Rummaging around for a spooky film for my Gutter submission for October, I decided upon Kohraa, (“The Fog”), a 1964 Hindi adaptation of Rebecca. Rewatching Kohraa and Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) back to back, I’m struck by how much more isolated the Indian protagonist is. Kohraa spends most of its energy wearing down the mental resolve of Rajeshwari—having a name does not protect her—played by a phenomenal Waheeda Rehman. She is featured in almost every scene once the title appears and is absolutely the reason to watch this film, although it was grande dame Lalita Pawar as Dai Maa (Mrs Danvers) who got the acting award nomination when the film released. In retrospect, the change in the film’s title from a person to a force of nature announces the approach: this is not so much a story about comparison as it is about uncertainty. The fog runs throughout, keeping Rajeshwari incredibly unsteady no matter what she does to get close to her husband and leaving everyone’s motives ill-defined. 

The film opens with a Psycho-influenced sequence of the ablutions and spangly finery of the first Mrs. de Winter, Poonam, played by Thelma. Dai Maa disapproves of Poonam’s extra-domestic activities; I hate to say this monster is right about anything, but the lyrics of a beautiful song express “I wonder where my grieving heart will take me?” and we sense danger. Poonam wanders along the beach in the fog and crosses paths with two scary-looking men, both of whom seem very interested in taking advantage of her as she becomes increasingly intoxicated. Waves crash, rain falls down, a gun is fired, someone in a coat and hat picks up Poonam’s unresponsive form and carries her outside, and one of the men cackles “My Poonam is dead today!” 

Without giving anything away, I’ll just say I was shocked at how much happens in these opening 10 minutes—and how confusing it all is, especially compared with the much more straightforward preface in Hitchcock’s version. The camera never shows all of Poonam’s face or person, making her impossible to identify or even picture fully. The murkiness of this little world, established so immediately, continues for the Rajeshwari and for viewers for the rest of the film. It’s so economically and effectively accomplished while already showing us the major events, locations, and characters (save one). 

After quick titles, the camera drives along a tree-lined road and Rajeshwari, narrating off- screen as her counterpart in Hitchcock does, introduces herself and muses on the fog that exists between life and death. Her life is tragedy after tragedy and she is in desperate straits. When we first see her, she’s about to leap from a cliff when she spots Kohraa‘s Maxim de Winter (Biswajeet as Amit Kumar Singh) in the same situation on the other side of a ravine. Rajeshwari and Amit get to know each other quickly, and he sneaks her a letter that says her smiles relieve him from his pain, that his life is at a standstill but together they can begin a new journey. They marry and return to Manderley–here called (Mayfair”–where Rajeshwari mistakes Dai Maa for a family member and touches her feet, making all the other servants laugh. Immediately embarrassed by her mistake, Rajeshwari is further disappointed when Amit departs for a distant part of his estate, leaving her alone with the fearsome Dai Maa and fleet of servants. 

For the rest of the film, for reasons she never fully explains until the finale, Dai Maa does her very best to unsettle and belittle Rajeshwari with cutting, but fact-based dialogues about how beautiful Poonam was and by huffing in dramatic disgust to very normal affectionate behavior between Rajeshwari and Amit when he’s actually around. Since we never really saw Poonam, we don’t know how seriously to take this kind of negative comparison. As beautiful as Rajeshwari is, this is exactly the kind of ridiculous, distracting competition that society loves to thrust women into. And Dai Maa knows it, chipping away at Rajeshwari’s tiny world in any way she can: appearance, behavior, relationships with servants, knowledge of running the house, social status, and of course her relationship with Amit. For his part, Amit is often absent and always moody, so poor Rajeshwari never gets the chance to establish herself with the most important person in her new life. I’m struck by how the director Biren Nag reinforces this power differential in blocking: the actors’ faces are often at unequal heights, Rehman sometimes literally at his feet. 

It’s relatively rare for a mainstream Hindi film to present such a dud of a leading man, and one does pity an actor taking on a role originated by Laurence Olivier, but Biswajeet just brings absolutely nothing to the table. It may not be entirely his fault—the hair and makeup departments seem out to get him—but he makes no gravy out of Amit’s moods and stomping and shouting. He’s most effective in the songs, especially Yeh Nayan Dare Dare,” in which he manages to placate Rajeshwari after another of her meltdowns of insecurity, eventually inspiring her to adorn herself with jewelry and enticing her into an embrace. There’s much to be said about heroines putting on or taking off jewelry in Hindi films, and I’m no expert in these gestures, but with this story’s repeated insistence that Poonam was a beautiful, glamorous sophisticate, the fact that Rajeshwari becomes willing to suit up, so to speak, implies that she is finding her way towards feeling herself worthy of her status as Amit’s wife. I have to assume that Biswajeet was cast because of the success two years earlier of Bees Saal Baad, Biren Nag’s adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles that also paired him with Rehman. But she and everyone else in Kohraa deserve someone with more oomph. I find Olivier as de Winter eerily placid until he finally, splendidly uncorks, but Biswajeet as Amit just seems childish. It’s very hard to see why Rajeshwari loves him, even with the dramatic implication that they find in each other a fellow lost soul in need of rescue. 

Kohraa becomes more Halloween-y than Rebecca by introducing the ghost of Poonam, who sets chairs rocking, flicks lights on and off, and eventually lures Rajeshwari up onto the roof, ready to fling herself off. In a piece for Film Companion, a major Indian film review site, Janice Sequeira writes that “in the absence of formidable human antagonists, Nag relies on the presence of a specter to drum up scares.” I fully disagree and find Dai Maa a worthy foe, but I wonder if Nag added the supernatural element because an obsessively jealous mother-ish figure who sets her world ablaze was too big a gamble in 1960s mainstream Hindi cinema. (Dai Maa is hardly as virtuous as she pretends to be, but to keep things spoiler-free, I won’t tell you how the film ends). I also assume Nag felt pressure to meet expectations from his creepy earlier film. The setting of an isolated palace suggests a debt to the beloved supernatural Hindi films Mahal (1949) and Madhumati (1958)—or even the Tagore short story Kshudhita Pashan or its 1960 Bengali film adaptation (which I wrote about here a few years ago)*—all of which feature ghostly women. Mahal and Madhumati both deal with reincarnation, one of Indian cinema’s favorite plots, and I really appreciate that Nag did something different with Kohraa. Before he started directing, Nag worked extensively as an art director, and it shows. Mayfair and its environs are highly stylized, particularly in the deliberately suffocating visual artificiality of Poonam’s frilly, all-white bedroom that Dai Maa keeps as a shrine and that emotionally imprisons Rajeshwari. Another standout of the visuals in Kohraa is the model of Mayfair that Amit keeps on display within the palace, suggesting that the inhabitants are surveilled, even controlled and imprisoned, in their own home. 

But ghosts and Biswajeet aren’t the point, and they don’t get in the way. One does rather pity the fool, human or otherwise, who attempts to get in Pawar’s way; she simply would not have it, and neither would Dai Maa. Rehman is spectacular as Rajeshwari, adding layers of emotions that bubble up from under the character’s naivité. I might argue that Rajeshwari’s lack of sense of self is the real obstacle to her happiness, a weakness that Dai Maa immediately spots and exploits, and watching her try to figure out who she can be as well as what’s going on in this weird house and with her weird husband, is fascinating. The song sequences add layers to Rajeshwari’s character, and Rehman shines in the moments when Rajeshwari feels happy, loved, and free. 

Read more about Kohraa at Ghost World: Bollywood Noir or watch it on Youtube (sadly without subtitles). 

* Fellow Indian film enthusiasts: given the palace, the literary source, and the involvement of Hemant Kumar, doesn’t it seem like there should be a Bengali adaptation of Rebecca too? If there is, I can’t find it. Halfway through rewatching Kohraa my curiosity, and an overwhelming sense that Uttam Kumar would be much better at Biswajeet’s role, made me consult my notes, and I finally remembered the Sesh Ankha made the year before. It’s an adaptation not of Rebecca but of Chase a Crooked Shadow (1958) and features, of course, Uttam Kumar as the shady widower whose first wife’s death is not what it appears. 


Beth Watkins does not keep a model of her house in her house.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s