Friday, August 27, 2004

KOHRAA (1964)

[in English: "Fog"; auf Deutsch: "Der Nebel"]
153 minutes, b&w, Hindi, Geetanjali Pictures
PRODUCER: Hemant Kumar
DIRECTOR: Biren Nag (aka Biren Naug)
STORY: R. Sawant
DIALOG: Kaifi Azmi
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Marshall Braganza
CAST: Biswajeet (as Amit), Waheeda Rehman (as Rajashwari), Lalita Pawar (as Dai Maa)
SUPPORTING CAST: Tarun Bose, Madan Puri, Manmohan Krishna, Asit Sen, Badri Prasad, Abhi Bhattacharya
LYRICS: Kaifi Azmi
PLAYBACK SINGERS: Asha Bhosle, Mahendra Kapoor, Hemant Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar
ART DIRECTION: T.K. Desai and G.L. Yadhav
AWARDS: Filmfare Award for Best Art Direction

Birin Nag's second film for Hemant Kumar and Geetanjali Pictures, Kohraa (1964), was also the last movie this award-winning Bollywood art director-turned filmmaker would ever make. Nag died of a heart attack not long after the film's release; he managed to live just long enough to see it bomb miserably at the box office.

Ostensibly a remake of Hitchcock's Rebecca, Kohraa fared poorly, according to Hemant Kumar, because Nag couldn't decide to make it either a ghost story or a psychological drama sans haunting presence. But that ambiguity--"kohraa," after all, means "fog"--seems intentional. Everything about Kohraa--from the plot to the cinematography--seems crafted to thwart the average viewer's expectations. The result is an arty noir ghost story that could have been filmed by Maya Deren taking conflicting, oulipian instructions from Fritz Lang and Robert Wiene.

The film, which is in black & white, opens with a shot of murky studio-manufactured fog. As the fog disperses offscreen from right to left, an equally artificial-looking palace is revealed. This, we will learn later, is Mayfair Manor, inside of which most of the film's action will take place. Inside Mayfair Manor is a scale model, probably the very model we see in every "exterior" shot. While this smacks of low budget filmmaking, Nag did not have to emphasize the artificiality of Mayfair by showing us the model as model. Kohraa has many other instances of announced artificiality--another "fog" at work here is that between "the real" and illusion on film.

Over this opening image of Mayfair Manor, we hear the haunting voice of playback singer Lata Mangeshkar: "La la, la la la, la la la la laaah ..." From there we cut to an interior shot, and one of the oddest angles ever to appear in a mainstream movie--Bollywood or otherwise: from above the showerhead, looking down on Poonam, the woman of the house, as she soaps up her arms and legs.

Lata's voice continues, and we now assume it is meant to stand in for Poonam's, as she hums and la la las her way through her evening ablutions.

Nag proceeds from one odd angle to the next, capturing Poonam from behind as well as above, and then from below, as she walks out of the shower and into the other room to towel off and dress. We continue to watch her, from behind various obstacles (a screen, a dresser, etc.), certain that the next moment, the next cut, will finally reveal this mysterious woman's face.

Instead, we're offered other evidence of her existence: the giant "P" embroidered into her pillow; her lavish bedroom; her Pomeranian; her shadow as it crosses the wall behind her telephone--

and though Nag pauses to focus on the back of Poonam's head, on her shoulders, on her legs, on her hands, and so on, all of our expectations of finally seeing the woman are consistently thwarted.

As the film continues, Poonam goes downstairs to greet the guests, who fill both the livingroom and our field of vision.

While Poonam is hidden, we're not seeing this from her P.O.V. The angles are odd and multiple, as is the effect of the filmmaking. It's so artificial, so exaggerated, that it's at once hilarious and unsettling, as ridiculous as it is claustrophobia-inducing.

As the film progresses, and Poonam argues with her servant, Dai Maa (Lalita Pawar) about going out, Poonam begins to take on a rather spectral quality. This is emphasized as she leaves the mansion and traverses a rather otherworldly landscape on her way over to the much smaller mansion across the way:

Wait a minute--who where those two--male?--figures whose shadows we just glimpsed, walking for a moment hand-in-hand with Poonam?

Ah, there they are again. Definitely male. But who? Everything has been murky to this point--now it's even murkier. Poonam enters the other mansion:

where someone--who?--is obviously with her, their shadows playing against the curtains:

A conversation between the two is suggested. Poonam is shot from yet another unlikely angle:

and then, teasingly, Nag gives us her face, hidden behind her hands.

Before she can remove them, Nag cuts to an extreme close-up on the bridge of Poonam's nose:

The brilliance of Nag's use of this this odd strategy comes to light in this very moment. We've thus far seen every inch of Poonam--every inch allowable by the censor, anyway--but in such a way that we'll never be able to put her together in our memory. Without ever resorting to soft focus, Nag makes the character who will haunt the rest of this film ghostlike from the outset.

Just after we see Poonam's face in severe close-up, we're made aware of a struggle, and the camera cuts--a la Deren's At Land--to the ocean

(and note how the dark/light contasts here resemble those of the close-up just above it) before cutting back to Poonam, who is now passed out on the bed.

A male figure enters, scoops Poonam up, and carries her body off--to where, we haven't a clue. A crazy man on the beach appears, who, in a fit of overacting, tells us--us? how does he know we're watching this unfold?--that the woman of Mayfair Manor is dead.

Cut suddenly to titles: KOHRAA, in English transliteration, Hindi, and Urdu. Cut again to an Agnes Varda-like shot through the window of a moving automobile, up into the trees, as they pass overhead. This is all we see for a spell as we hear Rajeshwari (Waheeda Rehman) describe how she came to Mayfair Manor herself:

I am Rajeshwari ... I don't really think there is any connection between the living and the dead ... and maybe that's true ... except there is a deep connection between the first mistress of Mayfair--Poonam--and me. The connection between one who is living and one who is dead ... like a fog between life and death. I never thought I would go there ... but the neverending mysteries compelled me ...

We learn that Rajeshwari, an orphan, lives with an older female ward on the same stretch of coast as Mayfair Manor. Her ward wants to marry her off to her crazy son, and Rajeshwari, unable to accept such a fate, but incapable of running off on her own, decides to commit suicide.

While standing on a cliff above the ocean, in a series of back and forth close-ups, we watch as Rajeshwari and Poonam's widower, Amit (Biswajeet), who looks as though he is preparing to leap to his own death from a cliff a short distance off, see each other and instantly connect. The scene, with increasingly severe close-ups that feel remarkably similar to experimental American cinema of the 40s and 50s, lasts what seems like several minutes.

By constrast, Amit and Rajeshwari's courtship--which includes a full-length song-and-dance number--seems to rush by in a matter of moments.

"Plot is merely an excuse for any succession of images," experimental filmmaker Sidney Peterson famously said, and Biren Nag operates throughout Kohraa as though the truth of that statement were unimpeachable. He continues to deliver previously unseen, unimagined visual pleasures--from the loopy thirty-full-seconds of Rajeshwari and Amit shot upside down as they giddily drive from one town to the next, to the extended penultimate scene--surely one of cinema's most gripping--of Rajeshwari being slowly shadowed by what may or may not be Poonam's ghost, until she finds herself on the roof of the fog-obscured mansion, the camera panning 360-degrees (just in case we didn't believe it was all fog out there), the electronically or otherwise manipulated voice of Poonam calling from the Beyond like a sexier, raspier Jim Morrison: "Let me take you into another wooooorlllld ... come clooosssserrrr ... cloooosssserrr ... jummmmmp ... juuuuummmmmp ...!"

The rest, as they say, you will have to see for yourself.

Biren Nag, prior to taking up direction himself, served as Art Director for four of the most beautiful films shot in Bombay in the late 1950s and early 1960s: Pyaasa; Kala Pani; Chaudhvin Ka Chand; and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. He won a 1960 Filmare Award for Best Art Director for his work on Chaudhvin Ka Chand. In 1962 he directed his first film, Bees Saal Baad, another noirish ghost story also starring Waheeda Rehman and Biswajeet.

Bollwood Entertainment's DVD version is of watchable quality, although if there are any credits other than the title 10 minutes into the film, they are not preserved here. The songs--often not translated in Bollywood DVDs--are given subtitles.

Order the DVD of Kohraa here . UPDATE: I am told that hindimoviesonline offers much cheaper shipping for European orders. I checked and, yes, the do have a copy of Kohraa.

Order the music for Kohraa and Bees Saal Baad together on CD here.


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