Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On Bimal Roy’s Sujata (and the invisible line in “Bachpan ke Din”)

It sometimes happens that you think you know a beloved old movie song really well – based on memories of listening to it on the radio or seeing it once or twice on Chitrahaar – and then you watch the full film and are struck anew by the quality of the picturisation and by how well the scene works within a larger context. The lilting “Bachpan ke Din” in Bimal Roy’s 1959 film Sujata had this effect on me. It is a happy number sung by two sisters, Rama (Shashikala) and Sujata (Nutan), who have a close relationship throughout the film; as such, it’s easily thought of as just a carefree ode to their shared childhood. But to watch the song is to be struck by how unusual its use of visual space is for a Hindi-film musical sequence of this type.

Rama, who initiates the song by playing it on a piano, and Sujata – who hums along – are in the same house, and there are parallels in their movements and actions (Rama spreads her dupatta playfully across her face, and a second later Sujata matches the gesture with the garments she is removing from a clothesline). But though their voices merge, and though they are clearly attuned to each other’s thoughts, they never share the frame – understandably, for Rama is indoors throughout while Sujata is on the terrace above the room. And this tells us some things about these characters and the film itself: it is shorthand for the fact that there is an invisible line separating the sisters’ lives and that Sujata isn’t, strictly speaking, part of the family.

A low-caste “untouchable” by birth, she has been raised by Rama’s parents, an engineer named Upen babu and his wife Charu, and their undoubted affection for her has been tempered over the years by their consciousness of social mores and restraints, so that Sujata has grown up yearning to hear them call her “hamaari beti” rather than the more formal and defensive “hamaari beti jaisi”. Thus, in the song that introduces the grown-up versions of the sisters, we see Rama, the real daughter, firmly ensconced inside the house, lively and at ease with her setting, while Sujata – whose demeanour is more reticent – is in an open space, underlining her outsider status.

The scene also provides one of our first views of something that runs through the film: the association of Sujata with the natural world, or the outdoors. Much of her time is spent in the garden and the greenhouse, tending to plants, and the film has many self-consciously beautiful compositions such as the one of dew dripping from a leaf as Sujata weeps. We are constantly reminded that she is a child of nature, her true origins unknown, rather than a legitimate member of the household (in the “Bachpan ke Din” sequence she literally has no roof over her head, but for the sky). The stylist in Bimal Roy shows fine fettle in a scene where a distraught Sujata is out in the rain, intense close-ups of her face and her hand clenching her shoulder intercut with shots of the Gandhi statue behind her, a flickering street-lamp and flowing rain-water. (This sequence plays like a pre-echo of the famously showy scene in Roy’s Bandini where the stricken face of the protagonist – also played by Nutan – is rapidly cut with shots of a bottle marked “Poison” and sparks from the tools of nearby welders.) Even a remarkable early animation sequence has the little Sujata dreaming of visiting a “sapnon ka sundar desh” where the trees have golden leaves – a place as mythical and improbable as a caste-free world.


Rama and Sujata might fondly be recalling their bachpan in that song, but at this point the viewer is unlikely to need a memory-jogging: the film's early sequences, which show the girls’ childhood and Sujata’s gradual assimilation into Upen babu’s family, are lengthy, unhurried and very absorbing. Tarun Bose and Sulochana get a lot of screen time as the conflicted engineer and his wife, Lalita Pawar is superb as a disapproving aunt (at one point she flings the baby Sujata away and a nearby maid catches the child just in time. I was hugely impressed that this scene could be pulled off in the pre-computer effects era: Lalita mausi one, Gollum zero), and a full 40 minutes pass before Nutan - the "star" - makes her screen appearance. 

In these early scenes we see the pariah girl gaining acceptance in increments; well-meaning people trying to work out what is right through conscience and common sense, rather than through what their elders and holy texts tell them; and a fast-modernising India, across which the engineer and his family travel over the years, living in Dehradun, Bilaspur, Barrackpore and other places as Upen is transferred and promoted. But we also see how the ancient spectre of caste continues to dog their life even in this forward-looking milieu, and how social attitudes and prejudices form a mould, trapping even those who initially resist them. Watch how Upen is genuinely broad-minded about the little Sujata as he becomes fond of her – even sharing his spoon of halwa with this “untouchable” – but grows more circumspect over the years as he assumes positions of greater responsibility and has to keep in mind what other people will think about his family, and about the marital prospects of his blood-daughter. Later, watch how even Adhir (Sunil Dutt) – who epitomises the progressive, educated young man – hides his face from his grandmother when he has to express a view that he knows will run counter to her beliefs.

The prolonged establishing sequences work very well, first because Roy is a fine director of children and a fine observer of childhood (watch the opening 20 minutes of Devdas for confirmation of this), but also because they set up a touching contrast between the guileless self-assurance of the child Sujata – who doesn’t yet know about the harsh ways of the world – and the
introverted woman she grows up to become, an adult who has learnt something about maintaining a slight distance from her adoptive parents (even as she calls them “Bapu” and “Ammi”). Nutan’s delicately observed performance conveys Sujata’s push-pull relationship with her family very well – it makes credible the simultaneous existence, in one person, of two apparently contrary personalities: one that is happy-go-lucky (or wants to be happy-go-lucky), with an inborn zest for life; the other emotionally guarded. And this is what makes the climactic scene, Sujata’s breaking down when she realises she has been wholeheartedly accepted, so powerful and cathartic.

Despite the excellence of her performance, though, I think I like the first third of the film best. The rest of it is just a little too hurried in comparison, a little too eager to reach a definite resolution and to unite Sujata with the upper-caste Adhir. One might also point to a minor unevenness of tone and character development: given that Rama never treats Sujata as anything other than a real sister (and shows an empathy that belies her outwardly giddy nature), it is possible to ask what exactly the inner dynamics of this family have been like over the years. Having formed a genuine parental attachment and sense of responsibility, how can Upen and Charu still keep Sujata at arm’s length on specific occasions (such as Rama’s birthday celebration) and deny her education? The Charu who is deeply stricken at the thought of packing the little girl off to an orphanage in the early scenes, can she be the same woman who later savagely lashes out at her “beti-jaisi”, accusing her of stealing her beti’s prospective groom? But perhaps this is another reminder of how lives can be petrified by strictures, how even powerful human emotions can be weakened by the magnetic pull of tradition. And perhaps that's why this mostly wonderful film seems just a little pat and contrived in the way it rushes towards a happy ending.

P.S. Attack of the Killer Subtitles
The subtitle-writer on the DVD I have must have been in a tearing hurry; when Sujata plaintively asks her mother “Main sirf bojh hoon?” (“Am I only a burden?”), the words “I bug you?” appear on the screen, contrasting surreally with the anguished look on Nutan’s face. Must look at the rest of the subtitles more closely and take notes.


  1. Nutan's expressions during jalte hain jiske liye are out of the world. It is difficult to believe that someone could be so expressive without uttering a single word.

    She did the same thing during dil ka bhanwar kare pukaar. Not a single word, yet the exact emotional array - and a totally different genre.

    Yet, unlike a few of the contemporaries, she never got the deserved glamour.

    She will always remain the actress of her generation for me. Despite Waheeda Rehman and Meenakumari.

  2. Abhishek: oh, no question that she's one of the all-time greats. (I still lean a little more towards Waheeda Rehman, but only very slightly.)

  3. You know Jai once in a while you come up with these beautiful pieces that make me at least for a while forget all the boredom in my life . I had to come out and say this , absolutely loved reading this one .

    P.S. I am unable to stop myself from smiling at "Lalita one , gollum zero" :).Lalita Powar is my monicker for every middle aged khadus woman .

  4. Thanks for this post. I will try to see Sujata soon.

    The Sujata situation isn't something that happens often.

    What is very familiar is the relationship between children in middle-class/upper-class families and the children of the servants. The employer's children and the servant's children play together and can be quite close (though there is always a difference in how they are treated and there is almost always some pulling of rank). Sometimes the servant children are included in outings and parties.

    Then they start growing up and the friendship, such as it was, evaporates.

  5. Such beautiful writing makes me fall again in love with Hindi Cinema.
    Thank you for the post.

  6. This review clearly indicates something I mentioned in another post of yours - that India cinema is so very radical. There really is no parallel to this kind of cinema in Hollywood. Even Sirk's Imitation of Life is far more morally ambiguous with no attempt being made to take sides. Sirk genuinely understands how difficult inter-racial amity is.

    But perhaps this is another reminder of how lives can be petrified by strictures, how even powerful human emotions can be weakened by the magnetic pull of tradition.

    Well, this isn't the unnatural pull of "tradition" but a very natural instict. It is perfectly natural for a mom to get a little cross if she sees her prospective son-in-law getting married to a foster daughter instead (regardless of the foster daughter's caste)! I am not saying Charu is right to feel that way. But I can understand her.

    Yes, the director can make Charu look like a mean villain by giving her some melodramatic scenes of asking Sujata to leave the house. But that's the director's license

  7. It is perfectly natural for a mom to get a little cross if she sees her prospective son-in-law getting married to a foster daughter instead (regardless of the foster daughter's caste)!

    Shrikanth: yes, but that is emphatically not what happens in this case. Caste, and the idea of the "real daughter" versus the "not-daughter", is very much made the point here.

    Also, again, do take the trouble to understand what I was saying in that earlier post. It was about the dominant mode of the most mainstream Hindi cinema.

  8. Shrikanth: yes, but that is emphatically not what happens in this case. Caste, and the idea of the "real daughter" versus the "not-daughter", is very much made the point here.

    Ok. Haven't seen the film. So you're in a better posish to judge.

    It was about the dominant mode of the most mainstream Hindi cinema.

    Sometimes I wonder "mainstream" cinema is least radical today as compared to earlier decades. Especially when I see snippets of Akshay Kumar movies with scantily clad girls providing succour to male eyes and with sexist jokes being cracked every 15 minutes. Something I simply don't get to see in the mainstream cinema of 50s/60s/70s. Indian "mainstream" film is really in its most conservative period today than ever before!

  9. Regional cinema in some parts of the country is much worse.

    Not sure if you've heard of the Kannada film star Upendra. His movies are so loud and sexist that they make Akshay Kumar/Abhishek Bachchan seem like saintly progressives.

    These are really retrogressive films (while looking "chic" on the surface). They defend the worst forms of status-quo in society without a trace of guilt.

    Even the worst cinema of say the 50s/60s that I have seen are not as bad as this. I am not talking about mild, relatively benign forms of cultural conservatism like "convincing parents on an unconventional marriage", but the blatant disrespect shown to women in several mainstream films today

    So you're right that mainstream cinema of India is really regressive. But this holds true today more than ever before.

  10. I got around to watching this film.
    Not bad at all. I think I can empathize better with your points in the post now.

    I also recommend another "progressive" though less arty film from the same year also starring Sunil Dutt - Sadhana directed by BR Chopra

    Not as intense an experience as this film but more termite-like with richer characterization.

  11. Hello,
    Thanks for a pleasant review of a much-loved movie! I agree very much with your point of view about Bimal Roy's interest in "bachpan", I think it's an important, even essential, element in any story if you are going to focus on a character's persona in depth, and this is the case in Sujata.

  12. This is so good, and very helpful for the course i will be teaching soon. I am going to make your blog compulsory reading for the students.

  13. Though I have to say that watching it after Rab ne Banaa di jori, Paan Singh Tomar, Gangs of Wasseypur, -- 21st C films--Sujata was just too full of rona dhona.

  14. A lovely post. Thank-you. Here's something I wrote recently.
    Aditya Bhattacharya, Barcelona.