When an undisputed genius is inspired by the work of a raconteur par excellence, and translates that vision on celluloid, casting a thespian of rare talent as the main protagonist, the product is nothing but the finest piece of art which continues to ring a bell. “Sadgati”, directed by Satyajit Ray, and based on Munshi Premchand’s heart wrenching short story, is a mirror to society.
Produced by Doordarshan (and telecast on television), “Sadgati”, with a running time of less than an hour, keeps one riveted (taut editing by Dulal Dutta is a vital ingredient), as one totally empathises with the grossly disturbing trials and tribulations of Dukhi (Om Puri), whose only fault is to seek time from the village priest (Mohan Agashe, impeccable as the high caste Brahmin) to visit his house to solemnise the engagement of his adolescent daughter, Dhania (Richa Mishra).
As Dukhi cuts grass in a field and carries the bundle on his head to take it as a gift for the priest, he suffers a bout of momentary dizziness due to hunger, but is stabilised by his concerned wife, Jhuria (Smita Patil). Unfazed, Dukhi spurns her request to drink some brew, citing the overriding importance of his visit to the priest’s house.
But the self-obsessed Brahmin orders him to clean the sprawling verandah of his house and then do more heavy work, which, finally, culminates in the back breaking task of cutting an unwieldy log of wood into fine splinters with a rudimentary axe under a merciless sun. A fatigued and hungry Dukhi battles on. Meanwhile, the priest enjoys a hearty meal with his wife (his third as he boasts in front of some gullible folks who have come to hear his discourse on the meaning of death) in the cool environs of his house.
The unmitigated tragedy reflects in the smouldering eyes of the priest’s young son, who witnesses Dukhi’s collapse into the throes of death. The anguished youngster wakes up his father from a siesta, who, in turn, wakes up his wife. The unperturbed lady nonchalantly asks her husband not to lose his nerve and just inform Dukhi’s fate to inhabitants of the outcast village so that they can collect the corpse for disposal.
However, in a rare act of defiance, they refuse to take away the corpse which is blocking the way of the high castes to their source of drinking water. A heavy downpour threatens to hasten the dead body’s decay. Herein unravels the moral dilemma for the beleaguered priest. In the shadows of an overcast dusk, he does the unthinkable – pull the lifeless body of Dukhi and dump it in the midst of rotting carcass and skeletons of dead animals.
This is his sadgati (deliverance).
One is overwhelmed by the sheer talent of Om Puri and Smita Patil as they get under the skin of Dukhi and Jhuria. They deserve kudos for portraying a milieu that is as alien to their respective backgrounds as the proverbial chalk is from cheese.
Om Puri as he cuts grass sitting on his haunches, carries the bundle on his head, sweeps the floor in the priest’s house, attacks the wooden log with bitter vengeance imbibes a body language and posture that are incredibly authentic. It shows why he is considered to be one of the finest actors to have graced the Hindi cinema. Alas, the star will no longer shine in the firmament, as the fire has been doused, leaving a legion of grieving fans and an art for which he could still have contributed substantially.
Smita Patil is not to be outdone. Her use of diction, the distinctive style in which she wraps the sari on her lithe frame and the spring in her walk are precious lessons in method acting.
Perhaps, it was the master, Satyajit Ray (who composed the music, wrote the dialogues with Amrit Rai and gave us the screenplay), whose eye for detail and perfection motivated his team to come up with outstanding and flawless performances. So we have the art director Ashoke Bose making the ambience of a decaying village come to life, which is dramatically captured on camera by Soumendu Roy – from wild grass growing in the fields to unremitting downpour to clouds darkening the horizon like some morbid omens to a herd of cows passing through a filthy, water logged village street even as each distinct sound is captured by Amulya Das.