Satyajit Ray’s ‘Cruel’ film, Sadgati, 40 years old so far: Om Puri starrer mirrors Dalit atrocities

Most of the myths surrounding Satyajit Ray focus on the acclaimed Apu trilogy, Charulata, Mahanagar, Jalsaghar, Nayak, Goopy Gain Bagha Baine and so on. According to some accounts, Charulata and Aranyar Din Ratri are the personal favorites of the legendary author. The deadly goodwill led by Om Puri and Smita Patil in 1981 was rarely mentioned in one breath and yet, it was one of Ray’s most powerful broadsides against the caste system. Today marks the 40th anniversary of Sadgati’s distinction as television’s first color outing, but its message is still relevant. Even in the digital age, caste-based violence continues to be one of the greatest social evils in India.

You have to look at newspaper headlines to find out how the ugly underbelly of caste-based violence and discrimination reveals the dark edges of a country that is rapidly moving in other directions towards globalization and economic progress. The shocking thing is that the violence of the grassroots also gets social sanction in many cases. Attacks on Dalit women, mass rapes, murders, Hathras incident, Bhima Koregaon case … atrocities against Dalits are a common fact that many of us have turned a blind eye to. Rohit Vermula happily wrote that he was “dead rather than alive”. In 1935, Babasaheb Ambedkar condemned caste violence as “man-to-man inhumanity”.

Sadgati is the victim of the human cruelty that led the untouchable protagonist Dukhi (Om Puri) Ambedkar on the path of reformism. The violence in Sadgati’s heart may seem minimal compared to the injustices he has suffered for a long time, but this personalized Brahminical cruelty makes this film very effective. They said it was statistics when so many people died. But (spoilers forward) The tragic death affects the audience personally because Ray makes you commit a crime. You will see him struggling and pushing around. In a prosperous India, feudalism and the social hierarchy are the gospel. And it seems that nothing can be done to prevent oppression on men like Dukhi.

Sadgati Om Puri Dukhi (Om Puri), the untouchable protagonist of Sadgati, is a victim of human cruelty. (Photo: Express Archive)

Sadgati’s lead cast is instantly recognizable to Hindi parallel cinema audiences as they may belong to Shyam Benegal’s socially relevant film — Om Puri, Smita Patil and Mohan Agashe are all previous co-stars. A tanner by profession and caste, played with a combination of grief, raw innocence and Puri fear and trembling, has a daughter who is engaged. When he went to the house of the village priest (Mohan Agashe) to fetch him for the engagement of the venerable Brahman, he realized that Panditji was not in a position to offer him this blessing so easily. He makes misery like a beast, while at the same time he enjoys his lunch and afternoon sista. On the other hand, his wife Juria (Smita Patil, who is as natural as ever in her rural action) is impatiently waiting for Dukhi to return. The grief of languishing with hunger, at the same time, dies of starvation, fever, and excessive fatigue.

His corpse was in the field, his dark shadow falling on the square so that the villagers could not even get a well for daily water. Eventually, the priest must clear the mourning corpse himself. He uses a tree branch and rope to pull the dead man, without even touching the remains. Sadgati is not an easy watch, but the haunting climax probably stands out as the most gut-wrecking moment in a film that one critic called Ray’s ‘brutal’. Andrew Robinson wrote in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye that when the film first premiered on television, it “provoked a strong response from audiences and critics alike.

Ray is an avid reader who envisioned his film through the literary prism. Like many of his classics, Sadgati Munshi is based on the short story of Premchand. Both Ray and Premchand have been hailed as great “humanists”. In his writings, Premchand was often critical of the caste system, but Ray, the ultimate city with a Western mentality, brought rural life and Penuri to the screen very poetically, accusing him of “romanticizing poverty”. Undoubtedly, Ray’s best work is the lyrical adaptation of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novels for the Apu trilogy. Interestingly, for his only two Hindi films – along with Sadgati, there is Shataranj Ke Khilari (1977) – he turned to Premchand, who seemed to have a kinship spirit, as he did with Bandopadhyay. If Ray was able to paint credible and authentic pictures on subjects he was less aware of, tell the rural Indian life or caste system in this context, as he admits, he relied on writers to provide a cultural canvas.

Sadgati Stills Sadgati is based on the short story by Munshi Premchand. (Photo: Express Archive)

Born in the aristocracy of Calcutta, the filmmaker was fluent in English and Bengali, but did not speak much Hindi. “Even the coaching of the cast — I often acted in advance — was impossible during the making of the Hindi language film. Since I did not have enough knowledge of the language, I could only do some amount of verbal direction to the cast,” Maestro once said in an interview. According to Nandita C. Puri’s biography ‘Impossible Hero: Om Puri’, Ray became interested in acting after seeing Puri in Akrosh (1980). Puri is still a few years away from the much-sought-after arthouse star. Nandita mentions an interesting exchange between Ray and her husband during film production. On the first day of the shoot Puri was apparently terrified by Ray’s reputation as a brave man. For the first scene, Ray explains to Puri that the priest has to walk into the house. But Puri does not know what that means. Ray replied, “When a dog or goat enters an unknown house, he enters in a hurry.” No sense in telling you now – I don’t wanna ruin the suprise. No one who is miserable, man, father, husband, worker, perpetual tormentor will kill the animal and eventually be at peace with the wild corpses.

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