Great film, no audience

A still from Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda.   | Photo Credit: NFDC

When Shyam Benegal approached Dr. Dharamvir Bharati to adapt his acclaimed metafiction Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda into a film, the literary giant agreed without hesitation. But his well-wishers expressed concern.

The 1952 novella is as intricate as it is incisive and hailed for its non-linear narrative. Wary of Bollywood’s tendency to butcher literature, they advised its author against the adaptation. Bharati knew better and brushed aside their concerns, explaining, “I am entrusting my work to Shyam Benegal and not just any filmmaker. I have implicit faith in him.”

Often during its making, Benegal would call Bharati to ask if he wished to oversee the production but the latter insisted there was no need, reveals the late luminary’s wife and writer, Pushpa Bharati. His supreme confidence in parallel cinema’s champion wasn’t misplaced. When Bharti finally watched Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda he realised he had been right and gave it his wholehearted approval.

Eloquent raconteur

Funded by National Film Development Corporation of India, the film is many stories woven into one, where the threads tuck and tangle at various points, unravelling new insights into shifting morality and human fallibility.

On the surface, things appear deceptively simple and centred on an eloquent, enigmatic raconteur called Manik Molla (Rajit Kapur) whose mesmeric accounts of romantic idealism blend fact and fiction so seamlessly one wonders whether to accept them or argue over their authenticity.

Located in the heart of a bustling mohalla of Allahabad, Molla’s snug abode has become a private literary club of sorts for his companions, as they discuss and draw intellectual inspiration from his fragmented tales across seven days of summer.

Molla believes that every love story’s fate is determined by class struggle and socio-economic realities and unless it contributes to society’s welfare it cannot be deemed worthy. And so he pooh-poohs Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas as sentimental junk, favours Tagore’s perspective and marvels at the genius of Chekhov and Maupassant. It’s only when he begins to recount his own imperfect romances involving three women at three junctures of his life that the mask of conceit slowly begins to slip.

The three women

He tells them about Jamuna (Rajeshwari Sachdev), the spunky, silly girl he delivered magazines for and lent a shoulder to as a schoolboy, while she laments about her spineless lover Tanna (Riju Bajaj) and his failure to stand up to his despicable dad, Mahesar Dalal (Amrish Puri), forcing her to marry an old moneybags. He tells them about Lily (Pallavi Joshi), the academically inclined, affluent muse he vows to eternally remember in their one final duet in the rain, before she marries the man of her mother’s choice, who happens to be Tanna.

He tells them about Satti (Neena Gupta), the fiery, free-spirited soap- seller he assisted with accounts as an adolescent and became a reluctant confidant to after she disclosed her perverted uncle’s intentions of selling her off to Dalal.

Social compulsions

Jamuna, Lily and Satti represent three sections of society and the way they deal with their romantic predicaments underscores the influence of their social environment and underlying feminism in a newly-independent India. Dalal, a man of resources but no character, is the quintessential villain. He’s the reason why none of these women achieve the happy endings they longed for.

Books and films are decisively dissimilar media. Benegal figured the only way to do justice to Bharati’s unorthodox, self-referential storytelling was to revisit a scene from multiple points of view, unobtrusively introducing and integrating previously unseen characters and changes.

The auteur receives brilliant support from his crew in Shama Zaidi’s screenplay, cinematographer Piyush Shah’s coloured filters and canny camera angles, editor Bhanudas Divkar, composer Vanraj Bhatia’s haunting score and art designer Nitish Roy’s recreation of an early 1950s Allahabad neighbourhood within Mumbai’s Chandivali Studios.

Benegal ropes in his reliable actors, but it’s the presence of two gangly newcomers — Rajit Kapur and Rajeshwari Sachdev — that lends Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda its air of glorious naiveté.

Benegal spotted the man who would become Manik Molla (and Byomkesh Bakshi) on stage, enacting A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters. Where most aspiring actors would jump with joy, Kapur’s first reaction was that the book was too perfect to be tampered with; it should be left alone. Later, he sheepishly admitted his scepticism to its maker, with whom he’s worked on practically every movie since.

Lost in marketing

Even more remarkable, the film was shot in less than a month. But what is a masterpiece without marketing? Few had heard of what is among the finest in Benegal’s oeuvre. When it first released in 1992, the poorly marketed Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda barely enjoyed a theatrical run. Twenty-five years ago, masala reigned supreme, multiplexes did not exist, and Benegal’s nuanced filmmaking of Bharati’s seminal work was lost on a majority too preoccupied to engage in any soul-searching.

Its subsequent debut on Doordarshan and the video-cable circuit gave it decent visibility, enough to receive a national award.

Understandably, those associated with the film were disappointed. In his autobiography The Act of Life, Amrish Puri, who won two Best Actor awards internationally for his performance as Dalal, writes, “There were just 15 people in a theatre where they were showing this film in an enlightened city like Bombay.... I didn’t know whom to blame — Shyam Benegal or the audience.”

We all know the answer.

The writer is a movie junkie and critic who thrives on cinematic nostalgia, guzzles on sherbet-e-jannat, and speaks fluent Kader Khan @sukanyaverma

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2021 1:21:33 PM |

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