Millennials Review Classics: Sujata’s Hard-Hitting Visual Poetry
(Suktara Ghosh, 35, watched Sujata (1959) for the first time. Read her review here.)
In one of the opening shots of Sujata, a man is shown inadvertently pricking a child’s balloon with his glowing cigarette at a birthday party. While he is left embarrassed, the wail of the heartbroken child rings long.
It more or less sums up Bimal Roy’s heartrending representation of caste-ridden India. Seen through a microcosmic prism, it is an India where the “high-born” and the powerful prick the dreams of the “low-born” with as little thought. And as the end credits rolled, I realised nothing much has changed since 1959, when Sujata released. There are only so many incidents of social boycotts, lynchings, khap oppression, caste rapes and honour killings that make to the headlines even today. What lies beyond and unreported is as dark as it’s chilling.
Sujata is my first Bimal Roy film and I didn’t quite know what I had signed up for. I was expecting a slow, thought-provoking “non-commercial” flick that would leave me feeling mildly depressed. I certainly wasn’t prepared for such a hugely relevant and emotional film that’s engaging without resorting to archetypal Bollywood melodrama. And I am yet to get over Roy’s poignant visual poetry.
The film incidentally, is not about Sujata at all. It is rather about the people in her life and the struggle between their emotions and societal injunctions as they try to come to terms with their caste prejudice.
Touches a Raw Nerve
Upendranath Chowdhury (Tarun Bose), a well-established engineer and his wife Charu (Sulochana Latkar) are a young couple celebrating their daughter Rama’s first birthday when some villagers bring another girl to their doorstep. The baby is an acchyut, an untouchable, and an orphan. The villagers beg the couple to give shelter to the baby till someone of her caste could be found to take her in. Overcome by pity, Charu and Upendra appoint their daughter’s nanny to take care of the child.
As days pass, the couple try repeatedly to find a home for baby Sujata - Charu remarks how Upen has chosen a fancy name for the low-born girl - but fails. While Upen clearly has a soft corner for the baby, Charu displays her affection in fits and starts - torn between her ‘sanskaar’ about untouchability, and her love for the girl growing up with her own daughter. At the other end is buaji (played by the feisty Lalita Pawar), an unrelated but close acquaintance, who believes low-caste people are literally toxic and repeatedly urge the couple to get rid of the baby.
Roy spends a good 35 minutes on Sujata and Rama’s growing up years, painting vignettes that establish the emotional strife of the Chowdhury family. The child Sujata (a stellar performance by child artist Baby Shobha - one can’t help but wonder what happened to these actors) is aware early that all is not equal between her and her sister Rama. They are treated differently, especially by Charu, and Sujata hungers for their parents’ love.
The couple ultimately surrenders to the idea of Sujata being a part of the family. The girls grow up. While Rama (a refreshing turn by future vamp Shashikala) is a carefree girl interested in poetry, dramatics and sports, Sujata - brought to life by an almost incandescent Nutan - remains steeped in household work, taking care of everyone’s comfort. She loves her family deeply, but is torn apart by how Charu introduces her to guests - “woh meri beti nahin, meri beti jaisi hai”.
Things come to a headway when buaji’s grandson Adhir (Sunil Dutt) enters the stage. He and Sujata fall for each other while buaji and Charu nurse dreams of him marrying Rama.
Real and Grey
Now Sujata, Adhir and Rama are the “pure” characters in the narrative. They are unwavering in their goodness. Sujata loves her family with all the passion of one hungering for their unconditional love, and never hesitates to put their needs above her own.
Adhir is representative of a young, progressive society, fighting against social prejudices in a Gandhian India. His introduction scene is striking with the camera panning on to him perched up on a ladder in his library, handing down books to buaji - a metaphor for the passing over of wisdom acquired through education.
Rama too is a breezy but by no means a frivolous character - it’s lovely how Roy shows her initial attraction to Adhir, which she overthrows without rancour in one subtle moment, when she realises he prefers Sujata.
But Sujata is really delightful in how much it invests in the supporting characters, depicting the greys of the Indian middle class - not even the spiteful buaji is pure evil. It’s evident how much care author Subodh Ghosh and screenplay writer Nabendu Ghosh had bestowed upon each of these characters.
While Upen is progressive and loves Sujata dearly, he can’t go the whole hog and educate her - how can an acchyut learn to read? - or stop his wife from inflicting little cruelties on her. Charu too is torn between her affection for the girl and her growing concern about the future of her own daughter - she’s constantly worried that Rama’s marriage prospects would be damaged because of the presence of the low-caste girl in her family. They don’t hesitate to touch her or eat food cooked by her, but they treat her like an outsider in the presence of the outside world.
The most abrasive of them all, buaji, whose horror of touching an untouchable amounts to literally throwing away a baby, nurses a near-personal hatred for Sujata. She tries her best to persuade the Chowdhurys to get rid of her, and even finds a groom for Sujata - a low-caste widower with two children and a speech disability. Like millions of others, she doesn’t realise or acknowledge the dichotomy between the religion she piously follows and her practice of it - portrayed wonderfully in her appreciation of a performance of Chandalika, revolving as it does around a Buddhist monk drinking water from the pitcher of an untouchable girl.
But she too crumbles when her grandson, whose world view is her polar opposite, refuses to bow down to her prejudices. A powerful scene that - Pawar brings so much pathos and sensitivity to it that you glimpse the loving, well-meaning if misguided woman behind all that rancour.
A Master at Work
What’s really unique about Sujata is how Roy uses silence to get the message across - a rarity in Bollywood. There are no fiery preachy monologues in the film - Adhir is the only one who mouths a few direct lines on caste barriers. Instead, emotions are conveyed through beautifully shot imagery (by DOP Kamal Bose) and play with light and darkness.
Sujata’s lonely figure, always retreating at the onslaught of insults; the visual analogies establishing her as a child of nature, her beloved trees echoing her emotions; her simple switching off of a light after she overhears her parents’ dreams of Rama marrying Adhir; buaji fiercely plucking a flower for her puja as she vents against Sujata - there are numerous such shots.
Bimal Roy also toes one conventional outlook in the film. Sujata is markedly dark-skinned here, while the upper caste Brahmins are all fair and lovely people - a notion only recently challenged and reversed in films like Sairat. The larger India still believes that low caste people are dark-skinned, and hence ugly. It really compels you to think, doesn’t it - for all our posturing, what is the road we have travelled as a people since Independence? What indeed, is independence?
I felt the film could have been edited a little tighter - especially towards the end. One also wonders why Roy inserted the Manipuri dance recital, but SD Burman’s lovely music actually helps take the narrative forward. I especially loved Kaali Ghata Chhaye and Jalte Hai Jiske Liye - in this age of swiping right, it’s both quaint and somewhat wonderful for a guy to sing you a romantic ballad over the telephone.
Sujata left me silent long after the end credits rolled. What could have been a propaganda venture had been elevated to an emotional, visual poetry in the hands of a master. Most importantly, after 58 years since it was made, it still holds the power to make us pause and take a good look at ourselves. And think.