Bollywood bucket list: Woh Kaun Thi – The first of Sadhana’s Ms Mystery trilogy

Having notched up an incredible 144 million views on YouTube, the Woh Kaun Thi torch song Lag jaa gale ke phir yeh haseen shaam ho na ho is indubitably one of the most popular numbers from Hindi cinema’s musically blessed golden era. Partly boosted possibly by its deployment in contemporary films such as Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and Bombay Talkies, the 55-year-old Madan Mohan composition, smoulderingly rendered by Lata Mangeshkar, holds cross generational appeal. Who can resist Raja Mehdi Ali Khan’s lyrics about living for the moment in a dauntingly impermanent world?

Woh Kaun Thi (1964) showcases this song among a veritable bouquet of memorable melodies. The film is studded with attractive stars like Sadhana and Manoj Kumar and talented director Raj Khosla deploys every mystery genre staple to turn it into a classic suspense thriller.

‘Mujhe khoon pasand hai.’ (I like blood)

The plot reels you in instantly though it begins with that all-too-familiar trope... a dark and rainy night. A man is driving on a deserted patch of road when he brings the car to a screeching halt before a strikingly beautiful woman dressed in white. She slides into the car and her electromagnetic field causes the wind-shield wipers to stop working. He can’t see the foggy road ahead but she can ... with clarity that befuddles him. He remarks that her finger is bleeding. She declares deadpan, “Mujhe khoon pasand hai.” (I like blood).

She asks him to stop the car at a crematorium enveloped in mist. A gate swings opens automatically to let her in as the haunting song, Naina barse rimjhim rimjhim mingles with sounds made by squawking birds. She vanishes from view and the title Woh Kaun Thi fills the screen.

Thereafter, the film establishes that the baffled motorist Dr Anand (Manoj Kumar) is in love with Seema (Helen) with two songs within a span of 15 minute but fortunately the suspense quotient is maintained with red herrings (a curly-haired shadowy figure holding flowers and presumably spying on Seema) and ominous lyrics — Seema sings, Hum khushi se na aaj mar jaaye in the song Chhodkar tere pyaar ka daaman just before she is murdered.

The good doctor gets little time for mourning. He is summoned to attend to a patient in a baroque haveli — it’s the white-clad woman he had met at the graveyard (Sadhana). The shaken doctor leaves but, at an inspector’s insistence, returns to the haveli. He is back within minutes, but the haveli is now empty! Psychologically affected by these events, the doctor succumbs to his mother’s pressure and marries a girl of her choice. When he opens his wife’s ghunghat, he is flabbergasted — it’s the apparition in white! But she claims to be Sandhya (Sadhana), an orphan.

When the doctor confronts Sandhya about their previous meetings, she just smiles enigmatically. He forcibly takes Sandhya to the haunted haveli. As the doctor moves towards the bed, the camera accompanies him, but when he turns, the camera pulls back — there is no Sandhya! And yet, when Anand returns home, the door is opened by Sandhya — dressed in the same sari and pearl strings! Their relationship is further strained and Sandhya decides to leave home.

However, her train has an accident and she is presumed dead. Almost driven insane by now, Anand is advised to take a holiday in Shimla. And who does he see there but the apparition-in-white (or is it Sandhya?) strolling through the snow-clad mountains and calling out, Chala aa mere parwane, wafaa ki shama jalti hain. The film has a few loose ends left unexplained but even five decades later, I would rather not give away the denouement though I must add it is imaginative and involving even if a tad incredible.

The exquisite Madan Mohan melodies give this blood-curdler a special edge. Unfortunately, the film couldn’t bag him the Filmfare Best Music Director award. An interesting nugget about Woh Kaun Thi: Lata was unable to record Naina barse rimjhim due to ill health before the unit left for shooting, so Madan Mohan recorded a scratch version of the song in his own voice. When it was picturised on Sadhana in Shimla, the spectators were baffled to see her give lip sync to a man’s voice.

Sadhana made the genre her own

Still in his twenties, a handsome Manoj Kumar strikes some pensive poses and looks convincingly harrowed and edgy in the film. Though he had not become a director at yet, Kumar designed the Woh Kaun Thi posters and even offered valuable tips on the writing.

The N N Sippy-produced film offers Sadhana a meaty double role. She imbues her character of the self-respecting Sandhya with pent-up emotion and restraint and simultaneously infuses an air of disenchantment and overt sensuality (inviting Manoj with open arms in Lag jaa gale) as the ‘nether-worldly’ woman. Sadhana says she was scared out of her wits when she saw the final print of Woh Kaun Thi with RK Nayyar (her husband-to-be).

Few people are aware that the role was originally offered to Nimmi. Sadhana made the film, and indeed the genre, her own; going on to do two more will o’ the wisp roles with Raj Khosla in Mera Saaya (1966) and Anita (1967).

With the aid of a charismatic Sadhana, his ear for music and perceptive eye for song picturisation, Khosla cooks up an atmospheric thriller in Woh Kaun Thi that ensures an audio-visual treat.