Starring Utpal Dutt, Amitabh Bachchan, Jalal Agha, A.K. Hangal

Reams have been written by historians, political and social scientists analysing the role of various political parties during the turbulent period leading to Partition, and the subsequent waves of hatred and divisiveness that swept the subcontinent. But there is near unanimity on one front – the affirmative role of artistes professing allegiance to socialism and communism. Balraj Sahni, Kaifi Azmi, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Jan Nissar Akhtar and Khwaja Ahmad Abbas are amongst those who used the powerful medium of films to spread the message of harmony and equitable distribution of wealth.

Of course, Abbas was that rare filmmaker who had the guts and the vision to tackle contemporary issues of national significance before they got buried in the pages of history.

Chetan Anand, with “Haqeeqat”, made in the aftermath of the 1962 war, and Gulzar, with “Maachis” that dealt with insurgency in Punjab, are filmmakers who pass this litmus test along with Abbas, who, in his 1969 “Saat Hindustani”, dealt with contentious issues of language and territory that threatened to rip apart the fabric of the young country, against backdrop of the liberation of Goa from Portuguese rule in 1961.

The film starts when an ailing Maria – lying on her deathbed in Vasco-de-Gama – sending telegrams to different parts of the country summoning six comrades, who, years ago, had joined her (their seventh comrade, a native of Portuguese-occupied Goa), in a covert operation to raise nationalist sentiments amongst the people of Goa, long suffering under Portuguese occupation. Their mission was to hoist the Indian tricolour on Portuguese forts and buildings.

The six men, drawn from different backgrounds, included a retired soldier from undivided Punjab, an Udru poet from Bihar, a Marathi speaking lavani singer, a South-Indian Hindi teacher from Madras, a votary of Hindi from Uttar Pradesh and a Bengali nationalist from Calcutta. They undergo training in para-miltary warfare and then infiltrate into Portuguese territory, where, braving hardship and torture they accomplish their mission before being thrown back into Indian territory by Portuguese security forces.

Unknown to Maria, the six men have deviated from their idealist moorings of youth, and are enmeshed in divisive movements of language (anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu, pro-Hindi and pro-Urdu camps in U.P. and Bihar) and territory (the movement for a Samyukta Maharashtra and trifurcation of Punjab into Haryana and Himachal). But they heed her call, and meet again, although by that time Maria is dead. Nevertheless, as they participate in the burial rituals of Maria, they resolve to go back to the ideals they fought for, as a Kaifi Azmi penned patriotic number in the voice of Mahendra Kapoor plays in the background.

Technical flaws

The movie suffers from serious flaws on the technical front. The cinematography, editing and art direction of the film, shot in black and white, leaves a lot to be desired, and gives the feel of a documentary. The scenes, where the six would be soldiers are trained in the basics of warfare, and then trudge through inhospitable territory, expose chinks in Abbas's armour as a director. The acting, despite stalwarts like Utpal Dutt in the midst, is amateurish at times.

It is rumoured that Amitabh Bachhan got his first break in Bollywood in “Saat Hindustani”, when Abbas cast him as Anwar Ali, the Urdu poet, based on a letter of recommendation from the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, something which he has denied all along. Nonetheless, Bachhan displays flashes of the brilliance and depth of character that was to catapult him to super stardom for the next four decades, albeit his dialogue delivery was influenced by his earlier forays into English theatre. Another area where Abbas falters is in his enthusiasm to tackle too many socially relevant issues at the same time even if it meant going beyond the scope and stated objective of the storyline by adding untouchability and Hindu-Muslim relations as sub-plots, which, at times, irk the viewer.