Sara Akash (1969)

When Basu Chatterji passed away in 2020, I wanted to pay a tribute to him, because he was one of my favourite directors from the 70s and 80s (and he directed Byomkesh Bakshi, a television series I love). But given that I restrict my blog to films from before the 70s, there was only one film that would fit: Sara Akash, Chatterji’s first film, which was released in 1969.

This was in June 2020, at the peak of the lockdown. The situation was dire. We were getting news of people we knew who were ill with Covid, even a few who had succumbed. Close family were suffering the fallouts of the lockdown. I tried watching Sara Akash, but couldn’t sit beyond the first five minutes. Perhaps I was not in the right frame of mind.

But now I was tempted to give it another try, because I’d been reading about the film in Anirudha Bhattacharjee’s Basu Chatterji and Middle-of-the-Road Cinema (my review here).

Interestingly, a frequent (and very supportive) blog reader found several mentions in this book: Praba Mahajan, whose husband, the ace cinematographer KK Mahajan, did the cinematography of many of Basu Chatterji’s best films. Praba has been interviewed for this book, and I felt very proud to see her mentioned here (I need to also watch the film in which you starred, Praba).

So, Sara Akash.

The film begins with a wedding. Samar Thakur (Rakesh Pandey), gawky and earnest-looking, is being married to Prabha (Madhu Chakravarty). The atmosphere is built up by sheer camerawork, by the surroundings through which a handheld camera travels (KK Mahajan was a master of this technique). You see the narrow lanes, the plaster peeling off brick walls, the warren of galis and nukkads. While the credits do show still shots of the Taj Mahal, it’s just to establish that the action is set in Agra; nothing else in the course of the film is really relevant to Agra itself. This could be any small town in North India (perhaps in any part of India?) in the 60s.

People crowd around the young couple. These people, the women in particular, are the ones who seem to be running the show, so to say: Samar looks tongue-tied and a little belligerent; Prabha, her ghoonghat pulled low, is barely glimpsed. She does not speak, and neither does he.

Brief sequences now follow, all setting up (to some extent) the background. Samar, cycling to college. Samar’s mother (Dina Pathak) telling him it’s high time he got married.

Samar’s father (AK Hangal), huffy and impatient, saying that Samar must get married. How will they manage, otherwise, to repay the loan they had taken for Munni’s wedding? Munni (Nandita Thakur) is Samar’s younger sister, and has come to stay in her natal home after being abandoned by her husband, who has left her for another woman. Samar’s father’s words seem to indicate that the family is looking for a dowry-bearing bride, and of course one who will end up being an unpaid domestic help, to do the chores the women of the home have to divide between themselves.

Samar’s elder brother’s wife, his Bhabhi (Tarla Mehta) also echoes the same sentiment. Bhabhi addresses Samar as ‘Lalaji’, as there’s a sort of proprietary fondness here, a possessiveness that may portend trouble to come. Bhabhi too tells Samar he should get married, and to both his mother and his Bhabhi, Samar says the same thing, in a harried, distressed voice: that he wants to study, he wants to complete college. Why the hurry to get married?

But there are people in college too who are married. Samar’s best friend, Divakar (Jalal Agha) teases Samar. Divakar too is married, and it’s not the end of the world.

Samar, no matter what he says, has obviously been overruled. We are not told how this match has come about or how it is that Samar has acquiesced, but it’s not hard to guess. This is the way it is in India: a marriage is not between individuals, it’s between families; and neither Samar nor Prabha has a say in this match.

But that doesn’t mean Samar cannot be miffed at the way he has been pushed into doing something he doesn’t want. He is annoyed, but there is about him a reticence, too: this man has a self-respect about him, perhaps. Or he’s just not given to expressing himself emotionally. Whatever it is, he goes along with whatever is being done, the post-wedding ice-breaker ‘games’ (a ring is flung into a thhaal full of coloured water and bride and groom have to fish about to dredge it up) and the ribbing from friends and family.

Finally, it’s time for the suhaag raat. His Bhabhi and various other giggling female relatives push a blushing and reluctant Samar into the room, where Prabha is standing at the window and looking out.

What Samar doesn’t know is that while she’s been standing here all by herself, Prabha has been witness to something horrific: in the house opposite, a fire’s been blazing. A crowd has collected, and from the shouts, Prabha has gathered that a bride has burned herself. A bride who, like her, has perhaps not brought much of a dowry, and has therefore been ill-treated by her in-laws. The scene has (of course) shocked Prabha, so that when Samar comes into the room, she doesn’t even realize he has entered.

Despite all his opposition to this wedding, Samar, ordinary Indian man that he is (and therefore devoted to Hindi cinema!) has been remembering the romantic suhaag raat scenes he’s seen onscreen. We’re shown a brief glimpse of what he’s expecting—through a glimpse of a long-ghoonghat-waali Nutan in some film I can’t recognize, being the demure bride as she bends to touch her husband’s feet.

That’s about what Samar is expecting from Prabha, but Prabha, standing frozen at the window, doesn’t behave as expected. Samar waits, but only briefly: he loses patience very quickly and storms off, annoyed at what he sees as Prabha’s indifference.

The next morning is when we really begin to see the household at close quarters. Besides Samar, his parents, Munni and his Bhabhi, there are three other people here. There’s his elder brother (Mani Kaul, here as an actor, though he had directed his debut film, Uski Roti, in 1969). This man is rarely there, and we get to see little of him except at occasions like Samar’s wedding, or one momentous time when, while shaving, he dares to pass judgement on his wife…

There is their father of course. This man, while not the imperious patriarch so common in Hindi cinema, does not baulk at speaking his mind, even if it can hurt.

There is Samar’s youngest brother, who (like Samar) seems to be in college.

And there is Munni, who is the kindest to Prabha in this new home.

And pain there is for Prabha, along with ridicule. Because Prabha, it emerges, has not only brought no dowry, she is also ‘padhi-likhi’. Educated, matric pass. This, as it soon emerges from the snide remarks passed by both Prabha’s mother-in-law and Bhabhi, is nothing to be proud of; neither is Prabha’s beauty—what, because she thinks she’s beautiful and educated, she can put on airs with them?

Thus the scene is set. Prabha, by having inadvertently ignored Samar at a crucial moment, has made him annoyed enough to avoid her. Then, by being too pretty and too educated for her own good, she antagonizes her mother-in-law and Bhabhi as well. It is only Munni, who perhaps sees in Prabha’s plight a reflection of her own—ignored and cast out by her own husband—who offers Prabha companionship.

Sara Akash was based on a novel by Rajendra Yadav (who, along with his wife Mannu Bhandari, was a good friend of Basu Chatterji’s; Mannu Bhandari, in fact, helped write several works for Chatterji, including television series; and Chatterji adapted her short story Yehi Sach Hai into Rajnigandha). In turn, Yadav’s novel was based on reality: the couple Samar and Prabha are based on were real people, who ended up married but didn’t even talk to each other for several years.

Perhaps the fact that this was based on real life (though a couple not even talking for several years seems stranger than fiction) makes it so life-like. More likely, it is an example of Basu Chatterji’s style of film-making, of depicting real people, people we can relate to. Not people who fight villains and have grand technicolour love affairs; not people who run around trees and sing at the drop of a hat, but people who can ache for someone they’re fascinated by, while all the time simmering with shyness and a sense of ill-usage, a fear of rejection…

What I liked about this film:

That sense of reality. Basu Chatterji, of course, became known for this particular style: ‘middle cinema’, where he depicted the lives of everyday folk but without the sombre, often almost depressing tone that parallel cinema dwelt on. This was reality, not harsh reality; and in Sara Akash, you see it in a somewhat rawer form than was to be seen in Chatterji’s later films. There are, for instance, no real ‘songs’; while Salil Choudhary did compose the music for the film, it is mostly there in the form of background music; the two songs that do appear are folk songs (the popular wedding song Banne re teri akhiyaan soormedaani is one), sung in a typically folksy style too. Everything else, too, contributes to the feel of realism: the unglamorous look of even the lead couple; the lack of melodrama, the very lived-in feel of their house. Which, by the way, was Rajendra Yadav’s house; Anirudha Bhattacharjee, in his book on Basu Chatterji, provides lots of very interesting information about the house, the cast, the filming, and much more: the (very long) section on Sara Akash is fascinating.

As part of the realism, I also really enjoyed the touches of cinema and radio that seep through into the film (this was something which became pretty much a hallmark of Basu Chatterji’s films, often with famous stars putting in cameo appearances as themselves, living the dream of a starry-eyed fan; or popular songs playing on the radio). Given India’s obsession with cinema, and (back then) with radio, it would be natural to have characters’ perceptions being shaped by cinema, their entertainment being provided by these two mediums. Incidentally, there are two episodes in Sara Akash where Samar and Prabha are supposed to go to ‘the picture’.

And, the way the characters are defined and delineated. These are all shades of grey, no clear-cut black and white. Even Bhabhi, who might come across as the standard shrew—the type of character Shyama ended up playing in many films through the late 50s—there are moments when you see that she does have a heart, and can be kind. The same goes for Samar’s parents: both can be cutting and nasty, but that isn’t all that defines them. The scene where Munni, going away with the repentant husband who’s come to fetch her, breaks down and starts crying, shows an alternate, more feeling side of her family. And, of course, it shines a torch on the double standards all of us harbour: it’s human to feel deeply for a daughter who is neglected or abused by a husband, but to not see when you are neglecting or abusing your daughter-in-law.

What I didn’t like:

This is so minor that it is admittedly a case of nit-picking. Why did Samar’s family choose Prabha as a bride for Samar? Yes, she’s pretty, and I would expect that at least some amount of preening about that (even if they later hold it against her) might have tempted Samar’s mother and Bhabhi to choose her. But the fact that she is educated, and that she hasn’t brought any (much?) dowry would seem to have been factors against, rather than in favour, of her being brought into the household as a bride.

Still, all said and done, a satisfying film. There’s a certain rough rawness to it which I found oddly beguiling.


36 thoughts on “Sara Akash (1969)

  1. Sara Akash would remain the only film made by Basuda which I saw when in Class 11th at Regal CP Delhi and got up by the time Interval came I was not the only one doing so Maybe then thought too slow in narrative But by the time I reached College ,saw Piya ka Ghar at Sapna East of Kailash and fell in love with the film and till today, like Basuda’s film made after wards Though his last two/three films ‘I do not recall’ were very ordinary

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s available on YouTube, and the book on Kindle. Wondering what to do. Sounds interesting, my kind of story. Have you read or watched Swami? That’s my favourite!

    Those movies were so nice! Also, movies by Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar. Why don’t they make those kinds of movies now, I wonder. (Web series Gullak was close though).

    Thank you for this review. And although I have noticed that you talk about old films, I didn’t know that you restrict your blog to films from before the 70s. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve not read Swami but I’ve watched it – lovely film, and that song – Pal bhar mein yeh kya ho gaya. Such a gem!

      Yes, Gulzar, Mukherjee and Chatterji all made these wonderfully relatable films. Realistic, but in a nice, heartwarming way, not the dreary depressiveness of the parallel cinema. I haven’t see Gullak, but will check it out.

      And yes, I do restrict my blog to before the 1970s. Somehow, I don’t really care for films after that. 70s, to some extent, had still lots of nice films, but beyond that… no, too few films to like for me!


      • Dear Madhu,

        I did know that you would be reviewing Aniruddha’s book on Basu Chatterji, but it was such a wonderful surprise to see you write on “Dustedoff” about “Sara Akash”!

        There’s so much I’d like to write about…besides this film and several others that Basu Chatterji and K K worked on together, (a total of 15, not all of them being memorable) but would like to think about them for a while before I do so..
        And, perhaps wait to see what Anirudha has written in his book: ” Basu Chatterji: And Middle-Of -The-Road Cinema

        For now, Madhu, here is an interesting quote that I am posting in response to your appreciation of the film “Swami”…

        “I’ve watched it – lovely film, and that song –” Pal bhar mein yeh kya ho gaya.” Such a gem!”

        The reference you made to that song from “Swami”.
        It struck a chord (sorry if that sounds cliched….) and here’s one reason why…among others. I still remember how that song was picturised in the gentle rain.

        Interestingly, here’s Shabana’s tweet (in response to a fan’s tweet about this song), way back in June 2010.
        LINK given here below to Shabana’s tweet.
        (Hope the LINK works…)


        Thanks for the memories, Madhu, and you too, Anirudha.


        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, it’s a lovely song. (Ab main pure din ye gaana gungunati rahoongi :))

        The book says ‘पटकथा’, so I watched the movie. It’s nice. Also, I found a movie called Parivaar. Will watch it. Sometimes it feels good to watch simple, sweet family dramas.

        And Piya Ka Ghar is really nice. Also, have you seen movies called ‘Anokha Bandhan’ (based on Saratchandra’s short story Ram Ki Sumati) and Amar Prem. I think you’ll like them (if you haven’t watched already).

        Sorry, I’m posting long comments, but can’t help it. :)

        Liked by 1 person

        • I don’t mind long comments at all! I love hearing from readers, and people who recommend good films to me are more than welcome. :-)

          I have seen Amar Prem several times – quite a classic, that. Which Parivaar are you referring to? I’ve seen two – one is by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, I think, a B/W film with an ensemble cast which is very nice: I reviewed it on this blog years ago. The other stars Jeetendra and I think Nanda, and I found it utterly painful!


            • Yes, that’s the nice Parivaar! Enjoy.

              I’ve watched Grihasti too, but many years ago. Don’t remember much of it except the climactic moment when the great truth is revealed. :-) Perhaps I should rewatch it and review.


    • Thank you so much, Anirudha. And yes, I could relate to the families and the locales – very true of the Hindi belt, I think. Basu Chatterji does a great job of bringing the milieu alive.


  3. I first watched Sara Akash at a time when I couldn’t really appreciate it. It was only on a re-watch (much after I’d been exposed to other Basu Chatterjee films) that I really enjoyed it for what it brought to the table.

    I am not a great fan of Swami, though it had excellent performances all around. That has more to do with the story itself than Basu da. But yes, I will definitely recommend Piya ka Ghar. As well as Kamla ki Maut and Chameli ki Shaadi.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have to admit I watched Swami long back enough to not remember the intricacies of it – and of course, that means I watched it when I was more forgiving of things I would now not like.

      I have seen (and loved) Chameli ki Shaadi. Will add the other two to my bookmarks so that I can watch them soon! Thank you for the recommendations, Anu.


  4. Madhu,
    I am surprised by a reader’s comment that there were many who could not sit through the film beyond half time. ‘Sara Aakash’ came at a time when terms like ‘New Wave’ and ‘Art film’ were coming into vogue. ‘Sara Aakash’ steered clear of these badges, it was a sweet film one could relate to. Watching the film was like reading a literary piece.

    As for your last comment, Indian society has passed through very conflicting stages about its views on marriage. Until the 19th century, the wife was consigned to the zenana quarters; the concept of companionship in marriage was alien. Their role was reproduction of a male heir to carry the family name. The society graduated to “wanted a convent-educated homely bride”. During this process also came a stage when an educated girl, Matriculation or BA or “professionally educated” became a badge of honour or economic requirement. But the latent notion of dowry persisted. Therefore, that the women of the family might have endorsed the bride.

    In a traditional joint family it was an expected form of propriety for newly wedded couple go to great lengths to avoid physical proximity in family gatherings. Coupled with Samar’s reluctance and his way of showing resentment, it is possible the couple may not have spoken to each other for quite some time. Seven years is a long period, but Rajendra Yadav might have come across such a case.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that bit about “many people not being able to sit through the film beyond the halfway mark” is perhaps a reflection of both audience maturity (?) and of expectations. While I agree with your comment that New Wave cinema was the in thing, for a lot of Indian viewers, the strongly escapist nature of Hindi cinema might still have been an important consideration. Watching something that was so offbeat, so utterly un-escapist, could have been a major let-down. Also, several people I know commented on Facebook (where I linked to this post) that they had watched the film years ago and found it disturbing – perhaps because it cuts too close to the bone, it’s too real.

      Agreed re: marriages. This thing about two people being married but not talking to each other may be too drastic today, but it’s still hardly unknown for spouses to really not know each other that well even after living a long time together…


    • The couple did not speak to each other for nine long years. Truth is stranger than fiction, as the say.

      I managed to interview, in quite some detail, the couple’s son. He has been quoted in the book I wrote on Basu Chatterji (you can check Madhu’s review). There are stories about the background of Sara Akash, the book and the film both, which readers might find interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have not only seen this movie but read the novel of Rajendra Yadav also. Your description is lively and assessment is more or less perfect. As far the talent and directorial proficiency of Basu Chatterjee is concerned, I have found that just like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, he also needed a good script in the first place. That’s why his repertoire consists of many bad movies also (whose scripts were poor).

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  6. I’m glad you reviewed the film, Madhu. I have always loved it. This film, along with Mrinal Sen’s “Bhuvan Shome”, supposedly started the New Wave movement in India. Just like one of your readers commented we too had this novelette as a rapid reader text in our Hindi syllabus (West Bengal board). I loved the story so much that I finished the book before the rest of our class did. I was too young to understand the political sub text but I was more intrigued by the dynamics of the relationship between Samar and Prabha within the larger household. I recently purchased the book and in the foreword the director mentions that while location hunting for the house that the family lived in he was accompanied by Rajendra Yadav and it was he who led him to the house which he himself used in the novel. A bit reminiscent of Jalsaghar and the mansion featured in the movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Soumya, you are one of several people (on this blog and on Facebook) who’s spoken so favourably of the novella that I am really tempted to read it. Will try and get hold of it, thank you for the recommendation.

      That bit about the house is also there in Anirudha Bhattacharjee’s book – it has quite a good amount of background detail about the film, how its actors came to be a part of it, etc. Interestingly, Madhu Chakraborty (who played Prabha) had been a schoolgirl when she had dubbed for Tanuja in Deya Neya, and when Uttam Kumar came to the dubbing studio for the dubbing of the film and discovered Madhu – on her way home from school, still in her uniform – beside him, was quite flabbergasted. :-) This from the book, too.


  7. This film, on DVD, with English subs–I watch plenty of massy films without subtitles, but don’t particularly want to essay a Basu Chatterji movie with only my poor Hindi to guide me!–has been languishing in my eBay cart for perhaps three years. It is probably time to pull the trigger. I love your several little notes about the filmi world reflecting back on these characters’ lives. Some realist storytellers, I think, get too devoted to a strict idea of ordinary life that they forget how much time regular people spend in fantasy! I know that, at least in my case, books and films shaped a lot of my ideas about how the world worked, accurate and otherwise ( ;

    Liked by 1 person

    • “I know that, at least in my case, books and films shaped a lot of my ideas about how the world worked, accurate and otherwise

      I am very much in the same boat! This, though, is something I’ve seen time and again in Basu Chatterji’s films: everyday people turning to cinema for inspiration, or imagining themselves in cinematic circumstances – often with big stars doing cameos in the scene. :-)

      Liked by 1 person

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