Monihara 1961: the simplicity of stark horror in the world of Ray

For those who are yet to explore Satyajit Ray‘s works in a full-fledged manner, it may never occur to them that this revered Indian filmmaker has also attempted a horror movie. However, this fact is debatable. For those who stumbled upon this fact as newfound information, it should be known that Ray did not shed his skin in making Monihara (1961); he did not opt for a separate path altogether in his creative approach reflective of Monihara.

For instance, many characteristic tropes typical of horror movies are nowhere present in Monihara. Leaving aside the claim that the village teacher, Gopal, makes in respect to supernatural entities; as well as his announcement of his own story as a supernatural one, concerning actual events at Saha-bari, there is no supernatural presence to be encountered. There is no lurking of any ghostly presence in Gopal’s story, which, as a story/plot within another story/plot, forms the dominant narrative of Monihara.

The village teacher witnessing the ruins of Shah-bari, where his own story is set

However, as a rendition into the visual medium that Monihara as a film is, one cannot deny the vast difference that is capable of existing between the two forms of the same source story/plot/narration. This article will not delve into such differences that various landmarks in Cinema’s history are already testimonies to. One may cite films like Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (originally by Anthony Burgess) or Akira Kurosawa‘s Throne of Blood (William Shakespeare’s Macbeth) as prime examples. Monihara is also an adaptation -that of a Rabindranath Tagore‘s work. It is the second constituting short film of Ray’s three-part anthology Teen Kanya (Three girls).

Constructing an atmosphere

The act of rendition of a source text to visual medium enables as much space for intricacies and nuances as much as it demands from the filmmaker concerned an efficiency in the narrative. The efficiency of the narrative is not merely to stick to the original text concerned, but also to enhance the narrative overall.

What Ray does in the mere fifty-three minutes of Monihara’s screentime is to focus on the buildup of an atmosphere. Amongst other building blocks that contribute to this, perhaps the most notable in Monihara is the score. Ray took the labor of composing his own scores after he was not fully satisfied with hired professional musicians in Pather Panchali; the score in Monihara is only living evidence of Ray’s unquestionable grasp of mediums of expression apart from Cinema.

Although no supernatural presence lurks for the dominant part, the movie, Monihara, itself retains an atmosphere suggestive of darkness
Although no supernatural presence lurks for the dominant part, the movie itself retains an atmosphere suggestive of darkness

The subtleties of music in Monihara

However, what is evident from Ray’s compositional style is that he strictly desired something that would enhance his cinematic narrative. Although with its brief timing, the score does not exhibit Ray’s firm grasp over music that is evident in those of his other films. However, what is there, undoubtedly suffices as an essential building block for Ray’s narrative.

Monihara, more than horror or supernatural story, is more a story of obsessive greed. It brings in emotional subtleties that, in their exterior forms, are more human than supernatural. The filmmaker’s score, then, employed as an aid to the larger aspect of visual narrative, also walks the edges of subtlety.

Connecting influences

The score contains a linear arrangement of leitmotifs. The beginning, with its higher set of notes, evokes a suggestive hinting towards ominosity; that of an anticipation of the worse which is yet to come. The other half -the set of notes that concludes the score- is characteristically more tense and melancholic. For a dominant part in the movie, only parts from this score accompany specific scenes. The score also happens to complement other songs that occur in this movie; for instance, Monimalika’s own singing while her husband, Phanibhusan, watches her. Both the score as well as Monimalika’s song, hint at each other in a manner that the transposing of any one over the another would not offer any resistance in musicality.

What this does is revolve Monihara, the film, on a cyclic path determined by the music overall. Through Monimalika’s singing, the score itself gains momentum, and not quite the other way round. What Monimalika sings is a Rabindrasangeet (songs written by Rabindranath Tagore) called Baje Karun Sure. The name can roughly be translated into “Playing in a melancholic tune”. The melancholic nature of the score itself is no mere coincidence. In the beginning notes of Baje Karun Sure, for instance, the first set of notes of Ray’s own score is identifiable. Even if actually in an attempt to pay homage to Tagore -whose birth anniversary was Teen Kanya a tribute to- he does so craft fully.

Why talk about the score?

A sudden elaboration of the film’s score -which this article suggested only as an element enhancing the visual narrative- may appear a diversion on the writer’s side. However, elaborating on the score only enables the bringing of one’s attention to the film’s aspect of simplicity. If not of anything else, the brief score is undoubtedly characteristic of simplicity; it is perhaps the simplest amongst all of Ray’s other musical compositions.

It is the usage of this score that propels us to write about the same.

The reign of simplicity in Monihara

Satyajit Ray’s movies, themselves, are characteristic of simplicity in narration. One may cite either his early art films like Pather Panchali or his later commercially successful works like Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. Monihara is no different and retains Ray’s characteristic simplicity throughout its narration. There is only a detachment that has the possibility to occur on part of the viewers, when the plot shifts from that of Phanibhusan’s household to the village teacher’s narration of it. The latter’s narrative gains vivid momentum through the former portrayals of the household.

Furthering the construction of an atmosphere

Simple cinematic elements, brought out both through the visual motifs as well as the set design, contribute to making clear the impact intended by the textual narration of the village teacher. The set design -somewhat reminiscent of Charulata‘s, but with more grandiose- is reflective of Ray’s art director, Bansi Chandra Gupta‘s skills. However, unlike Charulata, marble dolls in dancing positions and other props that adorn Phanibhusan’s house, similar to the score, are suggestive of ominosity.

Of utmost importance in Monihara is the picture of Phanibhusan's aunt...
Of utmost importance in Monihara is the picture of Phanibhusan’s aunt

Of utmost importance is the picture of Phanibhusan’s aunt, who, adorned in jewelry, becomes a subject of fascination for Monimalika. In a manner of a child’s fascination for a film star, whose poster adorns the room as a signifier of someone whom the child wants to embody, this picture sums up Monimalika‘s ideal and material fantasies.

অত গয়না পরলে আমাকেও অরক্ষম লাগবে।

{With such abundance of jewellery, even I would look like that (the aunt in the picture)}

Monimalika, Monihara

It also plays an important role in enhancing the narrative itself. An instance would be Monimalika‘s efforts of dressing up to her husband, while standing under this picture. Moreover, before leaving the house and Phanibhusan, one may witness her in an attire of the exact manner as that of the aunt in the picture.

Idealization and embodiment in Monihara
Idealization and embodiment in Monihara

The congregation of subtleties in Monihara

What all of these hint at is Monimalika‘s possessive love for jewellery. This love of her knows no human affection, neither has any regard for it. However, that is not to say Monimalika can only be summed up by her greed. She appears as a rather peculiar character, with a mystery surrounding her. The actress Konika Mozumdar carries herself in her portrayal of Monimalika with absolute subtlety. Her movements, way of gazing with lost, distant eyes as well as her song and soft-spoken voice -all contribute in establishing a character who cannot be easily understood.

...her way of gazing in a lost manner, as if in a dream...
…her way of gazing in a lost manner, as if in a dream…

This is so, if we also not add Ray’s decision to often show Monimalika from the back, with her head veiled, and only the smoothly flowing fabric of her saree visible. This is how viewers also see Monimalika for the first time, accompanied by the score. It is as if Monimalika conceals more than what she decides to exhibit to Phanibhusan as well as the audience. Moreover, she never leaves the house, which is, as if, her lair; not to be left even after her death.

The recurrent glimpses of Monimalika
The recurrent glimpses of Monimalika

Regional instances

She suffers from anxiety due to her being childless even after several years of marriage. Due to this, she thinks that Phanibhusan’s relatives have every possibility to refer to her as “Olokkhi“. This term refers to the “shadow” of the Hindu household goddess, Laxmi. Unlike Laxmi who brings prosperity, goddess Olokkhi brings hardships. In Bengali, the word, “Lokkhi“, in reference to Laxmi, has also household expectations associated with married women. The word “Olokkhi“, in this context, can be referred to as “unlucky”, concerning Monimalika’s failure in expected family duties; that of providing a child to the family.

Monimalika's anxiety in Monihara
Monimalika’s anxiety

In some regional myths, Laxmi’s owl that occasionally accompanies her is believed to be this very goddess, “Olokkhi”. The goddess of prosperity brings alongside her the Goddess of misfortune.

Due to her association with wealth, Laxmi is the Goddess perhaps closest to jewelry. Adorned in jewelry, the “Olokkhi” Monimalika is a nod to such an association between two Goddesses at polar opposites. Moreover, in the Bangla language, the term “Olokkhi” has connotations associated with darkness, greed, misfortune, and death.

From the human to the supernatural

There is perhaps no better testimony to the immense greed of Manimalika than her final conversation with her cousin, Madhusudhan.

আচ্ছা, একজন এমন কাছের লোককে প্রত্যগ করে জাচ্ছো। তা একটু অনুশোচনা হচ্ছেনা?

{Tell me, this is someone so close to you (Phanibhusan) whom you are abandoning by going away. Do you not have any regret?}

Madhusudan, Monihara

Monimalika and Madhusudhan in conversation
Monimalika and Madhusudhan in conversation

She is on the verge of executing her plan of leaving for her father’s place with Madhusudan, lest Phanibhusan targets her jewels to cover for his financial losses. Over the song echoing from the village jaatra (drama) she has sent the servant, Bhagirath, to, she responds to Madhusudan’s question.

একটা আফসোস আচ্ছে। টাকার ব্যবস্থা হলে উনি একটা গয়না আনবেন বলেছিলেন। সেটা আর হবেনা।

{There is one regret. If money could be arranged, he (Phanibhusan) promised me that he would bring me a jewel. That won’t happen anymore.}

Monimalika, Monihara

Monimalika's unshakeable determination resulting from greed in Monihara
Monimalika’s unshakeable determination resulting from greed

In regional folklore and ghost stories, the wandering spirit of an individual often happens to be in association with unfulfilled desires. It is because of their attachments that the spirit still has to linger in the world of the living. Needless to say, a similar fate awaits Monimalika.

Turning to the supernatural

As already mentioned earlier, there is no lurking supernatural presence throughout the movie that would make Monihara strictly fall under the “horror” category. Rather, the supernatural aspect makes its appearance in the film’s conclusive moments. However, prior to it, instances, again like building blocks, only lead to it.

At such instances, Phanibhusan finds himself in the very pangs of human suffering, upon discovering his wife missing. He expects momentarily that she would appear from her hiding to amuse him as she does in earlier moments of the film; however, his expectations are in vain. He passes his days in sorrow, until one night when he hears Monimalika’s voice -a spine-chilling laughter. This does not frighten him, rather he rejoices, being still under the influence of expectation of her return.

The art of transition

The set design as well as the camera work in Monihara reveal their expertise...
The set design as well as the camera work reveal their expertise…

The set design again reflects its expertise in enhancing the impacts. On a full moon night when Monimalika returns, the marble statue of the garden outside, as well as the grandiose of the insides, as well as even Phanibhusan’s room’s royal-esque door, only enhance the eerie effects characteristic of these moments. Also, not to mention the skillful camera work that goes into the invocation of such cathartic impact.

Monimalika’s words are held against her as she returns to take away from Phanibhusan the present meant for her. This was the same jewelry that she had the regret of not possessing if she left him. She still does!

মনি, তুমি ফিরে এসেচ্ছো?

{Moni, you’ve returned?}

Phanibhusan, Monihara

She hasn’t changed one bit -her veiled attire, downcast eyes, gentle doe-like gait, visage carrying a dreamy expression. Yet, in that ghastly silence, she nods in negative to her husband’s response. Phanibhusan watches her eyeing the present he kept beside his bed, himself tinged with sorrow and nostalgia. He stretches his hand at it, perhaps due to a newly-awakened sense of fear. However, this is not new and viewers may instantly recall how Monimalika snatches her earlier present from Phanibhusan’s hands. At that time, we all chose to neglect the sudden appearance of the film’s score following the scene; choosing also to ignore the suggestive act that is concealed underneath.

A comparison of the act of snatching: a glimpse of attachments
A comparison of the act of snatching: a glimpse of attachments

The fatal ties of words

Everything is made clear with the glimpse of Monimalika’s skeletal hand that attempts to snatch again. The hand still wears the bangles that Monimalika dons when going away with Madhusudan.

প্রাণ থাকতে এই গয়না কে নেয় দেখি।

{Let me see who can take these (jewellery) off me as long as I still have life left in me}

Monimalika, Monihara

Unfortunate for her, she does not choose her words carefully, neither in this scenario nor in addressing her regret. As the aforementioned words become the cause of her death, her regret becomes the cause of her un-satiated attachment.


The revelation of the supernatural in the end reserves for itself a shock and awe that could not have possibly resulted from a constantly lurking ghostly presence. That is why, despite being hilariously simple on part of Ray, the revelation of Monimalika still manages to make a cathartic impact. Moreover, the credibility of such an ending also lies with the suggestive elements like music, visuals, and the very ambiance that shapes the film; the ending, then, when it comes, is seemingly only a conclusive wrapping up of references and hints present throughout. It is as if the film manages to unchain itself from suggestive gestures, and finally, do violence to its viewers rather straightforwardly.

Violence such as this reigns effective because it does not populate the movie in excessive amounts. A conclusive revelation of the supernatural of this sort is also reminiscent of the first story in the Japanese anthology film, Kwaidan, that was released three years later in 1964. Such an act targets the oft-present innate human fear for the supernatural, while not letting, at the same time, everything present in the film side with it. However, it is perhaps the undeniable connection between the human and the supernatural -as this film as an example expounds- that enables the targeting of this innate fear and of elaborating on the several possibilities.

Simplicity and complexities

The rendition from one textual form to another is itself a challenging piece of task. What is remarkable of Ray as he does so is that he manages to bring in an interplay between his expertise and the newly-tackled subject of supernatural horror. Ray’s expertise lies in his portrayals of the Bengali “bhadralok” or upper-middle-class elites. In Monihara, he only brings such portrayals to an engagement with tropes of horror.

Such tropes, although typical to the genre, only find newer ground in Ray’s narrative style. The supernatural aspect derives its voicing from the human flaw of a kind that has the slightest possibility of emergence apart from a rich household. In bringing out the desired effect, not only feelings but also material possessions and individual characteristics come to aid. These are then tied together by a single line of thread, the knots on which, if any, will only be indicative of complexities in the flawless performances; like a drama, it is the actors’ performances that provide momentum to the comparatively simpler plot. In other words, if one happens to find anything not-so-simple in this simplistic approach of Ray, such would only be the emotional complexities of the characters themselves, who are not easily categorizable despite every attempt from the village teacher to do so.

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