Madhumati has often been criticized as one of Bimal Roy's lightweight formulaic films and formulaic it is in its choice of theme and content but Bimalda's sheer skill as a filmmaker transcends above everything to give us an extremely engrossing tale of reincarnation and revenge, which is further boosted by the fine performances, cinematography, editing and above all its scintillating musical score by Salil Choudhury. True, coming after sensitive masterpieces like Do Bigha Zamin (1953), Biraj Bahu (1954) and Devdas (1955), it does appear odd that Bimalda took up such a conventional story but the final film remains one of his most enduring cinematic efforts. In fact, that very year Bimalda came up with another lightweight film again starring Dilip Kumar, Yahudi (1958), which incidentally was also a huge success at the box-office.
Madhumati had all the elements of a typical Hindi Film Potboiler - The Haveli in which the hero experiences a sense of deja vu leading to his flashback, the naive and innocent village belle, the pardesi babu and the lecherous zamindar lusting after the belle but Bimal Roy uses these elements to advantage rather than be hampered by them. Madhumati has all the right qualities of an eerie romantic film that hooks the viewer right from the beginning as Dilip Kumar takes shelter from the storm and enters the old haveli.
Bimalda's ability to recreate mood and ambiance is again displayed throughout the film be it the luscious romantic interludes outdoors or the swinging chandeliers and dark shadows within the haveli but none better than in the scene of the mela where the several documentary like establishing shots beautifully capture the sheer rustic flavour of the mela. But even here the mastery of the filmmaker is seen as it isn't merely coverage but small human touches in these shots like a young boy hungrily eyeing a food stall or the various times that both Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala cross each other's paths without noticing the other (they do so finally at the end of the sequence) - a good 37 years before the much talked about crossing of paths of Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995). This eye for detail in capturing a flavour is seen once again in Images of Kumbh, a film put together by Bimalda's son Joy Roy from footage that Bimalda shot of the Kumbh Mela to be used as part of a feature film Amar Kumbh ki Khoj, which sadly never got made. Incidentally the ambiance of the crowd in the Kumbh film is the ambiance sound from the mela scene of Madhumati! Another masterful touch is the shot of Dilip Kumar's hands holding up the painting of Madhumati in the foreground and when he brings down his hands in the background we see Madhavi standing there. We are as shocked as he is to see her.
Admittedly, on the fall side there are elements catering to the commercial requirements of mainstream Hindi Cinema that do stick out and take a toll on the story for example the entire lengthy 'comic' sequence with Johnny Walker and the exorcist which adds nothing of value to the film and slows down the otherwise engaging film.
The performances are right on-key. While their roles are none too demanding both Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala turn in most capable performances. For the latter, the film showcases both her acting as well as dancing abilities and the dizzying success of Madhumati took Vyjayanthimala to the highest rungs of stardom. Sadhana (1958) coming the same year saw a remarkable and sensitive in-depth performance from her (She won the Filmfare Award for Best Actress for the same) to cap off an extremely successful year for her. Both, as an actress of considerable dramatic merit and as a star. Pran in particular scores heavily as the lecherous zamindar reinforcing his status as perhaps the greatest villain ever to grace the Indian Screen. (Such was his impact on moviegoers that an unofficial survey of schools in the 1970s revealed that not a single child had been named Pran for as many as 10 years!)
The film, Bimalda's biggest commercial success, was scripted by Ritwik Ghatak. In fact, many of the people involved in this film had worked together on Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Musafir (1957), also based on a Ghatak story. The film is stunningly shot by Dilip Gupta and much of it is actually shot outdoors on location unlike most ghost stories. The evocative song picturizations further help elevate the film.
But above all, the film is a total triumph for Salil Choudhury seeing perhaps his best and most popular musical score ever. Each song be it the haunting Aaja Re Pardesi, the folksy Bichua or Zulmi se Aankh Ladi, Toote Hue Khwabon ne, Suhana Safar or the romantic Ghadi Ghadi Mera Dil Dhadke, Dil Tadap Tadap ke Keh Raha Hai Aa Bhi Jaa or even the comic Jungle Mein Mor Naacha is tuned to perfection. In fact Lata Mangeshkar counts Aaja Re Pardesi from Madhumati as among her ten best songs ever. To quote her, "I love all the songs of Madhumati," she confessed and remembered how happy everyone was on the day Aaja Re Pardesi was recorded. "Lyricist Shailendra gave me flowers. The director Bimal Roy came forward to congratulate me. The song was beautiful and it was such a big hit too."
In Madhumati, Salil Choudhury seems inspired by the verdant hillsides of Assam where as a child he had roamed with his forest officer father. When the songs of Madhumati were composed, the tweeting of birds, the flight of an eagle, and the patter of rain all seemed to seep into the melody. And as always Salilda's background score is right on target lifting the film several notches.
Though some critics slighted the film, Madhumati walked away with nine Filmfare Awards including Best Film, Director, Music, Best Playback Male (Mukesh) and Best Playback Female (Lata Mangeshkar).