A lone car being slowly driven down a crooked, pothole-filled lane in the middle of nowhere at night, the silence being punctured periodically only by the screeching sound of the moving wipers on the windshield, as the rain quietly splatters on the car. The car suddenly halts, as a woman in a white sari appears out of thin air in front of it. The driver asks, “Kaun ho tum?” (Who are you?). She replies “Koi nahi” (No one). He asks, “Kahan jaana hai?” (Where do you want to go?). She says, “Kahi nahi” (Nowhere). The man persists, offers his help repeatedly. He asks her to trust him, to not be scared; he is a doctor. She replies, “Main kisi insaan se nahi darti” (I am not afraid of human beings), just as lightning cracks loudly in the background. He offers her a ride, she accepts, as long as he doesn’t ask any questions. Getting inside the car, just as she closes the car door, the wipers stop moving. He is worried that he won’t be able to see anything. She can though, so she asks him to drive, to trust her. As they drive on, she makes him avoid a pothole, and stop the car in front of a graveyard. She gets out and walks towards the graveyard, as he looks on. Suddenly, the car wipers start moving again, and he gets distracted. When he looks back, she has vanished, and all that remains is the sound of a woman singing.
As the description of the opening sequence shows, Woh Kaun Thi? (1964) is a masterclass in atmosphere. Considering its director Raj Khosla’s experience with film noir, it is not a surprise. Throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, he made some of the most iconic films, which were either direct descendants of the classic Hollywood noir, or his own revisions of noir tropes. Woh Kaun Thi? is one such film, a fantastic fusion of noir staples — high-contrast lighting, grey characters, femmes fatales, double crosses, and an emphasis on psychological and moral decay — with those of gothic horror — spectres, old mansions, buried secrets, and unresolved trauma. These two genres have aesthetically always referenced and influenced each other; Khosla’s brilliance in this film lies on the permeable membrane separating the two, which makes the film even more enjoyable on subsequent viewings. In this process, the film explicitly comments on how both the body and mind engage with cinema, and the role the trickster (filmmaker) plays in providing these pleasures.
The following paragraph will summarize the plot of the film, since it is necessary for the analysis that follows. So, SPOILER ALERT!
The plot of the film is fairly easy to follow. A doctor named Anand meets a mysterious woman one rainy night, who keeps showing up and disappearing at random intervals. A couple of days later, he receives a call from an anonymous person about a medical emergency. He meets the man at night, who takes him to an old and unkempt mansion. He is greeted with the sight of the same woman lying on her deathbed, with her mother blaming him for her death. While exiting the house, he encounters a policeman who asks him about his whereabouts. Anand tells him, and takes the policeman inside for proof. Only this time, the mansion is empty. The policeman then tells him that this has happened to many doctors earlier as well, leaving Anand confused and frustrated. He confides in his girlfriend, whom he intends to marry, but she doesn’t take it too seriously. One night, she is mysteriously killed. Thereafter, he reluctantly agrees to marry a girl named Sandhya, whom his mother has selected for him, and on the night of the wedding he discovers she resembles the woman he had met that night. This leads him to believe that the spectre has decided to torture him, throwing him into a fit of frenzy. The domestic strife increases over time, while he continues to be obsessed by the spectre outside his home. There are glaring similarities between the two in behaviour as well — she paints a mansion that she claims to have never seen, yet it is the same one he visited on the eventful night. As his frustration grows, he sends her away; the train on which she is travelling gets into an accident, and she dies. The spectre, however, continues to haunt him. It continues to do so till the climax, where the final twist is revealed. His cousin Ramesh has been scheming to portray the doctor as mentally unstable, so he can get hold of the inheritance money bequeathed to him. There are no spectres — he used twin sisters (one of whom dies in the confrontation), the doctor’s servant, and two actors who appeared as policemen. The sister who remains alive reveals that she was the one actually married to the doctor, and that she was kidnapped from the train and kept in captivity. She explains that Ramesh and her long-lost late sister had planned everything, including making it appear as if the mansion was haunted.
At the thematic level, the film exists as an exciting addition to the corpus of Hindi films that explore, through horror tropes, an externalisation of male anxiety about marriage and commitment in the tradition of films like Mahal (dir. Kamal Amrohi, 1949). Woh Kaun Thi?, like Mahal, in making male anxiety the point of view, ends up foregrounding issues of domestic abuse and violence inherent within the structures of marriage. The ghost is free, fascinating, and mysterious, and is therefore the object of desire. However, within the space of the household, in the role of a wife, the same qualities make her an aberration. She makes this clear when she declares that her biggest mistake was lifting her veil on the night of the wedding. The same wife, when she appears as an apparition at the husband’s workplace to ask for a vacation, can express her desire freely, through a song that rings in our ears to date — “Lag ja gale, ke phir ye haseen raat ho na ho” (Embrace me, this night may or may not come again). The horror is then, not just limited to the mise-en-scène, or the staging, blocking and lighting, but in exploring the psychological dimensions of abuse in domestic arrangements. The ‘staged’ spaces of horror are but a distraction; actual horror remains hidden.
At the cinematic level, the film exists as a highly self-reflexive piece of art, directly highlighting the element of trickery in cinematic practices to generate affect. Horror cinema, being the most cinematic of genres, depends highly on stark lighting and sound to achieve its goal. There are plenty of sequences in the film that produce effective scares and an overall feeling of creepiness throughout, sequences that hold up to date. In terms of film convention, it is an amalgamation of gothic horror and film noir, but with the time stamp of the 1960s, where psychiatry becomes the context within which the worst fears originating in the human mind are dealt with. But Raj Khosla’s genius lies elsewhere — in the final twist. At the level of the plot, it resembles the resolutions to the gothic mysteries in Scooby Doo (which first began airing in 1969) — a crooked man hiding behind the monster/ghost mask and employing special effects to spook the Mystery Team. Khosla also does the same, making a character spill the secrets out at the end, unmasking the real culprit and their motives, as well as explaining the methods they employed in executing their tasks. So, we are shown that Ramesh has always been orchestrating the creation of the ‘spooky atmosphere’, hiding from plain sight when closing doors behind people so as to make it appear as if they’re closing themselves. He is, thereby, revealing his own role, too, as a filmmaker, hiding behind the scenes, tricking the audience into believing what they’re watching, identifying with the struggles of the protagonist, and taking in all the pleasures that cinema has to offer. He includes this self-reflection within the text of the film itself, as we see a small frame within the main frame, which plays the behind-the-scenes footage as a flashback of Ramesh creating illusions to spook the doctor.
It is moments like these that elevate Woh Kaun Thi? to being something more than an effective horror film. It is a love letter to the pleasures of making cinema that thrills and scares, made by a magician or a trickster (depending on whom you ask) revelling in the sadistic pleasures of an audience being fooled by what is witnessed on screen.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.