Satyakam (Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1969)
Satyakam is so dense with ideas and thought-provoking questions and themes I don’t even know where to begin. This is one of those films I can’t legitimately say I enjoyed as such – it’s not really the kind of film you sit down and watch to be entertained – but it’s a film with such provocative content that I’ll probably continue thinking about it for days.
The film stars Dharmendra as Satyapriya Acharya, a man from a family of ‘truthseekers’ (his father is a sanyaasi, his grandfather, who raised him, runs a gurukul in the Himalayas). Satyapriya sees truth and honesty as his religion, and the worst sin for him is to be dishonest in word or deed.
If he already sounds like a super fun guy (and yes, I’m being sarcastic) you’d be right. The thing about Satyapriya is that we meet him just as he is leaving college, so he’s contrasted with his peers, but particularly his best friend Naren Sharma (Sanjeev Kumar).
All I could think of was that Dharam would break poor Sanjeev's heart by stealing Hema away from right under his nose a few years later. Yes. That's how I watch films. Like a gossip columnist with a time machine.
Can I just stop here and say: THIS FILM, IF NOTHING ELSE, INTRODUCED ME TO THE ACTUAL ACTING WONDER OF SANJEEV KUMAR. I’d seen him before in…crappy things, and Sholay, but never ‘got’ why people rave about him. OH MY GOD. He was just…riveting, and when he disappeared from the film for a long stretch, I ACTUALLY felt bereft and panicked a little that he wasn’t coming back.
Seriously, I just LOVE Sanjeev!
So anyway: Satyapriya- even from the very beginning, when he is full of youthful optimism and vigour is likable, but a little bit annoying. As you can see in this lovely song:
when everyone is full of high spirits singing about “what life is” and everyone on the bus is singing things like “life is girls!” or “life is a lassi, you gotta shake it up and drink it down!” and GOOD OLD SATYAPRIYA amiably interrupts and sings “ACTUALLY, LIFE IS TRUTH AND HONESTY”. He’s THAT guy.
You can already see that, affable and well-liked as he is, he might want to try loosening up a little?
BUT THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT OF THE FILM. Should he?
The film goes on to place Satyapriya in positions where his commitment to his ideal of absolute truth is increasingly challenged. Once out of college he parts ways with Naren and is employed in a job where he is asked to take bribes - a huge affront to his morals; but more crucially, where he meets and bonds with Ranjana,
the daughter of a prostitute, who is being pressured by Satyapriya’s employer – a Prince, about to lose his princely powers under the new laws of Independence. Satyapriya is put in a position where he can rescue Ranjana from a life of servitude to the Prince (and reading between the lines, I don’t think its suggested she’s just going to be making tea) if he agrees to marry her - and the film raises a very good, and troubling question for the viewer:
How easy is it to actually live by a noble principle – to actually put the thought into action? We all aspire to be “good” people but do we have the courage of our convictions?
when Satyapriya's lifelong commitment to honesty in word and deed wavers, put off by his concern over his own honour.
This momentary lapse proves a pivotal point for Satyapriya, because his lack of action has terrible consequences that impact both him and Ranjana – the prince rapes her, and Satyapriya could have prevented it. He marries Ranjana, and raises her child as his own – and he and Ranjana are unflinchingly honest about their circumstances, refusing to hide the truth of the situation for the sake of honour. From this point on, Satyapriya’s resolve to live by the truth is strengthened, regardless of what it costs him personally – jobs, family, reputation, friends, money, health.
And eventually, it will put him at odds with his best friend Naren, who returns into Satyapriya’s life as his boss, a reminder of what Satyapriya’s life could have been had he sacrificed his ideals.
Satyakam appears to have been a deeply personal film for Dharmendra. He chose this story – of a man committed to living by his ideals of perfect, unflinching truth and honesty even in a corrupt, imperfect world, despite the personal cost, as his first film as producer (under “Punchche Arts”), and gathered the same group of people that proved so successful for Anupama: as well as director Hrishikesh Mukherjee and actors Sharmila Tagore and David, the lyricist, dialogue writer and cameraman from Anupama were brought on board to try and ensure Satyakam would recreate some of the same magic that Anupama had.
To this day, Dharmendra apparently regards his role as Satyapriya Acharya a career highlight – and I’d actually agree with him there. It’s a powerful role, not a pleasant or easy watch, but a complex, nuanced character that is vastly different from Dharam’s action man or romantic hero personas. Hrishikesh Mukherjee regarded the film as one of the “most satisfying” he ever made (and that’s saying a lot – the man made some amazing films). Personally, I’m still mulling it over. There’s a lot to chew on.
But you know what I’m about to say, right? Satyakam failed to set the box office on fire.
It’s pretty easy to see why, I think. I love Hrishikesh Mukherjee films, and I love Dharmendra, and though there are some lovely, poignant scenes, particularly between Sanjeev Kumar and Dharam
Like this one - this is just the beginning of one of my favourite scenes in the entire film.
I found this an uncomfortable watch. Thematically, it’s dense – there’s a lot to get your head around.
Forming a backdrop to the whole film is Independence – when we first meet Naren and Satyapriya, it’s on the eve of Independence and while Naren is uncertain what this means for the future, Satyapriya is optimistic and sees the chance to shape an entirely new country (reflecting the attitude of many at the time of Independence).
But when Satyakam was made in 1969, widespread disillusionment had set in: where was the New India that had been promised? Corruption, unemployment, crime, poverty were worse than ever. Satyakam, which opens with a quote from Gandhi,
seems to partly be a weary message to India as a whole: this corrupt nation is what we fought so hard for? This – Satyapriya’s story - is the price of living by Gandhi's principles?
Basically, what the film forces you to think hard about are things like this: can you live a happy, comfortable life if you place your ideals above everything else? Should your ideals come before your personal happiness? If living by your ideals makes no discernible difference in the world, and only brings you unhappiness, is it even worth it?
On a character level, I think it’s hard for an everyday person to identify with Satyapriya’s perfection: the message is there, I guess that it’s the ideal to aspire to, but he’s just so UNLIKEABLE – and it’s on purpose. Rigid perfection is hard to deal with, but it must be harder to LIVE LIKE THAT, then, right? You must really have to believe it to live it.
Naren, the character representing the ordinary man who makes a few everyday concessions and gets by happily in the world is the one that I think we can all identify with, but then, what kind of concessions does he make? And do they add up?
I’m still turning it all over in my head. But I think my view of the world gels with a line that Sharmila Tagore as the emotionally damaged, but proud Ranjana says:
"Sone ke zevar banane ke liye thodi toh khot milani padti hai".
(To produce something as beautiful as gold jewellery, you have to add an element of impurity).
Satyakam is well worth watching and I would thoroughly recommend it - it's not an easy film, but it's a rewarding one. Hrishi-da does it again.
And with that, Deol Dhamaka comes to an end here at Shahrukh is Love. 31 days and 31 posts...I never initially intended to do a post a day but there was just too much Deol goodness to cover and it kind of spiralled wildly out of control (and I still didn't manage to cover everything I wanted to!) A HUGE thank you to Amaluu, Beth and Katherine who postponed the original Deol Dhamaka plans because they wanted me to be able to participate: you guys rock!
And a CRAZY-HUGE shoutout to everyone who participated - there's been so much illuminating, fascinating Deol-centric posting in the blogosphere this month from all these talented bloggers: Amaluu (who also took on the mammoth task of collecting all the links HERE - there are over 90!) Katherine, Beth, Rum, Nakhrewali, Isabel, Nayika, Daddy's Girl, Lime(tte), Liz, and Gobbledyspook. IT'S BEEN SO MUCH FUN, YOU GUYS!