Wallowing in a heady mix of world and Indian cinema viewed on Netflix, Amazon Prime and different film festivals, and dipping into your own collection contained in multiple hard disks, one is suddenly at a loss when one stumbles across an old classic from Hindi cinema, chosen arbitrarily for the sake of nostalgia and curiosity. How would it stand up against today’s cinematic output that’s pushing the boundaries in terms of content and style like never before?
The film in question is Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam made way back in 1969. Considered as his best film in which he repeated the cast and crew of his previous hit Anupama (1966), it is based on a Bengali novel of the same name by Narayan Sanyal. Set in 1946, the film traces the life of an honest engineer Satyapriya Acharya whose principled stand against corruption pitches him against powers-that-be.
Unlike the angry young vigilante who takes up the establishment in the ’70s, Satyapriya — played by Dharmendra in his career defining role — moves from one job to another when his standards are not met, much to the detriment of his family life that consists of his wife Ranjana (Sharmila Tagore) and her illegitimate son (baby Sarika). His dreams of building a new India almost verges on naiveté, and his principles begin to look incongruous.
And that is where the film falters, looked at after nearly 50 years since it was made. Indians loved their heroes to be virtuous and single-dimensional; maybe that’s the reason why Satyapriya lacks the complexity of a well-rounded character; his conflict is purely external — not internal, and he remains virtuous till the end, making him look like a caricature.
Contrast Satyapriya with Walter White from the cult American series Breaking Bad, in which Bryan Cranston who plays White, a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with lung cancer, turns into a drug dealer, manufacturing and selling high-quality methamphetamine in order to secure his family’s future after he dies.
The series plays on his conflict that calls into question his principles as he is eaten up by guilt and fear of being caught vis-à-vis his family. And that is what makes the character so interesting and fulfilling, unlike the flawless Satyapriya. In his conflict between pursuit of truth and the welfare of his family, Satyapriya steadfastly chooses the former till the end when he dies, almost like a selfish crybaby.
Not only that, his decision to marry Ranjana, the illegitimate daughter of the manager of a debauched employer — after she has been raped by the man, is prompted not out of love but by a desire to ‘save’ her from further ignominy. He also valiantly takes responsibility of the child born out of the unholy act. But moments before his ‘noble’ gesture, he had steadfastly refused to intervene when Ranjana was decked up and forcibly sent to the depraved owner by her father. That’s the only point where he suffered some conflict when he realised that he had acted like a nincompoop, which in turn prompted him to ‘rehabilitate’ her after her traumatic night with the villain.
His whole attitude reeks of old fashioned patriarchal heroism that is outright sexist and condescending by any sane standard. The way Ranjana falls at his feet and begins to cry in joy when Satyapriya declares his intention to marry her — without bothering to find out if she could be interested — is stretching it a bit too far, but the audience loved every bit of it and the film went on to win the National Award for the Best Feature Film in Hindi in 1971!
The gorgeous Sharmila Tagore plays the ‘fallen woman’ turned dutiful wife, who never questions her husband’s stand and bears up with her misfortune throughout, as if therein lies her salvation. The only saving grace is the way Hrishikesh Mukherjee displays her visually; she looks elegant and sexy in her traditionally draped cotton sarees, but that also begins to wane after a time. How does one evaluate a politically incorrect film like this today? It’s so simplistic and gross, yet so simple in its lucid narrative style and functional craft that it is appealing.
(Ranjan Das is a Mumbai-based filmmaker, instructor and writer)