Sanjay Dutt-Meenakshi Seshadri starrer Inaam Dus Hazaar (Jyotin Goel, 1987), a fun-filled take on North By Northwest (1959). Hitchcock left his traces markedly in Raj Khosla’s work in the 1960s, with Woh Kaun Thi? (1964), Mera Saaya (1966) and Anita (1967)—haunting music, foggy landscapes, femme fatales, and claustrophobic close-up shots of Sadhana in these films closely followed what an international audience would have recognized as trademark Hitchcock fare. Two decades later, Vidhu Vinod Chopra paid cinematic tribute to Psycho (1960), intercutting shots from the film’s iconic shower scene playing on the television with audio of a character’s murder in the shower in Khamosh (1985). What is it, then, that makes Hitchcock so adaptable to the templates of Indian cinema? 

With their focus on the destructive force of desire, the power dynamic that underlies them, double roles and doppelgangers, the obsessive pursuit of a lover, and the masala that defines a good suspense thriller, the bare bones of a Hitchcock film settle comfortably into the flesh and blood of a ‘typical’ Indian melodrama
The answer is as deceptively simple as the plots of most of these films. With their focus on the destructive force of desire, the power dynamic that underlies them, double roles and doppelgangers, the obsessive pursuit of a lover, and the masala that defines a good suspense thriller, the bare bones of a Hitchcock film settle comfortably into the flesh and blood of a ‘typical’ Indian melodrama. Biren Nag adroitly demonstrates this with Kohraa, made two decades after the original Rebecca, based on Daphne du Maurier’s eponymous novel. Kohraa was Nag’s second film as a director; he had already released the widely acclaimed Bees Saal Baad (1962), which many saw as a genre-defining moment in the history of Indian horror cinema. Previously, Nag had worked as an art director with Guru Dutt in films like Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). Both the films provided him with experience not only in creating atmospheric sets, but also framing within them his choice of female lead, Waheeda Rehman. Bees Saal Baad’s huge success meant that Nag used the same crew for Kohraa. He also utilized Lata Mangeshkar’s voice for Jhoom jhoom dhalti raat (Lyrics- Kaifi Azmi, Music- Hemant Kumar), the haunting melody that binds the narrative together, a decision that had paid off in Bees Saal Baad with Kahin deep jale, kahin dil (with lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni, set to Hemant Kumar’s music). A marvelous example of the use of extraneous music in Hindi cinema, the lingering tune seemed to emanate from another world, keeping the ghostly presence of Poonam alive throughout the film.
A marvelous example of the use of extraneous music in Hindi cinema, the lingering tune seemed to emanate from another world, keeping the ghostly presence of Poonam alive throughout the film.
 
Though it was a box office failure, Kohraa had an impressive cast: Waheeda Rehman, already a star, Biswajit, dubbed the ‘suspense hero from Bengal’, and Lalita Pawar, the go-to actor for female villains. Much of the strength of the film, even in the original, relied on the acting prowess of the two women. Waheeda Rehman as the spirited Rajeshwari and Lalita Pawar as Dai Maa played their roles to perfection, granting the film its moderate success. G.L. Jadhav and T.K. Desai’s art direction skillfully replicated the majestic sweep of Manderley with miniatures for the outside views of Mayfair, and opulently decorated interiors for the rest of the film. The combination of the two leaves the viewer guessing, as Hitchcock does. We never really have a complete sense of the unending house, even as the walls and ceilings seem to close in on the characters in their oppressive glamour. Marshall Braganza’s technical expertise with the camera added to the mix, using light and shade to its best advantage. Biswajit in an interview recalls how he followed the actors in a car with the camera mounted upside down to get the perfect shot. Taking off from Hitchcock’s use of silence followed by sudden sound, Nag amped up the melodrama in the film with a skillful use of sudden background music. Lilting melodies populate the film with a hint of the tragic, best exemplified in Yeh Nayan Dare Dare, sung by Hemant Kumar and penned by Kaifi Azmi. In Kohraa, Rebecca’s costume design undergoes a subtle change. While Biswajit’s Raja Amit Singh is dressed incredibly like Max de Winter, down to the pencil-thin moustache, Dai Maa is dressed either in all-white or all-black, indicating the ambivalence of her character. Hitchcock’s narrator dons dark colours only after the mystery is revealed, but the more spirited Rajeshwari is dressed in a number of colours. The all white costume with a profusion of veils is reserved for the dead Poonam. By the last half hour, Poonam’s clothes have taken on a life of their own, and become the ghost that haunts Raj. 
 
Biswajit and Waheeda Rehman on the sets of Kohraa. Image courtesy: Filmfare October 18 1963
 
By the last half hour, Poonam’s clothes have taken on a life of their own, and become the ghost that haunts Raj
Unsurprisingly, though the film cuts short their courtship, Kohraa focuses a great deal on the lead pair’s desire for each other after their marriage. Unlike Max and Hitchcock’s unnamed narrator, Raj and Amit are often physically intimate, bringing to the Indian screen the overriding theme of sexuality as motive of the action. Richard Allen argues that strong sexual metaphors abound in the film, with Poonam’s shower scene—again reminiscent of Psycho—as well as the drops of sweat and water that often cover Raj’s face. While both their sexuality is repeatedly emphasized, Raj desires within the permissible bounds of her marital relationship, while Poonam steps outside the house, both literally and otherwise, marking her for certain death. As the narrative builds to its crescendo of tension, Poonam is slowly but surely established as the ‘bad woman’, the scandal at the heart of the mansion. Nevertheless, mirrors multiply across the surface of the film, making each woman a double of the other, hinting at Hitchcock’s game of lies which implicates the whole cast of characters. 
Despite these innovations in adaptation, Kohraa’s greatest strength also becomes its greatest weakness. The feudal setting, crumbling wealth slipping out of the hands of a wealthy manor owner with a dark secret, all of these seem ingredients for a winning formula of horror (Dracula, anyone?). However, Nag’s film does not take this decline to its logical conclusion. Unlike Manderley, which burns to the ground, Mayfair is left standing at the end of the story. Ultimately, the narrative’s obsession with inheritance and property lands the faithful servant in the docks. It is true that Kohraa attempts to reflect on the decline of powerful zamindar families in Bengal, and their increasing obsolescence by the 1960s. However, stuck somewhere between a supernatural thriller and a whodunit, the film is unable to commit fully to its project of depicting feudal ruin, and the unsettling of power upheld throughout the film ends in a peaceful resolution that exonerates both Amit and his faithful wife, now capable of helping him administer his large estate. 
Mirrors multiply across the surface of the film, making each woman a double of the other, hinting at Hitchcock’s game of lies which implicates the whole cast of characters

Made only three years later, Vijay Anand’s Jewel Thief is vastly different in tone. For one, it is a world of colour, and one that has been opened up to the global and the urban. Set in the roaring ‘60s, Jewel Thief combines elements of To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958) and employs to the hilt the classic Hitchcockian convention of the “wrong man thriller”. Taking off from the mis/recognition melodrama that provides the backbone to thrillers like Kohraa, Jewel Thief introduces a smooth, suave, fast-talking hero with an equal capacity for romance and comedy. Like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, Dev Anand’s Vinay is equipped with only his wits (and his dashing costume) when he is drawn into a game of doubles, shadowing himself through Delhi and the ‘exotic’ Gangtok. In a scene that adapts with panache James Stewart’s breakdown in Vertigo, Vinay suffers a seeming breakdown, aided by the machinations of a criminal mastermind, but emerges victorious at the end, which keeps with the rules of popular Hindi cinema. Bolstered by the rogue persona he had taken on in earlier films like Baazi (1951) and Jaal (1952), Dev Anand slips into Cary Grant’s shoes with ease. His clothing, his scarf, and his swagger—head cocked to the side, a cigarette dangling from his lips—closely mimics that of Grant’s in To Catch a Thief. Like Grant’s Robie, he is constantly watched, with gazes replicating across the film even as the camera lovingly follows him. In a comedic imitation of Robie’s suave seduction of Grace Kelly’s Frances Stevens in the film, Dev Anand’s Vinay enhances the metaphor of bait, walking in the path of Tanuja’s car with a fishing line dangling a white plastic fish.
 
Jewel Thief deftly fits into the spectacle of a new world of conspicuous consumption, repeating Hitchcock’s opening with shop windows displaying jewels placed on women’s busts, successively nabbed by a quick-fingered thief. Desire multiplies on the screen, melding jewels and women’s bodies into the same surface, even as the film maintains the deceptively glamorous world both imply, subverting the very notion of the real. Tanuja as Anjali hints at a chic Western culture of modern love where the woman is unafraid to assert her desires, while Vyjayanthimala’s Shalini sustains the codes of Hindi melodrama. Shalini and Vinay’s relationship plays to the Indian audience’s expectations, starting with her dressed as the forsaken lover in all white in Rula ke gaya sapna (sung by Lata Mangeshkar with lyrics by Shailendra and S.D. Burman’s music). Shalu and Vinay’s story unfolds ensconced in nature, drawing upon the trope of the hill station as a picturesque space for romance in Hindi cinema. The ingenuity of the film lies in that it never loses itself to the traditional melodrama that provides its roadmap, bringing in a suspenseful plot with all the right ingredients—a dastardly criminal gang, comic interludes, action, and a generous dash of romance. Grace Kelly’s sexually ambitious moves are distributed between the two women, ascribing to Tanuja her direct advances towards the hero, and keeping the duplicitous Shalu sacrosanct by way of her need to protect her brother. 
A poster of Jewel Thief (1967) from the Cinemaazi archives
 
The ingenuity of the film lies in that it never loses itself to the traditional melodrama that provides its roadmap, bringing in a suspenseful plot with all the right ingredients—a dastardly criminal gang, comic interludes, action, and a generous dash of romance
Perhaps one of the most remarkable adaptations of Hitchcock, though it largely goes unnoticed, is Inaam Dus Hazaar. Released exactly two decades after Jewel Thief, it uses many of its themes of mistaken identity, a man chasing himself, and a woman who is not who she says she is. Though the film is based on Hitchcock’s landmark North by Northwest, it would be hard to say what it borrows from the original other than the frame of the plot. Certain scenes and even dialogues are exactly replicated in the exciting romp. An auction sequence is taken scene by scene from Hitchcock, and one of Cary Grant’s dialogues is delivered with élan by Sanjay Dutt when he asks Sonia “Tum jaisi ladki tum jaisi ladki kaise banti hai”(“How does a girl like you get to be a girl like you?”). Even so, Sanjay Dutt’s Kamal Malhotra bears very little resemblance to Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill, a high-powered advertisement executive. Dutt plays Kamal as a charming rogue, a salesman of hair dye who does not enjoy his job and dreams of making it big. The young Sanjay Dutt is a surprising choice to play Grant’s polished, suave role, but he makes it his own with his trademark early effervescence and his lovable buffoonery, providing ample opportunity for uproarious comedy. 
 
Inaam Dus Hazaar (1987). Image Courtesy: IMDB
Although at first glance Inaam Dus Hazaar may not appear a graceful Hitchcock adaptation, it steers clear of the auteur’s iconic grandeur and scratches off the glamour of North by Northwest to settle the events comfortably into a middle-class milieu
Although at first glance Inaam Dus Hazaar may not appear a graceful Hitchcock adaptation, it steers clear of the auteur’s iconic grandeur and scratches off the glamour of North by Northwest to settle the events comfortably into a middle-class milieu. Some jewel thievery is thrown in for good measure to replace the Cold War plot, and the hero and his trusted sidekick, (Shafi Inamdar as Karamat Khan), engage in a number of chase sequences, usually in an auto. Keeping in mind its nature as a true-blue masala film, Inaam Dus Hazaar does not aspire to Hitchcock’s complex moral universe either—characters are either good or bad, marked even more so by the casting of actors like Amrish Puri and Viju Khote in the roles of villain and evil sidekick. Arguably, the CID officer Sonia Shrivastav / Kamal Malhotra character played by Meenakshi Seshadri is the most interesting character in the film. Also working to avenge her brother’s death, she effectively repeats the familial motives of Shalini in Jewel Thief. The songs in the film carry out much of the exposition and climactic action, and they are picturized on Seshadri. This marks a significant departure from the two Hitchcock adaptations in the 60s—moving from Waheeda Rehman’s devoted wife through Tanuja’s flirtatiousness into a heroine who performs the dances that were previously relegated to the vamp. In Inaam Dus Hazaar, what is implied in Jewel Thief comes to life on the screen as Sonia puts the coveted jewels literally on display on her body as she dances. Yet again, the film undertakes a complex negotiation, marking her body with seemingly conflicting impulses. She has more agency than Eve Kendall in the original, finally killing the evil Captain, but her courtship with the other Kamal Malhotra is more a pleasant accident than a planned seduction. 
Arguably, the CID officer Sonia Shrivastav / Kamal Malhotra character played by Meenakshi Seshadri is the most interesting character in the film
Moving through two decades of adaptations, therefore, Hitchcock’s classic tales of intrigue managed to maintain their relevance to an audience situated continents away from their origin. The credit, however, is not due merely to the timelessness of the stories, the iconic imagery or even Hitchcock’s genre-defining innovations with the film medium. A large part of it rests with the directors, art directors, music composers and actors who brought them to the Indian screen believably, while still managing to keep an Indian audience enthralled. Perhaps the greatest pleasure of adaptations lies ultimately not in what it indicates about the source material, but the specifics of the environment to which it is adapted, and films like Kohraa, Jewel Thief, Inaam Dus Hazaar among others do so with a great deal of flair. 
 

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