The acclaimed Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein once observed that “film’s undoubted ancestor is architecture”. One way to understand this statement is to think about architecture as possessing an inherently “filmic” quality, an aura and a materiality that constitutes the basis of a cinematic shot. In most compelling onscreen narratives depicting human life and culture, architecture not only serves as a background but also shapes the story’s specific emotional appeal by evolving dynamic relationships with plot and characters. Like its Western counterpart, Hindi cinema has worked with a diversity of architectural settings, one of which it can claim as its very own because of its South Asian origins: the haveli.
Havelis operate on screen with an intrinsic sense of a loaded history, since they speak of a building style and living culture that is centuries old and now rapidly disappearing. Their configuration within 20th and 21st century visual narratives inevitably opens up a dynamic space of antiquity and enigma, as well as a fractured, uneasy association with the lengthening hand of modernity.
Havelis were essential to a variety of films from yesteryears such as Madhumati (1958), Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), Lal Patthar (1971) and Kudrat (1981), and it is telling that the architectural form has made a comeback in contemporary stories. From Varun Thakur’s Shaitan Haveli in 2018 to five 2020 productions including Anvita Dutt Guptan’s Bulbbul, Honey Trehan’s Raat Akeli Hai, Shoojit Sarcar’s Gulabo Sitabo, Anand Tiwari’s Bandish Bandits and Mira Nair’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, different kinds of havelis creatively stage their narrations with some recognisable tropes.
The most obvious feature that draws our attention to the haveli’s distinctive setting from the ordinary ones is its connection with taste and grandeur. Bulbbul, for instance, is heavily immersed in a lavishness composed of stunning costumes and jewellery, large rooms and passageways, and decorated walls supporting mural-adorned ceilings. The film’s affluence deriving from the early 20th century Bengali zamindari system finds a subdued though equally enchanting parallel in the courtesan Saeeda Bai’s haveli in A Suitable Boy, which is set in the fictive land of Purva Pradesh. An aristocratic flavour also breathes through the mansion of Raghuveer Singh, the central locale of Raat Akeli Hai. And although the Lucknawi haveli of Gulabo Sitabo and the West Indian havelis of Bandish Bandits and Shaitaan Haveli have fallen on hard, crumbling times, it is not difficult to imagine their heyday through their still-standing grand dimensions.
The haveli’s “tasteful” atmosphere however is not only comprised of material wealth but also of performing and fine arts, which elicit patronage by their owners and residents. Thus, Saeeda Bai is both a courtesan as well as an accomplished singer and performer. Likewise, Bandish Bandits’ Pandit Radhemohan Rathod is a musical maestro and gharana-teacher. Both their homes act as centres for artistic tastes and evoke old Hindi films such as Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1972), where too the haveli transforms into a space for singing, dancing and etiquette learning.
Women and violence
In an excellent 2017 article titled ‘Haveli: A Cinematic Topos’, film scholar Priya Jaikumar has argued that “cinematic havelis conjure lives that hide terrible secrets”. Such secrets almost unequivocally revolve around female figures who have borne the brunt of mental and physical patriarchal abuse. “Badi haveliyon mein bade raaz hote hain (Big mansions have big/lots of secrets)”, mutters Binodini mysteriously to her sister-in-law Bulbbul in the eponymously named film, to stop the latter from raising her voice against the brutality of her husband and brother-in-law. The central murder mystery of Raat Akeli Hai also arises when Raghuveer Singh’s niece Vasudha kills him in order to put an end to her rapes. The “shaitan” of Shaitaan Haveli similarly ventures to deflower the reigning queen in exchange of his services rendered to the king.
On the other hand, Bandish Bandits doesn’t depict any physical crime but nonetheless orchestrates a subtle narrative of power and abuse. This is achieved through the character of Pandit Rathod’s daughter-in-law Mohini, who has been barred from singing ever since she gets married in order to assuage the pride and jealousy of Rathod. Likewise, Saeeda Bai’s life has concealed the secret of her so called “sister” Tasneem, who actually turns out to be her daughter out of an illicit relationship with Nawab Sahib.
In such instances, a deeply fractured past is woven into an architectural idiom through what Jaikumar calls a “spectral female figure” who eventually takes revenge by either haunting that space (like Bulbbul becoming a “daayan”) or by exerting some sort of control (Mohini replacing Panditji as the main teacher herself). Such assertion of power is portrayed at the end of Gulabo Sitabo as well that shows an otherwise frail Begum acting cunningly by unambiguously wresting her haveli from the scheming hands of her husband.
Property and prestige
The haveli’s mystique finally gets amplified through its relationship with property and inheritance. Part of Raat Akeli Hai’s enigmatic complexity springs from the hidden knowledge of Pramila – Raghuveer Singh’s sister-in-law – who tries to save her daughter’s perpetrator only so that she receives her rightful property-share. Gulabo-Sitabo’s mansion partly extracts its strange atmosphere from the machinations of the bureaucracy and the individual claimants to “own” it. Further, Saeeda Bai’s haveli is a “secret” gift from the Nawab to compensate for his affair, and in Bandish Bandits, the fight to save Panditji’s musical “gharana (traditional house of music)” literally merges with the efforts to save the “ghar” (home) itself.
But it isn’t only the human characters who act as property-claimants in the haveli narratives. The supernatural also exerts its peculiar pull to “own” such a space. Thus, the shaitan’s minions continually proclaim their power over the old edifice even though new people come to inhabit it, and Bulbbul’s mansion eventually becomes a part of the wilderness, symbolically transforming into a “haunted” estate. The haveli’s generic oldness consequently gets embedded with a typical visual vocabulary, where prosperity and decline, spectacle and spectrality get mobilised in fascinating combinations.
Siddharth Pandey is a writer and photographer from Shimla.