As Anees Bazmee's Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 (2022) continues to perform extraordinarily well at the box office more than a month after its initial release, I found myself thinking more and more of the first (and far superior) Bhool Bhulaiyaa, and the films from which it was adapted. First, of course, came the Malayalam-language cult classic – Manichitrathazhu (1993) – which was so successful that it inspired remakes in four Indian languages as well as a spin-off. Of all the remakes, however, two enjoyed singular mainstream attention, which can perhaps be attributed to their star cast – the Tamil film Chandramukhi (2005) and the aforementioned Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007) in Hindi. The three films are more or less identical in terms of plot, but each one is representative of the region, culture and film industry from which it originates; this is reflected in the direction, dialogues and the general sense of humour of the films. Even the three titles take a completely different approach as to where they wish to draw the audience's focus. Manichitrathazhu translates to 'the ornate lock', presumably in reference to the elaborate lock system that prevents entry to Nagavalli's haunted chambers. Chandramukhi simply alludes to the eponymous dancer, whose beauty rivals that of the moon. Finally, Bhool Bhulaiyaa means 'labyrinth', a reference to an early scene in the film where a character expresses his frustration at the irrational and superstitious beliefs held by the townspeople: "Vehem, andhvishwas aur mansik khelon ka ajeeb bhool bhulaiyaa hai yeh!"
What I find most fascinating, though, is the music, particularly that climactic song in which the spirit of Nagavalli/Chandramukhi/Manjulika completely takes over the mind of the female protagonist, who dances with gleeful abandon as the men, hidden behind a wall, watch in fear. How is this song treated in each of the three films? In what ways are they similar, and where do they diverge?
It is important to note that the ghostly dancer is always from a different part of India than where the film is set, framing her as a sort of exotic beauty, a prize to be claimed by the degenerate old king. Nagavalli is from Tamil Nadu, Chandramukhi is from Andhra Pradesh, and Manjulika is from Bengal. This also plays a compelling role in the plot – as the female protagonist slowly becomes enamoured with the tragic story of the dancer, she empathises so deeply with her that she begins to talk and sing in a language that her conscious mind has no knowledge of. As such, her performance on the fateful night of Durgashtami is reflective of this cultural and linguistic distinction, and we get to hear Tamil in a Malayalam film, Telugu in a Tamil film, and Bengali in a Hindi one. In each instance, the song is an ode to the dancer's lover who was cruelly taken from her.
At first glance, it would seem that this particular sequence is a frame-by-frame remake of the original. In all three films, the song starts just after the doctor has explained his findings to the unwitting husband and the college professor. As they hear the sound of the dancer's ghungroos echoing through the palace, the three men rush to her bedroom to see that it is now empty. They hastily follow the music and discover that the female protagonist has now assumed full Nagavalli/Chandramukhi/Manjulika get-up, complete with (messy) hair and (even messier) make-up. Shobana, Jyothika and Vidya Balan do a masterful job at capturing the unhinged yet vulnerable energy of the dancer – the wide eyes, manic smile and choppy movements never fail to send chills down my spine. The men take Freud's scopophilia theory to another level as they conceal themselves and watch through tiny windows in the wall above the courtyard where the dancer frolics. They all look concerned, but the husband is particularly heartbroken at the sight of his wife dancing in such a manner.
Eventually, they put their plan in motion – the doctor urges the professor to enter the 'stage', so to speak. The difference in how this scene is executed in the three versions is a little hilarious. Mohanlal silently extends a bracing touch to the other man's shoulder to indicate that it is time, Akshay Kumar pulls him over and whispers indistinctly in his ear before reassuringly sending him on his way, while Rajinikanth just gives him a thumbs-up! As it is, the professor, who is associated with her lover in the dancer's mind, cautiously stands before her. In each version of the song, she is delighted to see him again and immediately pictures the two of them dressed to the nines and dancing together in a different location. Nagavalli sees them in what appears to be a grand temple, Chandramukhi sees them in a luxuriously-furnished version of the very chamber she is currently in, while Manjulika sees them in a royal court sans the king. What's interesting, however, is that while Chandramukhi and Manjulika only envision their glorious past after the arrival of their lover, Nagavalli imagines herself joyfully dancing solo in the temple, well before she sees her partner. In her imagination, the dancer is performing flawlessly as she did in her lifetime, but when we cut back to reality, her movements are unrefined, even awkward, seeing as the female protagonist was likely not trained in classical dance. Once again, props to the actresses for doing justice to this nuance through their brilliant performances.
What follows is a truly beautiful and intricate dance sequence, portrayed mostly in the dreamy setting of the dancer's imagination. For a brief moment, everything is perfect, and she is happier than ever to be back dancing with her lover. The wicked king is nowhere to be seen for the majority of the song. In Manichitrathazhu, in fact, Nagavalli's adversary is technically not a king at all, he is the powerful patriarch of the family. One of the principal differences between the three versions is that the song in the Malayalam film ends right as the spell breaks for Nagavalli, before she sees the rest of the family and the man she believes to be her tormentor. In a way, it feels like the song was meant to encapsulate the sense of peace and pure contentment she feels for those few minutes as she dances with her lover, unencumbered by her trauma and desire for revenge. In the other two songs, however, the king interrupts the lovers by storming in most unceremoniously.
Perhaps the biggest difference of all is that the primary antagonist in the Malayalam and Hindi films is symbolised by the husband, since that is the logical connection the dancer makes in her mind. However, in the Tamil film, it is actually the doctor who portrays the king. This doesn't make as much sense in the narrative, but it is possible they made the decision based on Rajinikanth's astronomical star power at the time. Chandramukhi looks around in dread as the king's presence is announced and suddenly finds herself back in his court. Rajinikanth, who is flanked by four hounds for some reason, enters with menacing purpose. As he passes Chandramukhi, he stops to stare her up and down, checking her out and making his lust for her clear. She scoffs. The king raises his eyebrows at one of his ministers, as if to ask what he thinks of Chandramukhi. The minister makes the extremely anachronistic 'okay' gesture in order to signify that she is, indeed, stunning, and then wilts beneath the king's glare. Rajinikanth walks towards his throne, laughing maniacally. The terrified lover looks like he wants to leave, but Chandramukhi stills him with her hand, an expression of fierce determination on her face. The song picks back up, and she dances as the king watches with a lecherous smirk.
Chandramukhi seems keenly aware of the king's intentions and her own relative powerlessness but chooses to defy him through the smallest of actions and gestures. Her lover is visibly nervous. On the other hand, Manjulika and her lover gracefully escort the king and his entourage into court, and even offer their salutations as he settles on the throne. While Rajinikanth's king comes across as incredibly creepy and predatory – the camera cuts to his lewd reactions several times during the lovers' performance – Shiney Ahuja has a solemn, almost pensive look on his face throughout the song, and the focus remains largely on the dancers. Having had enough of just watching, Rajinikanth stands up and throws off his outer robe. He vocalises the beats of the song, almost challenging the lovers to follow along – they have to literally dance to his tune. As the music crescendos, the king walks to the centre of the court and swiftly beheads Chandramukhi's lover, as she screams in despair. Time comes to a standstill. Chandramukhi is suspended in mid-air, while her lover's headless corpse continues to dance for a few more seconds before falling down. In contrast, Shiney Ahuja's king stays on the throne, in his seat of power. Manjulika watches adoringly as her lover dances at an increasingly fast pace across the court, finally ending up at the king's feet. The king then slashes his sword, and we see her lover's blood splatter all over a devastated Manjulika. It is at this point that both songs come to an end.
I love how the three songs paint subtly different pictures of the characters and how their story unfolds. Nagavalli, Chandramukhi and Manjulika don't just feel like the same woman with different names. In each iteration, we are convinced of the dancer's dignity and the power of her love. I encourage everyone to watch the songs and performances in question: Oru Murai Vanthu Parthaya (Manichitrathazhu), Raa Raa (Chandramukhi) and Mere Dholna (Bhool Bhulaiyaa). A cool fact is that the lover of Chandramukhi and Manjulika is played by the same actor, Vineeth, who is an excellent dancer. While all three songs are absolutely gorgeous in their own ways, my personal favourite has to be Raa Raa. Maybe it's the nostalgia speaking; I have fond memories of watching Chandramukhi countless times with my family, and I was always endlessly scared and entranced by this particular song. My favourite element of these three films is that they are all complex, psychological thrillers – spoiler alert: there's no ghost! – which is why the execution of the 2022 "sequel" was especially disappointing. Nevertheless, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 sparked a fun little trip down memory lane for me, which is why I don't regret watching it after all!