Every now and then, when I’ve reviewed a Hindi film (Mamta, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, Kabuliwaalah, Khamoshi) or even mentioned one (Devdas, Chori Chori), someone or the other has popped up and either informed me (or reminded me) that this film was originally made in Bengali.
It was a little different with Sagarika. This film nobody told me about. I happened to be trawling IMDB checking out the synopses of all of Suchitra Sen and Uttam Kumar’s films, and realized—even as I read the plot of Sagarika—that this was exactly the same story as one of my favourite Hindi films, Bimal Roy’s lovely Prem Patra. Could I resist the temptation to watch it? No.
Sagarika has a storyline almost identical to that of Prem Patra. We are introduced to Arunangshu ‘Arun’ Moitra (Uttam Kumar), who is the house surgeon at a medical college. When we first see Arun, he is at the bedside of a poor [literally poverty-stricken, though also otherwise rather pathetic] patient. From the frantic mutterings of the patient – who is terrified that if he dies, his wife and children will have no-one to look after them – we get a glimpse into Arun’s past: as a child, he saw his father die, unable to get medical attention in the Godforsaken village they lived in.
Before dying, though, Arun’s father [and pretty garrulous, for someone on the verge of kicking the bucket] expressed a wish that Arun should grow up and become a doctor, so that this tragedy should not be repeated. Arun’s Jaitha Moshai, his father’s elder brother (Pahari Sanyal, an old favourite), was also begged to make sure that this dying dream was fulfilled. Jaitha Moshai duly agreed, comforted his dying brother…
…and somehow managed to have Arun brought up in Calcutta, at the home of a wealthy gentleman. Nine years Arun has spent in their house, and is now the dedicated and very respectable young doctor we see.
Very ‘respectable’, indeed. Arun’s single-minded devotion to his work and his principle of steering clear of women may have invited the scorn of his more frivolous fellow students, but it has won him brownie points with the Principal of the college. The Principal, summoning Arun into his office, commends him for his diligence, his hard work – and his ‘moral character’. This has played a huge part in the Principal’s decision to recommend Arun for a state scholarship, which will allow Arun to go abroad for higher studies.
We are now given a glimpse of the other people in Arun’s life [and there don’t seem to be too many of them; our doctor isn’t the social butterfly]. One is his best friend Kedar (Jiben Bose), who – if looks are anything to go by – appears to be much older than Arun, but is actually still in college: he’s in 3rd year, and likely to remain there, forever a student, simply because a family stipend he gets is his only as long as he’s a student. Kedar, while appearing to be a flippant sort, has hidden depths and is very loyal to Arun.
Next, there’s Shipra (Namita Sinha), the daughter of the gentleman in whose house Arun has grown up. She’s known Arun at close quarters for the past nine years (during which he’s also tutored her), and in the process, has fallen in love with Arun. It’s quite obvious to anybody with eyes, but Arun, who lives in a world of his own, is oblivious.
One day, rushing through the corridors of the college, Arun bangs into a beautiful young woman (Suchitra Sen). He’s never seen her before, but is smitten at first sight. So smitten that he pleads for help from Kedar: who is she? Kedar tells him: Sagarika, a 3rd year student. She has no parents and no siblings.
…but she gains an admirer in a jiffy. Arun falls head over heels in love with Sagarika, and while he doesn’t tell her outright, he makes it quite obvious that she is all he can think of. One day, when Sagarika is on duty in the ward along with Arun, she finds that he’s copied a portion of Rabindranath Tagore’s Sagarika on a page, which is lying in full view for everybody to see. Arun doesn’t hide it, either: he implies that it’s not Tagore’s Sagarika he’s really thinking of. Sagarika is livid, and tells him off: she has no interest whatsoever in him.
Very soon, the gossip mills at the college are running overtime. Kedar tries to stifle some of the rumours, but everybody continues to talk about how besotted Arun is. Sagarika too hears of this, and is acutely embarrassed and annoyed.
Other people too are being affected by Arun’s infatuation with Sagarika: Shipra is burning up with jealousy. To the extent that [and this bit was a little unclear; the DVD seemed to skip a bit] she uses underhand means to break up the Arun-Sagarika love story [one-sided as it is]. At home, she tears a page out of Arun’s diary – with his outpourings of affection written on it – and next we see, Sagarika and Arun are in the Principal’s office and the Principal is saying how disappointed and disillusioned he is in Arun.
It seems Shipra has engineered a fake love letter, supposedly from Arun to Sagarika, and an angry Sagarika has complained to the Principal about it. As a result, the Principal has put a stop to that prospective state scholarship. Arun, humiliated and angry, quickly packs at home (and, in the course of packing, finds his diary with that page torn out – and realises, therefore, what Shipra has done). He doesn’t chastise Shipra, though. Only, when Shipra tries to stop him by confessing her love for him, Arun tells her the truth: he has only ever regarded her as a sister.
Arun, shamed and with his prospects at an all-time low, goes back home to his village and his uncle. He has still not given up hope that he will be able to go abroad for higher studies; it will, however, cost a bomb now, without the scholarship. Don’t worry, says Jaitha Moshai: I will find a way.
In the meantime, a remorseful Shipra has gone to Sagarika and confessed all. She had forged the letter; Arun had never written it. Which basically means that, thanks to Sagarika’s impulsive complaint to the Principal, Arun had been wrongfully deprived of his scholarship. Sagarika feels awful.
Soon after, Sagarika’s Jaitha Moshai (Jahar Ganguly) arrives at her home, along with his daughter Basantika ‘Basanti’ (Jamuna Sinha). Basanti is sweet and shy, a gauche village girl. Her father gives Sagarika some good news – Basanti’s marriage has been fixed – and asks for her help: will Sagarika please groom Basanti, teach her everything she needs to be a suitable bride for a modern young doctor?
In the course of the conversation, it emerges who the doctor is: Arun. The young couple have not met each other yet, Basanti’s father tells Sagarika, so it will be good if the first time they see each other, Basanti makes a good impression.
Sagarika is devastated – though, being the stoic and long-suffering heroine that she is, she doesn’t show it. Arun, who had been so in love with her, is to marry Basanti! She learns, too, that Arun (whose studies have been financed by Basanti’s father) has gone to the UK to study and will be away two years. Meanwhile, Sagarika gets down to grooming Basanti, taking her to parties, teaching her to socialize, introducing her to friends.
…including the suave [read slimy] Asit, who has also been a classmate of Sagarika’s. Basanti is soon taken in by Asit’s [rather dubious] charm.
Meanwhile, a letter arrives from Arun. It’s his first letter to Basanti, and Basanti is wary of responding: she’s an illiterate village girl, she insists; how will her uneducated ramblings appeal to Arun? After much wheedling, Sagarika offers to write the letter; Basanti can copy it and mail it.
Sagarika writes the letter, and puts her heart and soul into it [it turns out to be a rather syrupy, high-on-emotion letter, but she is pleased with it].
Arun is entranced by the letter he’s received, and replies in equally sugary form. When his letter arrives at their home in Calcutta, Basanti hands it over to Sagarika: after all, it is a response to Sagarika’s letter. Basanti never did copy out the letter – her handwriting is so horrendous [considering she’s writing to a doctor, that should probably be poetic justice!]. She sent the original letter. Sagarika’s letter.
By now Basanti is so busy touring the sights and painting the town red with Asit that she has no time to answer, or even read, Arun’s letters. It falls to the conscientious Sagarika (and also a Sagarika who derives a vicarious pleasure out of the activity?) to write to Arun, pretending to be Basanti. Over the two years she and Arun correspond, Arun falls deeply in love with this sensitive and loving ‘Basanti’, and ‘Basanti’ reciprocates – knowing full well that when Arun returns, the cat will be out of the bag.
But tragedy waits round the corner: Arun has an accident in the lab and loses his eyesight. He is assured that his vision will almost certainly return within a year or so, but Arun is so shattered that he promptly returns to Calcutta, where Basanti and her father have already decided to call off the marriage – how can Basanti marry a blind man? – and Sagarika, helped by the ever-supportive Kedar, comes forward to help, still calling herself Basanti.
What I liked about this film:
The Suchitra Sen-Uttam Kumar pairing. They are among my favourite screen couples, and though I didn’t care for their chemistry here as much as I have in other films like Chaowa-Paowa and Agni Pariksha, they’re still very watchable. And total eye candy.
The songs. The music, by Robin Chatterjee, is lovely – among the songs I really loved are Tobo bijoy mukut and Hraday amar sundara tabo: both beautifully sung. One very unusual song – all about the medical profession! – is Amra medical collegey podi (do listen to this, even if you don’t understand Bengali: many of the words are in English, medical terms).
What I didn’t like:
The rather unconvincing love story of Arun and Sagarika. On Arun’s side, the love-at-first-sight (even though I’m always cynical of that) is at least somewhat acceptable as reason for his continuing to love Sagarika despite the fact that Sagarika’s complaint nearly ruins his life. On Sagarika’s side, considering there is no initial attraction to Arun – in fact, she shows nothing but embarrassment and annoyance towards him until Shipra confesses – the sudden change of heart seems implausible. Remorse, after all, does not change into a fierce and undying love overnight, especially when the object of one’s affections is out of sight, and betrothed to another.
Every time I review a film I’ve encountered in another version (cinema or book), I like to see how the two match up. Six years after Agragami wrote and directed Sagarika, Bimal Roy remade the film in Hindi as Prem Patra. The story of the two films is almost the same, though with some changes in characters, random incidents, etc. For instance, in Prem Patra, Ratna (Shipra in Sagarika) is a college student, but not in the medical college; and Tara (Basanti in Sagarika) is a shy, sweet girl who falls in love with not a rotter like Asit, but a genuinely nice guy. There is, too, in Prem Patra, an additional romance between Rajendra Nath and Chand Usmani’s characters; in Sagarika, Kedar does not have a love interest.
For me, Sagarika has one advantage over Prem Patra: it has fewer distractions (that particular incident of the tiger hunt in Prem Patra, for instance, is something I could have done without). Also, the fact that Shipra studies in the medical college – and is therefore able, first hand, to see Arun’s growing infatuation with Sagarika and the way gossip begins to circulate – makes it easier to accept her increasing jealousy.
And what’s there to recommend Prem Patra? A lot, really. First and foremost (and this, I think, should take precedence in a romantic film), the romance develops gradually and believably. Arun and Kavita (Sadhna’s equivalent of the Sagarika character) are shyly attracted to each other from the moment they meet, but there’s nothing except shy glances – which speak a lot, but don’t outright proclaim love. This makes it easier to understand why Kavita is so distressed when she realises what has happened, and also later, when she falls deeply in love with Arun through his letters: we saw this coming.
Also, there’s a logical and believable build-up to her complaint: we know Kavita has been receiving annoying anonymous love letters for a while now, and has threatened to complain to the principal the next time it happens. Her reaction to the love letter from ‘Arun’ is hardly a bolt from the blue, then. Even despite that foundation, there is an initial hesitation on Kavita’s part – because she does like Arun, she is reluctant to report him; the instigation comes from her catty classmates.
The fact that Shashi Kapoor’s Arun is deeply hurt by Kavita’s complaint – and does not stay in love with her, as does Uttam Kumar’s Arun – is another point in favour of Prem Patra. It adds to the conflict: Kavita knows Arun hates Kavita (he says so repeatedly in his letters and is very bitter about it) but is in love with her illusory Tara. Sagarika, on the other hand, knows (because the blind Arun confesses to her) that he still loves Sagarika; in her case, her love becomes more a matter of conscience than anything else: she cannot come between Basanti and Arun.
Another thing I like about Prem Patra vis-à-vis Sagarika is the treatment of two minor but important characters: Tara/Basanti, Subhash/Asit. In Prem Patra, Tara and Subhash’s love is a genuine one, so one really does end up rooting for them to get together – in Sagarika, Asit is such a slimy character, one can’t sympathise with Basanti, even if she gets carried away by her naïveté. (Actually, Agragami was probably trying to present a moral lesson through Basanti’s fate in Sagarika: if you are selfish, you will end up alone and miserable).
Lastly, I found Prem Patra far less melodramatic, more restrained and subtle and believable. Given a choice of the two films, the one I’d rewatch would be Prem Patra, not Sagarika. Even though Sagarika is good.