The importance of Saat Hindustani and Bachchanalia

Soldier on: A still from Saat Hindustani  

Perhaps recalled by only die hard fans as the answer to a trivia question not likely to be asked on Kaun Banega Crorepati, is a patriotic saga that launched the career of its host, one of India’s most enduring superstars. Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’ Saat Hindustani was Amitabh Bachchan’s cinematic debut, and very soon, five decades will have passed since its release on November 7, 1969. What’s currently feeding the media blitz, is Bachchan being awarded India’s highest cinema honour, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, in his golden jubilee year in the industry, yet the legacy of this modest film, beyond the accidentally significant detail of its casting, shouldn’t be downplayed. It’s an oddity of a venture that could well be termed a curate’s egg, but there is much to savour in its clean-hearted idealism and simple-minded nationalism, that might even serve as a counterpoint to the 56-inch jingoism so pervasive in patriotic cinema these days.

Feel-good syncretism

Although known apocryphally as an Indian remake of The Magnificent Seven, the film owes precious little to the Yul Brynner classic or its Kurosawa predecessor. It is an entirely homegrown film based on the reminiscences of Abbas’ assistant, Madhukar (one of the ‘Hindustanis’), who had spent time with satyagrahis as they proudly hoisted tricolours in Portuguese outposts across colonised Goa — although these occasions were part of revolutionary campaigns involving thousands in the 1950s. The film’s clearly illustrative band of seven consists of six mainlanders and one ‘presumptive’ Indian — Maria, a Goan renegade. At times, Abbas’ lens pans across provocative pamphlets from outfits like the Aazad Gomantak Dal — one of six political outfits formed to advocate colonialism’s demise, circa 1955 to 1961. This buried subtext aside, the screenplay ultimately trades in clichés and the cinematic treatment is often trite, yet the flavours and essences of its real-life antecedents linger on.

Mounted under the banner Naya Sansar, which was incidentally was the title of Abbas’ first film as writer — a 1941 meditation on left-radical journalism —Saat Hindustani wore its feel-good syncretism on its sleeve. This was immediately visible in the opening credits — the title was emblazoned in several Indian languages — and the by-the-numbers meta casting. Bengali actor Utpal Dutt played a firebrand from Ambala, whose Punjabi still bore traces of Shakespeare, while Malayalam star Madhu did not quite pass muster as Bengali. Budding Muslim actors Jalal Agha and Anwar Ali were cast as chauvinistic Hindus, while Bachchan was the delicate poetry-spouting Muslim from Bihar (called Anwar Ali for good measure). The Christian Maria was played by Parsi actor Shahnaz Vahanvaty. Since linguistic, regional, religious and caste locations were lathered on to their respective storylines, these cross-pollination likely didn’t add anything aside from pat-on-the-back novelty, except perhaps an undercurrent in the antagonism shared by Ali’s and Bachchan’s characters, each actor (real life good friends) walking in the shoes of the other. Bachchan was later launched as a bona fide leading man in Bombay to Goa (1972) by Ali’s brother, the great comic star Mahmood.

A star is born

Mrinal Sen recalled meeting Bachchan, a ‘hopeful aspirant’ at Abbas’ office, and offering him his first gig — a two-minute voiceover for Bhuvan Shome, released earlier in 1969. In Saat Hindustani, Bachchan’s supporting part was pivotal to the film’s politics. As the intense Anwar, a peacenik of sorts who has signed up for a bloodless revolution, he is the film’s pacifist-in-chief, and a Muslim at that, whose affiliations are frequently called into question by his new cohorts. This kind of conscience-keeper might be wholly out of place in today’s hyper-national films, and Anwar has to pay more than his dues — in a Portuguese torture chamber no less — to be considered Indian enough. Alongside showier turns from Agha and Dutt, Bachchan was understated and real for the most part, but didn’t shy away from histrionics. In him Abbas had found a surrogate for Indian Muslim identity, even though Anwar himself was never conflicted about where his loyalties lay. He was no paragon. Like the others, he wore his conditioned prejudices about caste and language lightly. This is where the inclusive Maria came in, ready to share a meal with a Harijan (Madhukar’s character) when others seemed hesitant.

Of course, the benefit of hindsight casts a different light on Bachchan’s performance. When the camera zooms in on a taweez, reading 786, on his upper arm, we are reminded of the workers’ badge he brandished in Deewar (1975). When he takes a moment to recite lines from Kaifi Azmi’s ‘Aandhi Aaye ya Toofaan’ with sincere and crisp intonation, it’s hard not to think of the climatic scene in Anand (1971), in which he is heard reciting Gulzar’s ‘Maut To Ek Kavita Hai’. In Saat Hindustani, Azmi’s thoughtful lyrics as voiced by Anwar soon transforms, almost bizarrely, into a rousing patriotic anthem, sung by Mahendra Kapoor — it even fetched the poet a National Award. Of course, once the Angry Young Man persona took hold, Bachchan’s exploits on screen were far less conciliatory. In Pukar (1983), another film on the Goan ‘liberation’, his trigger-happy character launches an offensive against revolutionaries.

Far from resolved

What is stupefying is the film’s mixed messaging. The final task of the Hindustanis’ mission is to unfurl the Indian flag on the statue of Abbé Faria in the town square of Panjim. It’s a location that still exists, and there is some power to them standing their ground non-violently even as they’re dragged away by Portuguese police. A local lad who completes the operation is shot down. Later, when reunited in India, the chastened group appear to rejoice at news of armed struggle in Goa, as Maria joins the guerrillas. Similarly, while making a comment of the various language movements catching wind in the country that were pushing against the hegemony of any one tongue (or quite the opposite), Abbas seems to also be advocating Hindi as a unifying lingua franca, casting its proselytising as well-meaning rather than insidious. As we know, these matters still remain unresolved.

While it’s a film that’s dated in its style, and full of bloopers, it’s still a worthy inclusion in Bachchanalia, as one writer dubbed the films and memorabilia of Bachchan. It’s a film, whose common-man propaganda reminds us of a simpler time when principles of behaviour hadn’t quite acquired the baggage of our times.

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 9:23:38 PM |

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