Monihara: Satyajit Ray's sole horror film induces the scariest emotion of all — hopelessness

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Sep 10, 2017 11:20:08 IST

Editor's note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was this May), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.

It is a well-known fact that along with being one of the greatest filmmakers in the world, Satyajit Ray also used to be a prolific author of children’s literature. And among his writings were several horror stories as well. But in his film career spread across four decades, Satyajit Ray had made only one horror film. In 1961, on the occasion of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth centenary, Ray made an anthology of films based on the short stories of Tagore. The anthology, titled Teen Kanya (Three Daughters) comprised three films with women protagonists. The third film in the anthology was based on a ghost story written by Tagore, and was titled Monihara (The Lost Jewels).

The story of Monihara begins as dusk falls, when a village schoolmaster walks through the compound of an abandoned and derelict mansion and comes and sits on the banks of a river. There, he meets a stranger, and tells him that he has been writing the strange and rather tragic history of the former owner of the mansion — the rich businessman Phanibhushan, and his young wife, the beautiful Monimalika.

Monihara: Satyajit Rays sole horror film induces the scariest emotion of all — hopelessness

Still from Satyajit Ray's Monihara

Happy to have finally found an audience, the schoolmaster narrates to the stranger the story of Monimalika, who seemed to have had an abnormal obsession with jewels and ornaments. Her caring and somewhat timid husband Phanibhushan showered all his love and attention on her, and yet didn’t seem to be able to win her heart. She was sad because even after 10 years of marriage, she couldn’t bear a child. She also had a piercing suspicion in her mind that all her relatives and in-laws spoke ill of her behind her back. The only thing that made her happy was her ever growing collection of jewels and ornaments, which she guarded with all her life.

When a devastating fire destroyed Phanibhushan’s jute factory, he found himself in dire financial straits. He told his wife that he would need to raise money urgently, to pay off his debtors. Monimalika suspected that her husband would try and sell all her jewels to get the money. Phanibhushan had no such intentions. He went to the city, and was not only successful in raising money to pay off his debt, but also managed to buy a gold necklace for his wife. Meanwhile, while he was gone, the paranoid Monimalika summoned a distant cousin of hers and sought his help to go back to her parents’ house with all her jewels. The shrewd cousin agreed, and presumably murdered her on the way and ran away with her jewels. When Phanibhushan returned home, Monimalika was nowhere to be found. Devastated, he lamented the tragedy, only to realise that his wife’s ghost had come back to claim the gold necklace he had bought for her.

The most unsettling part of Monihara is its atmosphere. A large mansion next to the Ganga, the full moon shining on the waters of the river, the beautiful and yet psychologically unwell Monimalika singing in her soulful voice, the yelps of the foxes and the hooting of the owls, the wind blowing through the vast corridors of the mansion, the marble fairies standing in the garden in mute observation, the thin veil of fog over the abundant lawns, the sound of a late night village opera floating in the air — all of these go towards creating the perfect setting for a ghost story.

In the climax, when Monimalika’s shadowy, silhouetted form walks into Phanibhushan’s bedchamber, and shakes her head to indicate ‘no’ to her husband’s jubilant — “Moni, you’ve come back?” — you get goose bumps, just to see the hint of her beautiful yet scary eyes watching from within the darkness. In the final twist of the film, when the schoolmaster finishes his story and the stranger says that he has liked it a lot but that the story has several factual errors, the old teacher asks the stranger how could he be so sure. To this, the stranger simply reveals that he is none other than Phanibhushan himself, bids him farewell, and vanishes into thin air, making the audience realise that Phanibhushan must have himself died of shock on seeing his wife’s ghost. Ray carries the element of shock and horror right to the end of the film, leaving us with a disturbing doubt in our mind — were the events of the story actually true? Did they really happen? Or were they merely the old schoolmaster’s imagination — culminating in a hallucination induced by the regular consumption of opium?

The performances by the film’s lead characters are extremely commendable. Kali Banerjee, as the easy-going, all-forgiving and romantic husband, injects life into an otherwise feeble Phanibhushan. His love for his wife comes before everything else, and it is this unconditional and blind love that spells his doom. Kanika Majumdar plays Monimalika with a haunting charm. As she sits on her bed, looks out onto the river and sings a soulful song, you can’t help but feel sad for her — but moments later, on witnessing the lust for a new jewel shining in her eyes, you realise you have been wrong all along. Her love, if one could call it that, is purely material in nature. She is the epitome of greed for everything that glitters. And it is in her insatiable thirst for gold and jewels that we find a sick mind — perpetually scared, doubting, and one full of universal distrust. She doesn’t have an iota of regret on leaving her husband, her only regret is the fact that she couldn’t get the necklace he had promised her. Cold, loveless and devoid of any sympathy whatsoever, she literally ventures out into the dark path, only to meet her inevitable end.

Monihara is the perfect example of what a horror film should ideally induce in its audience — hopelessness. For there is no greater horror in the world than hopelessness.

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.

Updated Date: Sep 10, 2017 11:20:08 IST