- Jagriti Thakur
- 20 February 2020
The ordeal of the lowborn
Looking back at Bimal Roy's 'Sujata' (1959)
“Woh humari beti nahi, humari beti jaisi hai.”
(She is not our daughter, we only treat her like our own.)
Bimal Roy’s 1959 film, Sujata, sits silently and gracefully amongst his other iconic works. I say silently because of the story’s gravitas and the maker’s devoted yet subtle approach towards the social evil of casteism. Based on the celebrated author and journalist Subodh Ghosh’s short story, the screenplay of Sujata is written by Nabendu Gosh and dialogues by Paul Mahendra. To the sauntering and soulful music of S.D Burman, lyrics, by Majrooh Sultanpuri, add emotions of innocence, love and pain, making the soundtrack unforgettable.
Revolving around the concept of untouchability, the film presents the real, crude and prejudiced face of the society, iteratively hitting the theme, not only to highlight the flaw, but also to show how we can bring a change.
Sujata, born in a lower caste family (the achoot or the untouchables) is taken in as an infant by a high caste Brahmin family when her parents die and there is no one of her caste in the village to look after her. Thus, starts the first chapter in Sujata’s life where as a curious child she finds it difficult to understand why her Ammi and Bapu treat her and her sister Rama –who calls them Ma and Pitaji – differently, why they never celebrate her birthday, why only Rama is allowed to study and not her.
Anxious and troubled about their decision of giving an untouchable girl shelter in their house, Ammi and Bapu first try to hand her over to someone from her caste, but finding that the man is a drunkard, they change their minds. Later, when she grows up a little they try to send her to an orphanage, but are unable to see her leave.
In a scene when Bapu falsely says that Sujata has high fever, Ammi goes running to her room and checks her fever only to find out that Bapu was teasing her, he laughs and says that she will have to take a bath now as she touched an untouchable (something which she had said to him in an earlier scene, when he had caressed little Sujata).
Throughout the half an hour long track of Sujata’s childhood, we see many such scenes in which the kind couple feel torn between the responsibility they have taken up and the customs they are supposed to follow. Why is Sujata not their daughter even though they have brought her up? The couple avoid this question throughout the film, only to accept their mistake in the end and accept Sujata as their own.
Tittle and the Theme
The feminine Indian name Sujata comes from the Sanskrit word sujaat which means ‘of high birth’. An apt tittle, Sujata, in this story’s context raises the crucial question upfront without much delay – who is sujaat, who is not and who decides it? Throughout the story, the protagonist’s selfless and warm attitude brings out her noble side; she is a beautiful individual who can win over everything, but not the idea that she was born with lesser rights.
Each and every frame in the film is used to magnify its theme as if trying to convince a stubborn mind that caste does not determine a person’s nature. This is shown ingeniously in one particular scene in which an old man from upper caste comes to meet Bapu with his son’s marriage proposal for Sujata; he tells him that he is strictly against dowry, but will accept whatever they gift their daughter. He also makes sure that Bapu helps his son by investing money in his son’s business. All seems well, only until he gets to know that Sujata was born in a low caste family. The old man leaves angrily after rebuking Bapu for trying to trick respectable people like him.
Sujata, played by the charming Nutan, is a vivacious, loving, uneducated, but smart girl who is the backbone of the Chowdhury family, working from morning till night, taking care of everyone’s need. In fact when the hero, Adhir (Sunil Dutt) fails to find Sujata in the house, whom he has especially come to meet, Rama tells him that it is not easy to find Sujata as she works like a clock, non-stop, handling all the household chores with perfection. Sujata’s likeness to the clock is again repeated when before Ammi and Bapu can ask for their evening tea, Sujata brings it for them; her Bapu says, ‘Sujata tu to is ghar ki ghadi hai’ (Sujata you’re like the clock). Clock that tells time, time that one must be aware of in order to work efficiently, thus, drawing a parallel between Sujata and the clock only highlights how essential her presence is in the house.
The young Sujata, played by lovely Baby Farida, who questioned Ammi and Bapu’s biased behaviour towards her and felt jealous of her sister Rama, grows up to blindly accept her position in the family, position of not the daughter of the house, but of a lesser family member.
She is best friends with Rama and makes sure that she calls her Didi (elder sister). The relationship is presented very realistically; they fight, play and laugh together. Rama, who studies in college, loves Sujata as her elder sister, never leaving one opportunity to praise her especially in front of Adhir. While Rama is infatuated with Adhir in the beginning, she, without making a big deal out of it, steps back when she sees Adhir has fallen for Sujata.
For our modern, progressive and educated hero, Adhir, it is love at first sight; he is absolutely smitten by Sujata’s beauty and elegance. He always talks to Rama just to enquire about Sujata and does not hesitate to accept in front of Sujata that he came there hoping to get just a glimpse of her.
Adhir’s love blooms in Sujata’s heart and she dares to dream; his comforting words astound her as no one had ever tried to understand her or even hear her out. Adhir tells Sujata about his dream where he saw her in a beautiful sari, with a Chandramallika (Chrysanthemum) flower in her bun and a red bindi (mark) on her forehead, overwhelmed Sujata says, with a pretty smile on her face, that the meaning of this dream is that Adhir is beautiful. What Sujata means is that one who can paint such a wonderful image of her, one who does not worry about the social labels is indeed a man with golden heart. Later, when the story takes a turn and they are forced to part, Sujata asks him to think that the Chandramallika of his dreams has wilted.
Upendranath and Charu Chowdhury, Sujata’s Ammi and Bapu, and Adhir’s grandmother, played by the terrific Lalita Pawar, who also happened to be a distant relative (aunt) of the Chowdhurys, are the ones who bring a rift between the two lovers. A staunch orthodox, Adhir’s grandmother frowns every single time she sees Sujata. In the very first scene, she picks up baby Sujata by mistake, thinking of her as baby Rama. Appalled and angry for touching an achoot, she literally throws the baby away, who is caught mid-air by the nanny.
It is she who repeatedly warns the Chowdhurys of a calamity that could fall on them for going against their religion and keeping an untouchable girl in their house. Talking about problems Sujata’s presence can cause in finding a perfect match for Rama, she even convinces them to marry Sujata to a widower from the low caste. Hopes of marrying Adhir with Rama overpower her and she gives an ultimatum to the Chowdhurys.
There is not one confrontational scene between Adhir’s grandmother and Sujata and yet it is Sujata who defeats her. When she is praying in the puja room, Adhir comes to tell her that he wants to marry Sujata and the fact that she belongs to a lower caste does not bothers him at all; in her rage his grandmother asks him to leave the house once and for all and decides to break all the ties with him, declaring that she will not give him one penny from her property. Adhir packs his bag and is at the door step when she comes running from the puja room and requests him not to leave, crying and accepting her defeat. She then goes to the Chowdhurys and tells them about Adhir’s decision. It is interesting that she does not have a change of heart; she merely acknowledges that she has failed, still refusing to understand that casteism is wrong. Unlike her, Ammi and Bapu, who have always been in a dilemma for they loved Sujata, but were also bound by social ties, in accepting their defeat also accept their mistake and welcome the change.
Apart from a scene or two where Adhir is explicitly talking about the evils of casteism, every other character portrays his or her beliefs rather than verbalising it. Ammi and Bapu always stay aware of not hurting Sujata’s sentiments, albeit they end up doing so and even Adhir’s grandmother always indirectly taunts Sujata, as if running away from her shadow. It is the brilliance of Roy and the writers that an ignorant Rama who is truly friendly with Sujata becomes the one who highlights the bias – her carefree and jaunty attitude hits a sharp contrast to Sujata’s ever present burden and shame of being a lower caste girl.
Imagery and Music
A strong set of images are used to depict Sujata’s emotions in the film; every flower in the garden blossoms and sways when she is happy, the wind is gentle and soothing when she sings, the calm water and the small boat by the Gandhi Ghat (pier) appear like a painting when she is at peace, but when in a turmoil the wind blows madly, it rains heavily and darkness spreads. Sujata herself chooses to be in the dark on two occasions. One, when everyone is celebrating Rama’s birthday and the house is lit, roaming outside, she switches off the light and sits in the dark under the tree. Second, when she overhears Ammi and Bapu talk about Rama and Adhir’s wedding, she quietly agrees to forget Adhir, switches off the light of the hallway and walks away.
The background score and songs further underline Sujata’s state of mind. Jalte Hain Jiske Liye Teri Aankhon Ke Diye, Suno Mere Bandhu Re Suno Mere Mitwa, Tum Jiyo Hazaaron Saal, Saal Ke Din Ho Pachaas Hazaar and Nanhi Kali Sone Chali Hawa Dheere Aana are some of the hit songs of the film. The song Kaali Ghata Chhaye Mora Jiya Tarsaaye where she sings (after closing the door so that no one overhears) –
Hoon mai kitni akelee woh yeh janke/ Mere berang jivan ko pehechanke
Mere haatho ko thame hanse aur hasaaye/ Meraa dukh bhulaye kisee kaa kya jaye
(Translation – If only he knew how lonely I am, if he could hold my hand, laugh with me, it would make me forget all my sorrows, if it happens, how does it matter to you)
- here in saying ‘kisee kaa kya jaye’ (how does it matter to you) it is as if she is mocking all those who see her with disgust while she is just like them, a normal human being, capable of falling in love.
Gandhian and Buddhist Philosophy
The film criticises the act of untouchability time and again, sometimes indirectly and sometimes directly.
Mare kaise? Atmahatya karke? Kabhi nahi! Avyashakta ho to zinda rehne ke liye mare.
(Committing suicide? Never! If need arises, die for the purpose of living.)
This is the quote written under Mahatma Gandhi’s statue at the Gandhi Ghat that makes Sujata think before taking any rash decision like committing suicide. Ammi’s words that she is an untouchable girl, born in a low caste family, nothing but a burden on them troubles Sujata so much that she leaves the house in the thundering rainy night and reaches the Gandhi Ghat. The rain drops are made to appear as Gandhi’s tears underlining that he is equally sad. She returns back and slowly the storm within her and the storm outside quiet down.
In another scene, Rama, in a play in her college, acts as Chandalika, the untouchable girl who was detested by all, but the Buddhist monk Ananda, by drinking water from her vessel, liberates her from this curse. Everyone except Sujata is present there and they all, especially Adhir’s grandmother, appreciate Rama’s performance marking vividly the hypocritical outlook of the society.
Also, when Adhir confronts his grandmother in the prayer room, he points towards the portraits of Buddha, Ramkrishan Paramahansa and Swami Vivekanand saying that they all did not discriminate between people and she should understand this simple truth.
Ammi works herself into a frenzy of rage as her biggest fear comes true. She blames Sujata for coming between Rama and Adhir and poisoning their lives like a snake. Ammi falls down from the stairs and hurts herself. It is Sujata who asks the doctor to test her blood group, when no one else’s blood matches with Ammi. To everyone’s surprise her group matches with Ammi and thus, Sujata saves Ammi’s life.
Dramatically Ammi and Bapu also find out that Sujata is ready to sacrifice herself for them and has already asked Adhir to forget her and marry Rama. Understanding their mistake, discarding their doubts and wholeheartedly accepting their love for Sujata they call her ‘beti’ (daughter) and embrace her warmly, asking her to forgive them. The last scene is of Sujata’s vidaee (farewell), Ammi and Bapu marry her off to Adhir, an upper caste Brahmin, finally breaking the shackles of casteism.
Sujata was nominated for the Golden Palms at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, but it lost to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. This 161 minutes long film that takes ample time to build its world, presents the theme strikingly, always keeping it in the forefront and uses metaphors to magnify its impact could make it, one might say, a tiresome watch. Also the melodramatic tone of the film could bother the minds accustomed to watching fast paced dramas. Nevertheless it is a must watch for not only it is a classic, but also because it is as relevant a film as it was back then in 1959. Shockingly, we have not changed much and the incidents of caste based discrimination has not yet disappeared from our daily newspaper. Roy highlights this issue poignantly and drives the point home, effectively.
Read my other articles in the ‘Old Is Gold’ series, here:
1. Jagte Raho (1956)
2. Mother India (1957)
3. Madhumati (1958)
4. Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962)
5. Aakaler Shandhane (In Search of Famine) (1982)
Jagriti is a trained screenwriter from the Film & Television Institute of India, Pune, with experience in media and journalism. Currently, she is an elected Associate Member of the Executive Committee of the Screenwriters Association, Mumbai, as well as a member with its Dispute Settlement Committee (DSC). She writes a blog on the art of storytelling: https://www.chimingstories.in/