A part of the poster for Madhumati (1958). Source: YouTube
A compilation of some natural history and anthropological observations I made while watching Bimal Roy’s classic Madhumati (1958) starring Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala, Pran, Johnny Walker and Jayant. I won’t discuss the entire plot, but I must recount some relevant bits.
Dilip sa’ab plays Anand, the newly appointed manager to a timber estate owned by Ugranarayan (Pran), a powerful zamindar (landlord). While the geographical location of the forested estate is never explicitly named, visuals of the landscape and people make it pretty obvious that it is set somewhere in the Kumaon hills.
Ugranarayan and his timber operations have been in conflict with the local tribal populace, led by their Chief ‘Pawan Raja’ (Jayant). A tenuous truce is reached after much bloodshed wherein the two sides carve out exclusive forest zones within the larger forested landscape. A gurgling forest stream marks the boundary separating Ugranarayan’s ‘private forest’ that he uses for timber harvesting and hunting from the ‘community forest’ of the tribals. Each side is prohibited from entering the forest of the other.
Anand, however, trespasses into this “forbidden territory”, bewitched by a hauntingly beautiful song he often hears echoing through the forest. He eventually finds, and then falls in love with, the singer – Madhumati (Vyjayanthimala), who turns out to be Pawan Raja’s daughter.
Now this is where it gets interesting for a natural historian. Ugranarayan’s forests are depicted as being mercilessly hacked, and the zamindar also often mentions his ‘shikar’ forays into his forest along with his friends. However, as soon as Anand crosses the stream to enter the territory owned by the tribals, the forest suddenly transforms. The first thing Anand sees is a herd of Cheetal deer. They are visibly very relaxed and at peace. Then, lunging through the canopy branches, appears a Hoolock Gibbon! Yes, it is an error since India’s only ape is native to the forests of northeast India rather than Kumaon, but it is a sweet moment nonetheless.
Anand is pleased, and even tries imitating the Gibbon to draw his attention! I wonder if this might be the first (and last?) appearance of a Hoolock Gibbon in Bollywood!
However, even though the movie hints at tribal forests being an oasis of peace and protection for the local wildlife, the movie also simultaneously establishes them – or at least their chief Pawan Raja – to be expert hunters. When Anand enters Pawan Raja’s modest wood-cottage for the first time, I could notice various pelts (a deer, some small cat?) and horns (seemed almost like a young bison’s horn) bolted on the wooden walls, a tiger head looking down menacingly at Anand, a big cat (or bear?) skull that Anand accidentally drops, and some arrows.
Incidentally, there are other very interesting anthropological bits I noticed, and they were all the more special to me as a Jharkhandi. I’ll explain. In one of the scenes, Madhumati takes Anand to the burial grounds of her ancestors. Each departed is marked by a menhir (an upright burial stone), but the kind of menhir Bimal Roy and Ritwik Ghatak (story and script-writer) chose to show bore striking resemblance to the Sasan Diri burial stones of the Ho Adivasis native to Singhbhum in south-eastern Chotanagpur.
Similarly, in another scene when Madhumati’s doppelgänger Madhavi is scheduled to give a dance performance, the board advertising it specifies that it would be a “Santhal dance”. Santhal Adivasis are also native to eastern Chotanagpur (including Rajmahal Hills).
These scenes made me wonder if the genesis of these was the deep influence Chotanagpur (abutting Bengal, and being the most easily accessible Adivasi homeland) had had on a section of Bengali intelligentsia and writers of that era, with many noted Bengali writers, poets, anthropologists and activists producing works set in Chotanagpur (usually Singhbhum, Palamau and Hazaribagh). And it is quite probable that perhaps socialist and realist filmmakers like Bimal Roy and Ritwik Ghatak would have been exposed to that popular Bengali imagination of Chotanagpur and its many distinct Adivasi groups as the archetype Adivasi homeland, which was then reflected in this movie where the lead actress was to be a tribal.
There are many scholarly works exploring various aspects of the cinematic masterpiece that Madhumati is, but I couldn’t find anything on the themes I observed that are recounted here.
On a related note, I must make mention of one more fascinating scene. At one point Ugranarayan enters the tribal territory in pursuit of Madhumati, who he lusts after. Interestingly, one of the first visuals Bimal Roy chooses to depict the evil intentions of a horse-riding Ugranarayan is a flashing scene of the herd of Cheetal that used to peaceably graze in these forests suddenly run helter skelter, complementing the menacing thuds of Ugranarayan’s black horse.
Perhaps the Cheetal were a metaphor for the innocence (that is Madhumati’s hallmark), and the black horse a metaphor for evil (that a lustful Ugranarayan is).
The above was about specific natural history moments. However, nature permeates throughout Madhumati. Birds, even though unseen (except when a flock of roosting egrets take flight as Ugranarayan chases his horse after Madhumati), are always there in the background in the form of melodious bird songs that are Anand’s constant companions whenever he is out walking in the forest.
Forest flowers enchant Anand, he stops to smell and appreciate them. There are lovely standalone shots of trees, their leaves and the forest. In fact, often when Roy shoots trees, they come to the fore and it is Anand who becomes a background character in those shots, rather than the other way round. Anand and Madhumati use the length of the shadow of a pine tree to fix the hour of their secret meetings.
A particular rock is Anand’s seat whenever they meet in the forest. Clouds and mist wistfully appear and disappear, probably a metaphor for Madhumati, whose songs (and glimpses) calling out her ‘Pardesi’ (foreigner/outsider) in the initial half of the movie suddenly appear and then vanish as mysteriously, driving Anand’s search for her. It also lends a background to the underlying supernatural theme of the film’s later half. Waterfalls, bouldery streams are an integral part of the duo’s romance.
Butterflies at a small puddle nervously flutter away when Ugranarayan chases after Madhumati. The film’s beautiful songs have elements of nature in it right from the folk song with a scorpion as the hook to poetry on a river and its flow. The list goes on and on.
And so this is one of the many things that make Madhumati so remarkable. The trees, forest, birds and animals, waterfalls, streams, clouds, mist – they aren’t just background props, they are all as much characters in the film as are Dilip sa’ab or Pran or Vyjayanthimala.
The author originally published the contents of this article as a Twitter thread. The Wire Science has compiled and presented the tweets here with permission.
Raza Kazmi is a conservationist, wildlife historian and storyteller based in Jharkhand. He also a New India Foundation Fellow 2020, under which he is working on his book, tentatively entitled The First of Nine: The Story of Palamau Tiger Reserve.