It is a dark, rain-splattered night. A car comes to a screeching halt on a deserted road as a strikingly beautiful woman dressed in white appears. She sports wet tresses, vacant eyes and an enigmatic half-smile.
Motorist: 'Kaun ho tum (Who are you)?'
She (deadpan): 'Koi nahin (Nobody).'
Motorist: 'Kahan jaana hai (Where do you want to go)?'
She: 'Kahin nahin (Nowhere).'
She accepts a lift but seems to possess an extraordinary electromagnetic field -- the windshield wipers stop working as soon as she sits in the car. The motorist can't see the foggy road ahead; she can, clearly. Her finger begins to bleed. 'Mujhe khoon pasand hai [I like blood],' she admits.
She asks him to stop the car at a crematorium. A gate swings open to let her in. Mist envelopes this polymorphous presence even as the haunting song Naina barse rimjhim rimjhim, mingled with the squawking of bats, fills the soundtrack. The title Woh Kaun Thi rolls.
| N N Sippy|| Raj Khosla|| Madan Mohan|
Sadhana, Manoj Kumar, Helen
With well-honed skill, Raj Khosla deploys every spooky genre staple and more to kickstart Woh Kaun Thi. The film then hurriedly establishes that the befuddled, befogged motorist in the opening frame is Dr Anand (Manoj Kumar). Anand loves Seema (Helen), much to the chagrin of fellow doctor Lata (Praveen Choudhury).
Though director Khosla lavishes two songs too many (Tikiri and Chhodkar tere) on the Anand-Seema romance, he keeps the suspense element ticking by introducing red herrings (a mute, bouquet-holding, curly-haired shadow presumably spying on Seema) and portentous lyrics (Hum khushi se na aaj mar jaaye) in the song preceding Seema's murder.
Subsequently, a harried Anand is summoned by an emergency midnight caller to a gothic, bat-infested, cobweb-ridden haveli. Armed with a candle, Anand climbs a flight of rickety stairs to reach the room. When he throws open the door, a banshee-like wail warns: 'Chale jao, chale jao [Go away, go away]'. Next to a seated, ashen-faced woman lies the apparition in white Anand met on the rainy night. He leaves, shaken. But, at an inspector's insistence, retraces his steps to the haveli. He returns within minutes, but the haveli has no inmates.
Anand desultorily complies with his mother's desire and marries a girl of her choice. On the wedding night, when he raises his wife's ghunghat, he is flabbergasted -- it is the woman in white. But she claims to be Sandhya (Sadhana), an orphan. Yet, each time her husband confronts her with their eerie encounters, she gives a mysterious half-smile.
In a nailbitingly tense scene, Anand forcibly takes Sandhya to the haunted haveli.
Khosla frames the opening of the sequence in the haveli's room with Anand and Sandhya. As Anand proceeds towards the bed, the camera accompanies him and Sandhya is edged out of the frame. When Anand turns, the camera pulls back -- there is no Sandhya! Yet, when Anand returns home, Sandhya opens the door -- dressed exactly as he had last seen her (pearl string, printed sari, et al). Moreover, Anand's mother confirms that Sandhya was at home all evening!
Sandhya's ice-in-the-veins demeanour alienates her mother-in-law. Her refusal to face an exorcist only exacerbates matters. Claiming that her marriage is on the rocks, Sandhya says she is returning home. But her train has an accident and she is presumed dead. Bordering on insanity now, Anand is advised to take a holiday in Shimla.
|Famous songs from Woh Kaun Thi|
| Song|| Singers|
Lag ja gale
| Lata Mangeshkar|
|Jo humne dastaan apni sunayee || Lata Mangeshkar|
|Naina barse rimjhim|| Lata Mangeshkar|
|Shokh nazar ki bijliyan|| Asha Bhosle|
|Tikkire tikkiri takiri || Rafi-Asha|
|Chhod kar tere pyar ka || Lata-Mahindra Kapoor|
But the apparition in white (Sandhya?) trudges through the snow-clad mountains of Shimla too and beckons, Chala aa mere parwane wafa ki shama jalti hain.
Four decades later, I would still rather not give away the denouement. Suffice to say that the resolution of the mystery, taken with a pinch of salt, is imaginative and involving. Don't expect all the loose ends to be neatly tied up. If you ask: How did the car's wipers stop, automatically? scriptwriter Dhruv Chatterjee teasingly offers no explanations.
Manoj Kumar looks handsome and effectively strikes pensive poses, many of which became part of his acting arsenal in latter-day suspense thrillers (Anita, Gumnaam, Saajan).
The show-stopper is Sadhana. She is enchanting as the wife, choosing to invest the role with an intriguing Mona Lisa-like smile. Simultaneously, she infuses an air of disenchantment and overt sensuality (inviting Manoj with open arms in Lag jaa gale) to the 'nether-world' woman.
To Khosla's credit, though he repeated Sadhana in a similar double role in Mera Saaya, he clearly delineated her two performances. Unlike Mera Saaya, where the wife yearns for her husband's acceptance and vociferously fights for his love, the self-respecting Sandhya of Woh Kaun Thi is a study in pent-up emotion and restraint.
With the aid of Sadhana, his ear for music and perceptive eye for song picturisation, Khosla cooks up an atmospheric thriller that ensures an audio-visual treat.
* Sadhana says she didn't turn a hair while shooting the eerie bits alongside a huge unit but was scared out of her wits when she saw the final print of Woh Kaun Thi with R K Nayyar (her husband-to-be).
* After the success of the black-and-white Woh Kaun Thi, Sadhana and Raj Khosla went on to work in a series of suspense thrillers in colour like Mera Saaya and Anita. In all three, Sadhana played double or multiple roles.
* Woh Kaun Thi was remade in Tamil as Yar Nee.
* Nimmi was once considered for the title role opposite Manoj Kumar.
* Manoj Kumar designed the film's posters and even offered valuable tips on the writing.
* An unwell Lata Mangeshkar was unable to record Naina barse rimjhim before the unit left to shoot in Shimla, and Madan Mohan recorded a dummy version of the song in his own voice. When it was picturised on Sadhana, onlookers were amused to see her give lip sync to a man's voice.
* The much-cherished Madan Mohan melodies have become an integral part of Lata Mangeshkar's stage repertoire. To Lata's dismay, Madan Mohan did not win a major award for this film.