In Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca, a young woman marries a wealthy, much older widower, only to find herself increasingly haunted by thoughts of his late former wife. Biren Nag’s 1964 uncredited adaptation, starring Waheeda Rehman, Biswajit Chatterjee and Lalita Pawar, makes the ghosts more literal.
The director wasn’t the first to tackle the book or the last one to Indianize its setting. Its timeless themes of betrayal and obsession have lent themselves to years of film and television adaptations, beginning with Alfred Hitchcock’s in 1940. His Oscar-winning, largely faithful take on the source novel starred Laurence Olivier as Max de Winter and Joan Fontaine as his new wife. In 2008, Anant Mahadevan’s Anamika set the story in Rajasthan and reimagined the love story as one between an industrialist (Dino Morea) and an escort (Minissha Lamba). The latest adaptation of Rebecca, directed by Ben Wheatley and starring Armie Hammer and Lily James, will release on Netflix on September 21.
Du Maurier’s novel is a masterclass in suspense, where the boogeyman that lurks in the darkest recesses of Max’s new wife’s mind is reflected in the décor of his labyrinthine estate, Manderly. There are reminders of his first wife, Rebecca, in the drawers that contain her belongings, a family portrait that matches a fancy dress costume she once designed and the raging sea outside, where she drowned. Though his new wife narrates the story, she’s so consumed by thoughts of measuring up to Rebecca, her own identity takes a backseat and she’s known only as ‘the second Mrs. de Winter’, even in her own internal monologues. Her inherent clumsiness only grows worse in the face of repeated comments about her predecessor’s grace and poise. Eventually, she grows more miserable, trapped in a prison of the first Mrs. de Winter’s image.
In comparison, Nag’s film, Kohraa, has its moments of psychological tension, but eschews much of what makes the novel so memorable. He transports the setting to Pratapgarh and turns Max de Winter into the wealthy businessman Amit Singh (Biswajeet Chatterjee), who rescues the orphaned Rajeshwari (Waheeda Rehman) from being married off to her landlord’s mentally ill son as a means of curing him (ah, Bollywood.)
In giving his protagonist a name, Nag expands her identity beyond the shadow of her husband’s former wife. Rajeshwari is not painfully shy, like her counterpart in the novel is. Though initially overwhelmed by the demands of running a mansion, she’s a lot more assertive with the servants. Nag doesn’t let the character’s unease simmer as it does in the novel, propelled by her husband’s stony silences, onto which she projects her own feelings of self-doubt, and his reluctance to talk about his late wife, which she misinterprets as him still being in love with her. Instead, Amit is a lot more playful and affectionate. It’s hard to imagine the stoic Max serenading her with ‘Rah Bani Khud Manzil’ as he does.
Another major source of tension for the narrator in the novel is the constant presence of the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, whose slavish devotion to Rebecca borders on obsession. Hitchcock played up the homoerotic undertones of this servant-mistress relationship, including a scene in which Danvers caresses the dead Rebecca’s lingerie. Nag veers away from this, depicting the housekeeper as a pious woman dressed in all-white, clutching prayer beads and mumbling ‘Narayan Narayan’ for most of the film. Like the housekeeper in the novel, however, she preys on the new wife’s feelings of inadequacy by repeatedly making unfavorable comparisons to her predecessor.
In one particularly cruel scene in the novel, Mrs. Danvers unsettles the new wife by whispering taunts and then coaxing her to commit suicide by jumping off the balcony. Kohraa relegates the role of the bully to the ghost of the late Mrs. Singh instead, which chases Rajeshwari to the edge of the foggy terrace and insists that she jump.
The scene illustrates how, in the absence of formidable human antagonists, Nag relies on the presence of a spectre to drum up scares. When Rajeshwari first discovers that she’s living with a lot more than just the memory of the late Mrs Singh, it’s while snooping around her vacant bedroom. The bedsheets move, a window is thrown open and a woman’s shrill laugh rings out. She flees, but eventually returns and sees wet footprints that lead her to an apparition.
All along, Rajeshwari believes that the first Mrs. Singh drowned during a boating accident — an assumption that is abruptly shattered when her skeleton is discovered, sitting upright inside Amit’s car, at a nearby swamp. The shot is strikingly similar to the reveal of Mrs. Bates’ mummified corpse in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). That Nag was influenced by Psycho is further cemented by Kohraa’s first scene, a flashback of the first Mrs. Singh in the shower, which serves no narrative purpose and seemingly only exists to pay homage to Hitchcock.
In a twist taken from the novel, it’s revealed that Amit murdered his first wife, whose charm and refinement were simply a facade for her numerous cruelties and infidelities. While Max begins to lie in court and claim to be innocent, however, Amit admits his guilt and is sure to be hanged. In an eleventh-hour twist, the housekeeper confesses that she poisoned the first Mrs. Singh before Amit shot her, as her sanskaari sensibilities could no longer tolerate the woman’s debauchery. This significant departure from the source novel transforms its last stretch from an investigative thriller into a morality tale.
The happy ending for the couple is also a rejection of the novel’s famous opening line: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. The narrator of Rebecca can never return as Manderly is burnt to ashes by the vengeful Mrs. Danvers. Rajeshwari, all charges against her husband having been dropped, has no need to dream. She simply goes home.
You can watch Kohraa on YouTube.