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The Hitchcock influence on Bollywood, according to Khalid Mohamed

The master of suspense may have been vastly imitated but needless to assert he has never been equalled, far from it.

In fact, Alfred Hitchcock, whose 41st death anniversary passed by on April 29, has been such a seminal influence on my growing up years, that a debt had to be repaid when I wrote my first film script for Shyam Benegal. Titled Mammo (1994), here was a story of a 13-year-old boy who lives with his grandmother and grand-aunt, and cuts school classes to catch Psycho (1960) which is restricted to adults only above the age of 18.

A fanatic fan of Hitchcock, the boy and his friend cloak themselves in burqas to gain access to a screening at the Chitra cinema of Mumbai. The sequence was one of the lighter moments in the drama directed with warmth and humour by Benegal. There was a problem though. Copyright issues prevented the use of a clip from Psycho showing Janet Leigh in the epic shower scene.

In the event, to convey the effect of the spine-chilling vignette, Bernard Herrmann’s evocative music score was spliced in by Benegal. “It’s a pity,” the auteur filmmaker said. “It would have been so impactful to show a fraction of a minute of that scene. But I guess, the music is so clearly Hitchcockian that the point won’t be lost on the audience.” Gratifyingly, it wasn’t.

This personal throwback apart, the Hitchcock stamp on Hollywood has been more than apparent ever since the black-and-white era. Although derivative elements of murder and suspense can be seen in Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949), Asit Sen’s Apradhi Kaun? (1957) and Dwarka Khosla’s Reporter Raju (1962), it was Biren Nag’s Kohraa (1964) which wasn’t only under the influence of the master but was a brazen rip-off from his cult classic Rebecca (1940), adapted from a novel by Daphne Du Maurier. For additional measure, Kohraa also bunged in a bathing scene as a nod to Psycho.

Revolving around a well-heeled man suspected of poisoning his first wife to death, the B-town remake of Rebecca featured Biswajeet and Waheeda Rehman in the parts originally played by Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Snag was that the sufficiently well-made Kohraa – complete with spooky sound effects plus light-and-shadow lighting -- was compared with the earlier Biswajeet-Waheeda Rehman surprise hit, Bees Saal Baad (1962), which had audiences screaming out loud – because of a jump-cut to a clawed hand-- in the cinema halls at housefull shows. By contrast, Kohraa.the feeble Hindi language take on Rebecca tanked. Today only its music score by playback singer Hemant Kumar, who incidentally produced both the whodunits, can boast of recall value.

Moments, written and technically crafted, to push the viewer to the edge of the seat in the Hitchockian style can be detected in Raj Khosla’s Woh Kaun Thi? (1964), Mera Saaya (1966) and Anita (1967). This triptych of suspense films showcased Sadhana in tight close-ups the way the master would with his heroines. While Khosla admitted that he had fallen head over heels in love with Sadhana, Hitchcock was known to be extremely rude and heartless with his leading ladies, to the extent of driving them to tears and nervous breakdowns, whether it was Kim Novak, Grace Kelly, Suzanne Pleshette or Tippi Hedren.

In Bollywood, close-ups of women –terror-struck or romanticised under soft lighting – were the forte of Vijay Anand. Moreover according to Richard Allen, professor of cinema studies, New York University, Anand’s Jewel Thief (1965) is a smart blend of the master’s To Catch A Thief (1955) and Vertigo (1958). A reformed thief, enacted by Dev Anand, finds his tactics being imitated by another smart Alec, as Cary Grant does as a gentleman thief located in the Riviera.

While praising Jewel Thief for the plot, the use of flashy colours like red, the recreation of a modern lifestyle and nail-biting suspense, Allen described it as the best adaptation of Hitchcock to come out of Bollywood.

Not that there’s much competition in this department. Call them what you will, the other rip-offs, tributes or odes to Alfred Hitchcock have ranged from the comme ci comme ca to the abysmal. Among those which did have some gripping moments, count Mukul Anand’s Aitbaar (1985, borrowed liberally from Dial M for Murder, 1954), Jyotin Goel’s Inaam Dus Hazaar (1987,chip-chopped from North by Northwest, 1959) and Ananth Narayan Mahadevan’s Anamika (2008, yet another throwback to Rebecca).

And how can I forget Subhash Ghai popping up for cameos in the movies he has directed, a device once patented by Hitchock? Perhaps the master would have remarked wryly, “Plagiarism is style.”

Khalid Mohamed is a well known film critic, screenwriter and filmmaker.

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