Posted On Monday, May 06, 2013 at 09:00:12 AM
Think of Kamal Amrohi’s directorial debut Mahal and you immediately visualise an ethereal Madhubala sitting on a swing and crooning in Lata Mangeshkar's haunting voice, Ayega ayega, ayega aanewala ayega.
After the release of the path-breaking suspense drama in 1949, the song played on Radio Ceylon every day. More than six decades later, Khemchand Prakash’s unforgettable chart-topper and its alluring ghost continue to send shivers down the spine. I n t e r e s t i n g l y t h o u g h , Madhubala was not the first choice of the studio bosses.
When Amrohi suggested they screen-test this child star, who had debuted only a year ago as Raj Kapoor’s leading lady in Kidar Sharma’s Neel Kamal (1947), Ashok Kumar’s partner at Bombay Talkies and the film’s co-producer, Savak Vacha, was aghast.
Vacha pointed out to the fact that they had already signed Suraiya for the role and Ashok Kumar and she would make a saleable pair. But Amrohi insisted on auditioning Madhubala, and was shocked when he saw the test.
The Venus of the Indian screen looked terrible! Buzz is, German cinematographer Joseph Wirching, who was on the studio’s payroll, had been instructed to shoot the teenage actress at her worst. While no one will admit to this, the fact remains that when Amrohi insisted on a second test, this time arranging the lights himself, the results were unbelievable.
Madubala was stunning, even in black-and-white, and everyone agreed that she was the perfect Kamini! It didn't matter that Ashok Kumar, who played the aristocrat who comes under her spell once he enters the 'haunted' palace, was almost double her age.
"Madubala was just about 15 and so raw that she needed several retakes for almost every shot,” the star admitted years later, adding that had Mahal been a conventional love story, he might have resisted Amrohi’s pressure to be paired with her.
"But Mahal was different, and I was convinced we wouldn’t be miscast," he said. From the day it opened, the film ensnared everyone in its web of deceit and intrigue. Its success surprised the prophets of doom, who said it would only add to Bombay Talkies’ financial woes.
But made on a modest budget of Rs 9 lakh, with Amrohi contributing antiques and costumes from his own home because there was no money to buy props, Mahal was the third highest grosser of 1949. And no one since has asked, "Why Madhubala?”