Last week I watched Shichi-nin No Samurai. Earlier this week, The Magnificent Seven (which was based on Shichi-nin No Samurai). So, logical progression? Next in line ought to be a film based on The Magnificent Seven. Saat Hindustani. Going by the law of averages (or should that be the law of diminishing merit?), I guess I shouldn’t have held out much hope for this one. Shichi-nin No Samurai is far superior to The Magnificent Seven, and The Magnificent Seven is light years ahead of Saat Hindustani.
The film starts off drearily, in a Goan hospital through which a young woman, Maria (Shahnaaz) is being wheeled on a stretcher. She ends up on a bed behind a screen that reads:
The nurse opens Maria’s bag and begins to spread out Maria’s possessions on the bedside table: a crucifix, a taaweez, a little idol of a Hindu god, a book in Hindi, various portrait photographs of men. When questioned, Maria says that the men are her old companions.
Shortly after, the doctor (AK Hangal) comes by with a horde of other doctors and tells Maria that she needs to be operated upon urgently, since her stint in a Portuguese jail may have done irreparable damage to her health. Maria pleads with the doctor that she be allowed one week before the operation. She wants to summon her old companions and talk to them. The doctor agrees, but stresses that Maria only has this one week.
Once the doctors have taken themselves off, Maria asks the nurse for a favour: she needs six telegrams sent out, all with the same message: that she, Maria, is dying and wants the addressee to come immediately. Maria tells the nurse that even though so many years have passed, she remembers the addresses of each of the men. She begins rattling off the addresses, and the film begins to cut back and forth between the hospital bed and the life of whichever man Maria’s talking about.
To begin with, there’s Subodh Sanyal, a football referee in Calcutta (played most unconvincingly by Madhu). Subodh’s refereeing a match where mayhem breaks out between teams, fans, and just about everyone else. There’s some disturbing footage of vehicles burning and people thrashing each other. Subodh comes home limping and drinks himself under the table.
Then there’s the Punjabi farmer, Joginder (Utpal Dutt, in a very convincing Punjabi-speaking avatar, with Dina Pathak as his wife). Joginder has just heard the news that the state of Punjab has been divided into two: Punjab and Haryana. This morning, when he went out to till the fields, he was in Punjab; now he’s in Haryana. Hai bhagwan! When will the constant partitioning of Punjab come to an end? (Joginder’s words, not mine).
Down south in Madras is a harijan called Mahadevan (Irshad Ali), who used to be a staunch supporter of the ‘spread the use of Hindi’ movement—even the nameplate on his door has his name written in Hindi. Now Madras is aflame with anti-Hindi sentiment, and Mahadevan too has done an about turn. He even refuses to read the telegram (he doesn’t know it’s from Maria), which is written in Hindi rather than English.
Just the opposite is happening in Banaras, where Ram Bhagat Sharma (Anwar Ali) is lobbying against English and for Hindi. People have been stoning each other—and pitching stones at windows—but Sharma, though he thinks Hindi is the only way forward, is more interested in chattering with his assistant (or wife? The relationship between them isn’t explained, though it’s obviously romantic) than paying heed to the rioting in the city.
Things are even worse in Ranchi, home to the Urdu poet Anwar Ali ‘Anwar’ (Amitabh Bachchan, in his debut role). Anwar is fervently anti-Hindi and is very disapproving when his son writes letters home in Hindi. Things get worse when Anwar’s house is ransacked and his belongings set on fire by anti-Urdu fanatics.
Lastly, there’s the Maharashtrian, Sakharam Shinde (Jalal Agha), who acts and sings in a local theatre group. He’s the only one who seems to be leading a fairly benign existence, unplagued by anti-Hindi, anti-Urdu, anti-English, anti-whatever elements. I could be wrong, though, since all the dialogue at this point is in Marathi and went completely over my head.
At any rate, it’s obvious that much of India is torn apart by schisms of region, language and religion.
Maria, waiting for her old companions to arrive, has time to think of the past. We go into flashback, to when Goa was still part of Portugal (about 1960 or so). In a rag-tag meeting (in India, not Goa) focussing on the liberation of Goa, the main speaker says that the Portuguese have been spreading propaganda amongst the Goans that India doesn’t care what happens to them. We, as Hindustanis, must assure the Goans that we too are fighting for their liberation from colonial rule. The way to do this (he says) is to infiltrate Goa and show the Portuguese who’s boss.
He asks for six volunteers, and that’s when the six men—Joginder, Subodh, Mahadevan, Anwar, Ram Bhagat Sharma and Sakharam—come forward. The speaker applauds them, and gives them a pep talk before telling them that they’ll be spending the next few days in training. This, surprisingly, seems to be conducted mainly by Joginder himself, since he says he’d been in the army.
Anyway, after what seems like a few days of running, attacking sandbags (and each other) with karate chops, and breaking bricks with their bare hands, our heroes are deemed ready to get into Goa.
They take a train to Belgaum (near the border with Goa), and discover, early on, that a Portuguese spy disguised as a tel-maalishwaala has caught on to them. How he managed it, and whether there’s a leak in the Indian intelligence network, is never revealed, but our boys push him out of the rushing train and to his death. Anwar goes berserk when this happens, and some of his comrades come to the conclusion that he’s a sissy and a ninny and likely to jeopardise their mission.
But the men get off at Belgaum, and when darkness falls, are met by a Goan insurgent who escorts them surreptitiously across the border into Goa. All seven spend the night in a hut.
The men wake up the next morning to find that their Goan comrade is a girl, Maria. The younger and more impressionable of the lot are a little dazzled by this discovery, but soon recover and welcome her as a member of the troop. The mission of the group is now revealed: the seven are supposed to attack seven Portuguese police posts in Goa, overcome the local constabulary (without killing them), and hoist the Indian tricolour. This will hopefully destabilise the Portuguese, and more importantly, show the Goans that when it comes to solidarity, the Indians can’t be faulted. Each of the six Indians has brought a tricolour with him; the last one is handed over to Maria.
The seven Indians—the saat Hindustani—now set off on their mission. It takes them through the countryside, through villages and to police posts that they sometimes defeat by stealth and sometimes by deception. Oddly for people on such a critical mission (and one for which they’re depending on secrecy) the band does little to keep a low profile. A lot of their days on the march are spent in what look more like picnics than a crucial operation…
…punctuated by moments of crisis, for instance when a tipsy Sakharam divulges vital information about the group to some villagers who just may be on the side of the Portuguese. Or when the group reaches Maria’s village, to find that all the villagers, thinking the approaching band of seven people consists of Portuguese, have hidden inside their homes. (The group draws out the villagers by Maria ringing the church bell; Sakharam ringing the temple bell; and Anwar calling out the aazaan. Definitely inspired by the scene in Shichi-nin No Samurai and The Magnificent Seven where Kikuchiyo and Chico respectively use a drum and a church bell to draw forth timid villagers by sounding the alarm for the approach of the bandits).
Just by the way, too, they start learning a little more about each other. They find that Maria has some terrible tragedy in her past that has led to her not being able to sleep at night, and her hair being always short. They find that Mahadevan is touchy about his being a harijan—and that people like Ram Bhagat Sharma and Anwar Ali, though somewhat embarrassed about it, do think of him as untouchable and even refuse to drink water from his canteen.
And Anwar himself is the weak link in the group, an overly sensitive, perhaps even cowardly creature probably ill-suited for the mission, and regarded with something akin to disdain by Ram Bhagat Sharma.
Did the seven Indians succeed in their mission? How did Maria end up in a Portuguese jail, and then in hospital? And how come all her comrades, now back in their respective corners of India, have drifted so far away from their ideals of a united India?
What I liked about this film:
Amitabh’s acting. Though this is his first film (and he’s hampered by a non-existent screenplay and horrendous direction), he manages to make his presence felt. The poet Anwar, intense, earnest and sensitive—yet always burdened with the label of ‘coward’—is probably the most interesting character among the six men who form the group. It doesn’t say a lot, since there’s not much character development anyway, but still.
What I didn’t like:
The screenplay, or lack of it. For a film that already had two precursors (not one, mind you, two; and both of them excellent, even if in different ways), Saat Hindustan screws up big time as far as screenplay is concerned. It is possible, of course, to see parallels between the basic stories of the three films. Oppressed group of people (Japanese village/Mexican farmers/Goans) are helped by a group of disparate outsiders (samurai/gunfighters/liberationists) with no personal stake in the undertaking. There is distrust on both sides, with one or more of the rescuers eventually using a false alarm as a means of drawing the rescuees out of their shells, so they can acknowledge that they want to be rescued.
Saat Hindustani takes a completely different tack from its Japanese and Hollywood counterparts. It uses the patriotism plank, and milks it for all it’s worth, down to the casting. A Bengali as a Punjabi? A Malayali as a Bengali? A Muslim as a fanatical Hindu? A Hindu as a Muslim? A Muslim as a Maharashtrian Hindu? A Muslim as a harijan Tamilian? Bound together by their solidarity with a Christian girl. And they come together to liberate part of the country from colonial rule. It doesn’t get more politically correct than this.
I don’t mind all of that. The problem is that in the two and a quarter hours of the film, nothing substantial happens. The action consists largely of wandering around the Goan countryside. The attacks on the police posts are isolated, uninteresting incidents. And very little character development happens in the course of the film; we learn a bit (a too small bit!) about the men, and most of that happens in the very first appearance—when Maria’s lying in hospital.
Secondly, the direction. Khwaja Ahmad Abbas directed Saat Hindustani, and I can imagine the questions I’d want to ask him if I ever met him. Why, for example, must the camera show the reactions of every member of the seven, when something happens? Especially when the reaction’s the same? I know the sight of the Portuguese flag fluttering in the breeze would disgust any self-respecting krantikaari; why pan across all seven faces to show it? And that for just about every action: Maria has a swim in a river, and the men wear identical expressions; the villagers hide in fear, and the seven look equally anxious and surprised; Mahadevan asks if his untouchability is a problem and everybody looks embarrassed. A panning across all seven or six faces is fine once in a while; when it becomes a habit, there’s something wrong.
Oh, and by the way. I really don’t think the Portuguese used torture of this calibre. Spoiler coming up here (though this film deserves spoilers; it’s been already spoilt enough by the writer and director to make anything I say inconsequential). When five of the saat Hindustanis end up in a Portuguese lockup, this man is sent into the cell by the Portuguese officer, and when he takes off his belt, the Hindustanis generally start gibbering with sheer fright.
(Since that happens when he begins to take off his belt, I assume they’re terrified he’s going to subject them to the full Monty. I’d be horror-stricken too, but it’s hard to imagine the Hindustanis being so frightened at the mere thought of being subjected to that). Spoiler ends.
What comparison? There isn’t any. Really. The resemblance between Saat Hindustani, Shichi-nin No Samurai and The Magnificent Seven is so perfunctory as to be negligible. The story, as I mentioned, is similar in its basics, but that’s it. Everything else—direction, screenplay, casting, acting (except in a couple of cases, notably Amitabh Bachchan and Utpal Dutt), cinematography, music, dialogue—appears ill thought-out, haphazard, forgettable or simply mediocre.
Ultimately, Saat Hindustani is a tedious, boring film that neither entertained me nor moved me. The only emotion it eventually stirred in me was one of laughter: I found myself giggling helplessly through scenes I knew were supposed to be fraught with sentiment, but ended up being ridiculous.
But I’m still glad I watched it. Now I know what it’s about. I’ve reviewed it on this blog. I can lift up my head and tell all those Bachchan fans out there, “Yes, I’ve seen his first film.” I just don’t need to see it again. Ever. Yippee! Merry Christmas!!