Another film from one of my favourite directors, and with two of my favourite stars as well. Like many of Bimal Roy’s other productions—Parakh, Usne Kaha Tha, Bandini, Kabuliwala, Do Bigha Zameen—Sujata is about people like you and me, not outright villains (I like to think I’m not one!!), but not saints either (yes, well, I have to admit I’m not one of those, either). People who’re shades of grey, not black and white. And, like most of Bimal Roy’s other films, this one too focuses on the underdog: in this case, an ‘untouchable’ girl.
The film begins in the household of a government engineer, Upendranath Chowdhury (Tarun Bose) and his wife Charu (Sulochana Latkar), who’re preparing to celebrate the first birthday of their baby Rama. Theirs is a typical upper middle class government gharana: pretty bungalow, large garden, lots of servants, many ‘suited-booted’ friends, much pampering of Rama. Upendra and Charu dote on their little girl and have arranged a party in celebration.
The party’s not even begun when three men from the nearby village turn up with a baby girl. Both her parents have died of cholera, and the men were just in time to rescue the infant from lurking jackals. They’ve brought her to Upendra because they don’t know what to do with the baby: her parents were untouchables, the only people of their caste in the village. Nobody in the village—all of them from (technically) higher castes than the baby—will consent to take her into their own homes.
Upendra tries to wriggle out of the situation, suggesting that someone be sent to a nearby village to find foster parents of the girl’s caste. The men explain that even if someone were to seek foster parents in other villages, it would take time; and who would look after the baby in the meantime?
Eventually, Upendra and Charu agree to keep the baby in their house until someone can be found to foster her. They hand her over to the ayah to keep in the room adjoining the house.
But finding a foster home for the baby isn’t that easy, and in the meantime, Upendra and Charu find themselves willy-nilly succumbing to the baby’s helpless charm. Upendra bestows a name on her: Sujata (which, ironically enough, means ‘of a good caste’), and Charu—while singing a lullaby to Rama—ends up glancing towards the motherless baby in the room opposite.
Not everybody is as charitable, however. An extremely straitlaced old lady (Lalita Pawar) who, though she’s no relative of Upendra and Charu, is called Buaji (‘aunt’), turns up one day. She’s bubbling over with affection for Rama, whom she’s never seen. Along with Buaji comes a pandit (Asit Sen) whom she’s picked up on her travels—she seems to be a perpetual pilgrim. In all the confusion of welcoming the pandit, arranging for Buaji’s stay, etc, Charu and Upendra don’t realise that Buaji has mistaken Sujata for Rama and is busy cooing over her.
When Buaji discovers the truth, she drops the baby (the ayah springs forward and does a neat bit of fielding, but this scene horrified me: how on earth did Bimal Roy allow it? That baby could’ve actually fallen). Buaji and the pandit are aghast that Upendra and Charu could have so soiled their household by sheltering an untouchable. The pandit tries to brainwash Upendra by telling him that untouchables exude a poisonous gas. Upendra, thank heavens, is too level-headed to believe such rot, and the pandit eventually leaves. Buaji has a go at Charu too, and is a little more successful.
Meanwhile, the village men have found a foster father for Sujata. When he’s brought, Upendra discovers he’s a drunk, and is willing to take on the bringing up of Sujata only for the money. The man’s shooed away, and Upendra tells Charu it doesn’t matter; let Sujata stay on a while longer.
Upendra gets transferred, and four years later, with Sujata (Baby Shobha) and Rama (Baby Farida) now the closest of friends—almost sisters—they still haven’t found foster parents for the girl. Sujata firmly believes that this is her family, and though Charu is disapproving, even Upendra treats her like his own daughter—going to the extent of feeding her halwa from his own plate.
Another solution presents itself: send Sujata off to an orphanage. Rama’s tutor (Brahm Bhardwaj) promises to help, and one afternoon convinces Sujata that her ‘Bapu’, ‘Ammi’ and Rama have already gone on ahead and that he’s simply taking Sujata to join them. But Charu, peeking out from behind a curtain for one last look, is spotted by Sujata, who runs back in. No going anywhere.
And so the years pass, with Upendra and his family moving—as he’s transferred—from Dehradun to Bilaspur to Raniganj to Barrackpore and God knows where, until he finally retires. Rama (now Shashikala) is a bubbly, vivacious college girl who teases the quieter, housebound Sujata (now Nutan). Despite their teasing and good-natured tiffs, there’s much love between the two girls.
Upendra and Charu too have accepted Sujata as a part of their lives, though Charu is still careful to point out to first-time acquaintances that Sujata isn’t their daughter, just `like a daughter’. Sujata is hurt by the slight, but doesn’t protest.
One day, Sujata overhears Charu speaking, and when she confronts Charu, is finally told the truth. She is not just no relative of the family’s, not just not of their caste, but an untouchable.
The truth hits hard and Sujata, in the pouring rain that follows, wanders off to the riverside ghat to commit suicide. A carefully placed plaque with a quotation from Mahatma Gandhi catches her eye (and the pallu of her sari) so she desists.
There is, however, one person who finds Sujata very alluring. Buaji’s grandson Adhir (Sunil Dutt) meets Sujata one day while she’s with Rama. He then comes over to their home, wanting Rama to introduce him to Sujata. Sujata is shy and appears to be more interested in her garden than she is in Adhir, but Adhir persists and wins her over. But life’s going to be very difficult now on…
…Because Adhir tells Buaji that Sujata’s the only girl he’s ever going to marry,
…and because Buaji’s and Charu’s greatest wish is that Adhir and Rama should get married. Buaji, in fact, has already found a bridegroom for Sujata.
Sujata is vintage Bimal Roy: sensitive, thought-provoking, and well made. Like a lot of the films of the period, it focuses on a social problem, but it’s handled more subtly than in some of the other films I’ve seen. Definitely worth watching.
What I liked about this film:
The main characters, at least, aren’t the absolutes you see in so many films. Charu, though she’s not as indiscriminating as Upendra, can’t help bestowing some affection on the pariah she’s found herself saddled with. For instance, the scene where she looks out as the tutor takes Sujata away—and then finally hugs Sujata when the child comes running back—is very poignant.
Then there’s the fact that Sujata is treated like a member of the house: she fetches Upendra’s umbrella for him when he’s going out, makes tea for him and Charu, and gets up to mischief with Rama (whom she insists should call her ‘didi’). Charu may tell Sujata that she’s an untouchable, not their daughter, but if you scratch the surface, there actually is enough affection here—especially from Upendra and Rama (even, deep down, from Charu herself) for Sujata to be at least a de jure daughter. And Rama, in a refreshing change from the norm, is a normal, happy-go-lucky girl who doesn’t put money and caste before her relationship with her foster sister, and is quite happy to further the Adhir-Sujata romance. Very believable. What I like is that all of this—Sujata’s relationships with the different members of her foster family—is shown through little snippets of daily life, not high-flown dialogue-baazi.
The music, with S D Burman at his best. Some of my favourite songs are in this film: my favourite lullaby (Nanhi kali sone chali), my favourite piano song (Tum jiyo hazaaron saal, which could also qualify as my favourite birthday song!) and my favourite telephone song (Jalte hain jiske liye). Sublime…I’m humming even as I write.
Nutan and Sunil Dutt. They look so beautiful together—and they’re such excellent actors. Nutan, by the way, got the Filmfare Best Actress award for this role (the film won Best Film and Bimal Roy won Best Director).
What I didn’t like:
The climax is a little corny. It’s melodramatic and what I’d expect from most Hindi films, but it’s a distinct departure from the trademark subtlety of Bimal Roy. Also, in the second half of the film, there’s a bit of preachiness that got on my nerves, with Adhir waxing eloquent Sujata about Mahatma Gandhi’s championing the dalits and so on.
On the other hand, I’m inclined to give Bimal Roy the benefit of doubt. Perhaps, exactly half a century later, from an urban and educated standpoint (and as someone who’s never personally had to face casteism) I’m not able to appreciate the need for such blatant depiction of the practice and why it’s illogical. Perhaps, at that time, when a person’s caste was all-important (as it still is in many parts of India) and ‘untouchables’ were treated like little more than animals, the message could only hope to get across if it was really hard-hitting.
Whatever. Despite the occasional flashes of melodrama and preachiness, this is a good film.