Sadgati: Based on Premchand’s story, Satyajit Ray took a scathing look at the tragic lives of untouchables
The story of Sadgati was written almost one hundred years ago. The film itself was made 40 years ago. But even today, the evil shadow of untouchability and caste crimes hover over us.
Editor's note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was this May), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.
What happens when one of the greatest filmmakers our country has ever had decides to make a film out of a story written by one of the most loved and respected writers from our literature and asks two of the finest actors to have ever graced our screens to act in it? Read on to find out.
In Hinduism, there’s a belief that after the death of the body, the soul tends to remain within the periphery of the place of death, and unless it is freed from its earthly ties and granted peace and passage by a representative of God, it continues to remain in the mortal world, to be tormented for all eternity. This deliverance by an agent of God is considered a holy necessity, and in the early years of the previous century, the great writer Munshi Premchand himself wove a beautiful tale around this practice, to be adapted for the screen by Satyajit Ray several decades later. That film, which Ray made for Doordarshan in 1981, was Sadgati (Deliverance).
The film tells the story of a poor low-caste village couple named Dukhi and Jhuria (played brilliantly by Om Puri and Smita Patil). Dukhi and Jhuria are chamars — an untouchable caste shunned by the members of the upper caste for their involvement with the traditional practice of tanning. Dukhi and Jhuria want to give away their daughter — a girl hardly into her teens — in marriage. In order to have the almanacs read and an auspicious date and time announced for the marriage, Dukhi goes to the village priest’s house and invites him back to his hut. On seeing an opportunity to get some free labour in return, the brahmin priest makes Dukhi carry out a series of strenuous tasks under a scorching and unforgiving sun. The poor man, who has just come out of a bout of fever, completes all the tasks without uttering a single word of protest. Weak and shivering, with an empty stomach and a mid-day sun over his head, Dukhi is then asked to chop a massive chunk of wood into fine splints. Drained and exhausted, Dukhi attacks the monstrous log with a blunt axe and the last remaining strength in his body, but can hardly make a dent. When the brahmin priest reprimands him for not being able to do his job properly, and threatens to announce an inauspicious date and time for the young girl’s marriage, Dukhi is scared, and chops away at the log — blow after blow after blow — until he finally collapses and dies right at the spot.
The priest now finds himself in a spot, because there’s a corpse lying near his house, that no one would touch. The chamars refuse to take the body away, and accuse him of working Dukhi to death. The other brahmins accuse him of causing them much inconvenience because the corpse is lying on the way to the village well, and none of them want to see a dead chamar on their way to the source of their drinking water. As the skies burst open, the rains make matters worse, because the corpse starts to decompose sooner than expected. Left with no other option, the priest then ‘delivers’ the corpse to its rightful place, tugging it along the roads of the village with the help of a rope in the early hours of the morning, and dropping it heartlessly amidst the decaying carcass of cattle in the outskirts of the village.
While Premchand’s story is a scathing account of the tragic lives of untouchables in this country, and of the horrors of superstition and blind submission to the self-proclaimed voices of God, Ray’s handling of the subject lends a sense of failure and dejection to the entire affair — even when Dukhi is alive — as if it’s all over, and as if nothing can be done to help the poor man. Even as Dukhi seethes in rage and directs his fury at the log instead of his oppressor, muttering expletives at the lifeless piece of wood, we can’t help but accept that we have failed him, in all possible ways. We feel as if his mere existence, his entire life, all up to this point, has been a lie — that he was born a slave and that he would die a slave, never to question his master, never to stand up to him, or face him, or look him right in the eye to show that he resents him and everything that he stands for. It is with this sense of hopelessness that Dukhi collapses to his death. The failure is so impactful, that we hardly even get a chance to pay any attention to the other injustice happening right in front of our eyes — the marriage of a young girl child.
Smita Patil plays Jhuria with the feminine grace and anxious uncertainty that is so apt for a poor, rustic, helpless, untouchable woman. Her crude and tragic lament at her husband’s death rings in our ears, even as the rain continues to wash her tears away. Mohan Agashe’s performance as the cruel brahmin priest is haunting, and he fills the role with just the right amount of vileness, careful not to turn his character into a caricature at any time. Om Puri looks as if he was born to play Dukhi — his silent submission to his fate so vivid, so tragic that it makes our hearts ache. When, long after the film is over, you are finally able to separate yourself away from the story and look at Sadgati as a film, you realise why these actors are considered to be some of the greatest in Indian cinema.
And in the end, there is something that needs to be said, because one can’t help but wonder. The story of Sadgati was written almost one hundred years ago. The film itself was made 40 years ago. But even today, the evil shadow of untouchability and caste crimes hover over us. Even today, in a free state such as ours, poor, ignorant, helpless people from lower castes are beaten to death, maimed and lynched in public, humiliated and raped and stripped of their basic right — the right to live. All because they belong to a so-called lower caste. There is no dignity for them, no justice whatsoever, and certainly no deliverance.
Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.
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