The concept of authoring films wasn’t considered a trademark for mainstream directors from the Bombay film industry: even the biggest of names like Raj Kapoor or Bimal Roy generally never wrote the stories of the cult classics they later directed; though this was a popular norm in the Banglā film industry of Calcutta — helmed by writers-directors like Sailajananda Mukhopadhyay and Premendra Mitra — its occurrence in the West coast was a rarity. It’s in this bright area marked by profundity and extraordinariness that we discover figures like Kamāl Amrohi. He has been described by countless names across the recorded histories of Indian cinema: a man of poetic sensibilities, the purveyor of cinematic renaissance, a rare blood of writers, a beacon of brevity and chutzpah, amongst many more. More of a writer/screenwriter/poet than a director, Kamāl Amrohi, nonetheless, managed to make his name count amongst the most-revered/celebrated of directors from what is known as the Golden Age of Hindustani Cinema. His oeuvre, though brief, is overflown with names of classic films like Mahal (1949), Daaera (1953), and Pakeezah (1972), but what makes Amrohi a pioneer, or a dominant filmmaker, is his cinema’s consistent engagement with subjects/themes deemed different — and the word ‘different’ could be used in a Derridean sense to connotate a variety of meanings: taboo, subversion, liberation, novelty, modernity, etc. The cinema of Kamāl Amrohi was a juxtaposition of these polysemic meanings, and therefore a product attracting conformist criticism and acclaim from neomodern futures.
Most of his cinema resided in the canon of films deemed ‘way ahead of their times’: be it the exploration of adolescent sexuality in Daaera (1953) or the glorification of tawaifs in Pakeezah (1972), or even the concept of paranormal romance in Mahal (1949), Amrohi’s cinema defied the normative traditions of Indian filmmaking and introduced a plethora of cinematic aspects that were both extended and redefined by other filmmakers like Bimal Roy, Muzaffar Ali, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, in terms of both style and theme. Specifically his style, which was an archetypic representation of minimalism and silences — his films are marked by an uncanny silence that frequently recurs across his narratives to transform into either a metaphor for incompleteness or an emblem for psychological depth and tremor. I’m reminded of the beginning of Mahal as Shankar (Ashok Kumar) enters his new mansion and discovers an old photograph of a man who looks exactly like him — a spooky silence then engulfs the film before entering into a song:
A snippet from an early scene in Mahal (1949), featuring Ashok Kumar
This song that I’m referring to became the bedrock for the careers of two of India’s most famed artists, Lata Mangeshkar and Madhubala; but as much as this song hallmarked Mahal, Amrohi and his cinematic understanding of the horror genre was also strongly evident in this film, and even though contemporary audiences might catch elements of German Expressionism across the film, Mahal benefits from Amrohi’s amalgamation of western traditions of horror with the more local conventions of Bombay’s filmmaking, thus making the horror film more composed. A similar atmosphere is created by Bimal Roy in Madhumati (1958), too, and so the influence of Mahal was quite far-reaching, I believe. Beyond being purportedly venerated as India’s first horror film, cinephiles and film historians have often noted Mahal’s archival value and use of melodrama (that normally became a binding, overarching genre for Hindustani cinema), and its cinematic status as an illustration of a promising directorial mind. In a way, Mahal helped transform the careers of many individuals, including Kamāl Amrohi’s, and reshaped Bombay cinema in momentous ways, thereby revolutionising a post-independent Hindustani cinema.
It confirms Mahal’s reservation in the sociocultural memory of Indian cinemas, and moreover, helps centralise Amrohi’s position within the pantheon of commercial and critically-acclaimed directors. Nevertheless, Kamāl Amrohi equally concentrated on the creative aspects of writing, and has been associated with the magnum opus, Mughal-e-Azam (1960), as one of its primary dialogue writers for which he was collectively awarded the much-coveted Filmfare Award for Best Dialogue (sharing it with three other writers, including Wajahat Mirza). Before Mahal, he had even contributed to the success of films like Sohrab Modi’s Pukar (1939), K. Asif’s Phool (1945), and A. R. Kardar’s Shahjehan (1946) by handling the pre-production phases of writing. One of the truest auteurs in some sense, Kamāl Amrohi epitomised sophistication, culture, panache in the most glorious ways possible — and his films are a testimony to a legacy reborn every year, as newer audiences rediscover his cinematic gifts and awaken it to deeper meanings.