One of my constant gripes is that it’s so difficult to get hold of good old regional Indian films with subtitles. For someone like me, fluent only in English and Hindustani and with no other regional language to fall back upon, the field is that much more restricted.
I few years ago, with much initial hesitation, I decided to take the plunge and watch a Punjabi film. Since my husband is Punjabi and several of his family members do converse in the language, I figured I’d learnt enough to be able to grasp what was happening. The rest, I thought, I’d ask my husband to translate.
Nanak Naam Jahaaz Hai, to my surprise, wasn’t hard to follow. Satluj de Kande (a film I was keen on watching because it had won the National Film Award), on the other hand, took some effort to follow.
More on that later. For now, what it’s about.
The story is set on the bank of the Satluj River, where the Bhakra Nangal Dam is being built. Ram Prakash Malhotra (Balraj Sahni) is a dam engineer and when the story opens, he’s irate. Ishwar Das (?), a contractor, has been proved to have been dishonest, and Malhotra is furious. Ishwar Das makes a big show of being very contrite, but Malhotra isn’t pacified.
Malhotra’s home is the quintessential happy home: he lives with his wife Reshma (Nishi Kohli), their little son Kishore (?) and Malhotra’s mother (Mumtaz Begum).
Their existence seems idyllic: a happy family, and with the parents of little Kishoo, as he’s affectionately called, still very much in love with each other, even twelve years after their marriage.
Shortly after the story begins, though, disaster strikes the Malhotras.
Reshma has been advised by a pandit to hold poojas for the prosperity and welfare of her husband. A devout woman, she goes along with the advice. One evening, she reminds her husband to meet her at the local temple that evening after work: the pandit will perform a pooja for them.
Reshma herself goes early to the temple along with Kishoo, and they wait inside for Malhotra to arrive. A group of minstrels strikes up a bhajan, a storm starts up, and Reshma, rapt in devotion, lets her attention wander.
A snake, probably sheltering from the storm, slithers into a deserted corner of the temple. Kishoo, who’s standing here peeking out of a window at the storm outside, sees the snake and cries out to his mother in alarm. Reshma goes running to him, and is bitten by the snake. By the time Malhotra arrives at the temple, a few minutes later, she’s fast ebbing, and dies in his arms.
Malhotra is desolate; he loved Reshma so much that he misses her every minute. Little Kishoo is inconsolable; where is Mummy? He keeps crying, and is fast wearing out, to the despair of his grandmother and his father.
Meanwhile, the story shifts to a village. Here live two lovers, Naini (also Nishi Kohli) and Chintoo (Suresh). Chintoo is one of the few villagers who is somewhat educated, and Naini encourages him: if he would study a bit more, he could graduate and become an engineer or some such ‘bada aadmi’ (‘big man’, literally). When, to Chintoo’s objection that he can’t afford higher education, Naini responds by saying that he can sell off his land, Chintoo is aghast. No, his land is sacred to him. It would be unthinkable to sell off his land.
Naini lives with her mother Paro (?). Paro’s brother Lachhu Shah (Wasti), who by virtue of being Naini’s Mama, is called Mamaji by pretty much everybody else as well, also lives with them.
Among the other important characters in the rural side of this story are Nek Raj (Mirza Musharraf) and his wife, who try to be the voice of reason when it comes to toning down the actions of the hot-headed Mamaji.
The other important character in all of this is Roltu (Gopal Sehgal), the dim-witted son of the contractor Ishwar Das. Roltu spends most of his days faffing around doing nothing much except longing for Naini. He’s deeply infatuated with her and doesn’t know (or care) that Naini could possibly be in love with someone else.
Mamaji too doesn’t know of Naini’s love for Chintoo, so when one day he bumps into them while they’re billing and cooing on the riverbank, Mamaji sees red. He pulls out his stick and whacks Chintoo really hard on the skull (Chintoo doesn’t even get a chance to see who his assailant is). Leaving Chintoo passed out on the ground, a furious Mamaji whisks a distressed and desperate Naini back home.
Fortunately, Ram Prakash Malhotra, along with some assistants, is in the vicinity, and they find the unconscious Chintoo. Malhotra takes the younger man home and he’s looked after, attended to by a doctor, and the recipient of much concern on the part of Malhotra’s mother.
When he recovers, Chintoo is suitably grateful. Malhotra insists that Chintoo stay on until he’s absolutely fine, and in the meantime, since Chintoo is educated, he helps Malhotra out in his work.
One evening, Malhotra and Chintoo happen to go to the temple, and who should they see there but Naini. Chintoo is overjoyed, and Malhotra, seeing in this young woman’s face the face of his dead wife, is startled. Naini, even before she knows what’s happening, even before she’s seen the two men, has been involved in an accident: her dupatta, draped over her head and shoulders, slips into the thali full of lit diyas Naini’s carrying. The dupatta catches fire and a terrified Naini faints.
Naturally, Malhotra and Chintoo take her to Malhotra’s home. Chintoo admits he knows her: same village, even the same lane—but does not give Malhotra any hint of his relationship with Naini.
Shortly after Naini comes to, little Kishoo comes wandering into the room. He sees Naini sitting there and runs to her, under the impression that she’s his mother. Naini, kindhearted and loving that she is, welcomes this little stranger into her arms. Malhotra’s mother, who’s sitting by and has seen this with sorrow in her eyes, explains it to Naini. As proof, she shows a surprised Naini a photograph of Reshma.
Malhotra’s mother is already thinking ahead: Kishoo yearns for a mother, and sees in Naini his own dead mother. Naini is beautiful and sweet and gentle, and fate seems to have brought her to their doorstep. What better than that her son should marry this young woman?
And, in the village, more plans are being made (and not all of them benign) regarding Naini’s marriage.
I have to admit I couldn’t understand some of the Punjabi spoken by the characters who played the villagers (Malhotra and his household spoke a Punjabi I could more easily understand). Roltu, in particular, was one person I couldn’t understand most of the time.
But, all said and done, I did watch Satluj de Kande, and I (more or less) liked it. It didn’t strike me as meriting a National Film Award, but that’s just my perception of it.
What I liked about this film:
The unexpected way in which it played out. Having seen many Hindi films with a similar situation (widower is left with a child to bring up and comes across a woman who seems to fit the bill when it comes to him remarrying), I thought I knew what was going to happen. I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that Padam Maheshwary (who wrote, produced and directed Satluj de Kande) could think out of the box. There’s a certain sensitivity and depth to how this was handled, and Balraj Sahni did full justice to his role as Ram Malhotra, caught between his love for his dead wife and the more mundane responsibility of doing his duty by his child.
Then, the cast. There were many faces here which were familiar to me from Hindi cinema: Balraj Sahni, Nishi Kohli, Suresh, Wasti, Mumtaz Begum, Mirza Musharraf—and all did a creditable job. What I especially appreciated was that one actually got to see rather more nuanced acting from several of the actors whom I’d seen only in smallish, stereotyped roles before. Mumtaz Begum, for one, has more of a role here than I’ve ever seen her in, and proves what a good actress she is. Nishi Kohli was a revelation too: I’ve invariably seen her in the usual arm candy roles Hindi film actresses ended up playing (and which, to some extent, she plays here too)—but at least in Satluj de Kande, as Reshma her acting is really good. Her scenes with Balraj Sahni are excellent: their chemistry is superb.
The music, by Sardul Kwatra, Hansraj Bahl and Pannalal Katthak, which includes some good songs. My favourite was the beautiful Us panchhi naal ki neha laana.
What I didn’t like:
Nothing, really, that was a sore point for me. But I do wish some of the very long dialogues—lots being said, nothing much happening—had been trimmed down a bit.
But, all said and done, a film I liked. Didn’t love, but didn’t find irritating either.