Bear with me: at first glance, this piece may fall outside the Cultural Gutter’s mission to share thoughtful writing about disreputable art. Kshudhita Pashan (1960) is based on a short story by Nobel laureate, author, musician, and all-around revered thinker Rabindranath Tagore. But its ghostly ladies, creepy palaces, and ominous AF title—The Hungry Stones—should win it a place in these hallowed halls.
I was in love with this film from the get-go as a disembodied, echoing voice shouts “Run away! Run away! It’s all a lie!” If that weren’t enough, in the first few minutes it also gives us an abandoned Mughal palace, horses, ghosts, guns, whooshing wind, flickering lanterns, and an overall sense of doom. “I feel like I already know the contents of this house,” our unnamed lead says, who is visiting the area as part of his work as a tax collector, to the local man showing him around. The guide then explains that 200 years ago a prince built the palace to house hundreds of girls, “victims of his lust.” A voice yelling “Run away! Run away!” bursts forth again, this time clearly coming from the local madman.
Never one to let the ravings of a lunatic get in his way, the otherwise sensible hero insists on spending his nights in the palace no matter what rumors about it the locals throw in his path. With all these good gothic romance ingredients in place, the ghosts entangle the hero in their history from the prince’s time, and the lines between now and then, between real and fevered imaginations and superstitions, blur into the dramatic resolution.
Two years earlier, the Hindi film Madhumati about reincarnated lovers had been wildly successful at the box office and in annual awards. With the many connections between Bombay and Calcutta film industries at the time, I think it’s safe to assume that the success of that film had some role in encouraging the creation of this one, even though the source material and film traditions are different. Since Madhumati, reincarnation stories have remained popular across India’s many film industries (examples from the 2010s include Ek Paheli Leela in Hindi and Eega in Telugu, profiled on the Gutter).
The beauty and fun are in how it’s all done. The deserted palace is a maze of patterned stone floors and latticework in the lantern light, and you have to wonder how a person staying here all by himself night after night could possibly avoid hallucinating classical music and dancing girls. Speaking of, the music is gorgeous—it’s by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan—and there’s even a kathak performance. The music does much for creating an atmosphere for the hero’s experiences and mental state, and director Tapan Sinha was smart to let the music instead of people speak for large stretches of the exposition. The dance works this way too, its crescendo matching the hero’s tumble into the ghosts’ world.
The verbal silence also underscores how isolated the hero is—after all, whom would he talk to while he wanders the palace at night listening to the songs of the ghosts? He tries to engage with the ghost of one of the girls, Mumtaz (Arundhati Devi), but initially she refuses to speak, perfectly happy to lure him through the palace while looking sad and coy. This is not just a creative way to handle story without words; it also connects back to her history in the palace 200 years ago. And like the lead character’s namelessness, the lack of words amplifies how unreal this all feels, with identities, chronologies, and explanations not pinned down.
The ghost story begins cleverly. The hero is just starting his first night in the palace, and, standing alone in the courtyard, picks up a pebble to toss into the fountain. Just as he raises his hand to throw it, he hears a faint tinkling like anklets and follows the sound inside to the shadowy hallways.
He is drawn into the illusion of the ghosts’ world before he can shatter the reflected illusion of the palace in the pool with his stone. I loved this—the history of the place compels him to heed it and interact with it, and it does so by hooking into his rational side. That’s the direct path into a tax collector’s head.
This hero is at the center of the film to an unusually large extent, so making him interesting enough to carry the project must have been a challenge to the writers. This character is a kind and personable bureaucrat who finds himself unable to escape a dream world that he cannot understand, almost like a fever. “It feels as if I’m living in Arabian Nights,” he says to his colleague. He bumbles along with no information. The irony: a paper-pusher with no data.
“The unravelling of the romantic mind,” as an article in The Asian Age says about a staged version of the Tagore story, is evident on star Soumitra Chatterjee’s face and in his frame. I love the pairing of those concepts, the romantic, which he clearly is, drawn to live in the old palace despite common sense and mooning over its paintings, and a sharp mind, trying to figure out what’s going on and why he reacts as he does. He is dreamy and confused and unwilling to stop expressing himself or to leave this woman he loves without knowing why or how.
Chatterjee, who had made just two films when this released (Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar and Devi), plays only major character and carries the film, with almost all story or action involving him. It must have felt like risky casting, but he’s perfect. He broods in a way that expresses the character truly being troubled and thinking very hard about his problems, rather than self-absorption, laziness, or simple moping. He gives this character (and many others across his career) such vulnerability without making him weak or simplistic. He’s so good at being human. He’s also adept at this sort of small-scale white-collar flirting that is wordy, a little humble, and respectful of his target.
There’s a moment in his interaction with Mumtaz’s ghost when she is still silent and he’s been pestering her to tell him something about herself or why she keeps coming to him, and he finally says “If you won’t talk, then how long can I keep blabbering?” This kind of verbal cuteness resonates with me in a way that Bollywood’s dramatic mountain-top grand gestures can’t always manage. A lot of the characterization is in the writing, sets, and lighting, but he is an actor who can do so much with scraps of text, tiny gestures, and the simplest movement of his eyes.
The one flaw in this film is that the romance, established in a flashback about three quarters of the way through the film, is unconvincing and kind of perfunctory.The couple’s backstory isn’t even in Tagore’s original story; maybe the problem here is that its development was cut short in favor of ghostly wanderings or the music, leaving it feeling unsupported, rushed, and out of nowhere. Their bond might also stem as much from his respect of her unwillingness to surrender to the invading Mughals as from actual romance, but I didn’t find the film clear on this point. Mumtaz has spent most of the film silent, so we know very little about her other than that she is a sad ghost who gets dragged away by soldiers. The hero’s historical incarnation is not decisively linked to his current-day one other than through his physical appearance (and in fact, the historical version is reprehensible at first). The film doesn’t quite manage to create for either of them a personality that can carry part of a love story. Giving these two characters just a few minutes more to demonstrate who they are and why they are worth the big risks of epic love would have helped significantly. Even his intense staring into her eyes does not a love story make.
Overall, Kshudhita Pashan is good ghosty fun, full of atmosphere, shadows, mysteries, a hint of tragedy, and some genuinely sweet moments. You could also just turn on this film and listen to it because the music is so wonderful. I read the story after seeing the film, and overall I’m impressed at how it was transformed for screen. The only aspect I find different is the sense of ominous peril. The palace in the film seems strange and unsettling rather than something that will definitely kill its inhabitants. The stones are not as hungry. However, none of that changed my opinion of the film. It’s just a slightly different spin on the story—perhaps a more romantic one for mid-century audiences who liked love stories.
Khudito Pashan is available to rent for $1.49 in the US on Angel Digital’s youtube channel here or in 10 subtitled parts for free starting here. An English translation of the short story is available at Project Gutenberg.
Beth Watkins is good friends with Mumtaz’s ghost.