When I was doing the research for my book on Jaane bhi do Yaaro two years ago, writer-director Ranjit Kapoor (the film's dialogue writer) told me about an incident that changed his life. It was 1969 and Kapoor was a young man in dire straits, nudging towards a life of crime — "main galat raaste pe jaane wala tha" — when he chanced to see Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Satyakam. The film, about a stubbornly honest man struggling with hard realities, wasn't exactly fast-paced entertainment, but Kapoor was riveted.
"My friend sitting next to me fell asleep out of boredom, but I was weeping silently in the hall," he recalled. "After that film, the world began to seem like a very different place — I had hit rock-bottom, but I picked myself up." Forty years later, the experience was still so fresh in his mind that he dedicated his own movie Chintuji to Mukherjee, Dharmendra and Narayan Sanyal (who wrote the novel on which Satyakam was based).
Watching Satyakam recently, I realised that its central theme — the death of idealism, the feeble attempt to cling to it against all odds — is relevant in a wider sense to Jaane bhi do Yaaro, though the two movies couldn't be more different in tone. The latter is a sharp satire about a world where honesty and integrity are relics of the past, and where the words "Sachaai ki hamesha jeet hoti hai" ("Truth always prevails") are spoken with ironic venom — and directly into the camera — by a villain who has sent two innocents to jail.
The people who made Jaane bhi do Yaaro — Kundan Shah, Kapoor and their friends — were part of a generation who were learning to (ruefully) laugh about corruption and other social evils. But Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Narayan Sanyal were from an earlier time, young and sanguine when India's freedom movement bore fruit, and their film reflects both the headiness of those days and the disillusionment that followed. (As a viewer today, it's easy to forget that Satyakam is, technically speaking, a period film: it was made in the late 1960s but is set between the mid-40s and the early 50s. From our vantage point in 2011, those two time periods blur together — but those 15-20 years certainly represented enough time for the dilution of the idea that independent India would be a Utopia.)
Satyakam opens with a sombre background score and a lovely shot (the first of many in this film) of the sun glimpsed through a canopy of leaves. The opening credits are followed by the Gandhi quote "God is Truth, Conscience and Fearlessness", which signals that we are about to see a serious-minded movie — though it begins with light scenes of life at an engineering college where a number of young men, including Satyapriya (Dharmendra) and his friend Naren (Sanjeev Kumar), are looking ahead to the New India. The catchy song "Zindagi Hai Kya" provides some tomfoolery (plus a master class in face-contorting by Asrani, whose expression as he sings the line "Aadmi hai bandar" is a fine vindication of Darwinism), and a while later there will be the promise of a sweet, conventional movie romance between Satyapriya and a dancing girl named Ranjana (Sharmila Tagore). But these are temporary breathers in a film that will get ever darker.
After their graduation, as the industrialisation era begins, the engineers spread out across the country, working on construction projects, moving up in life and learning about the need to make little compromises along the way: pretend not to notice while a small bribe is being taken or offered; use an influential uncle's sifaarish to get a job; allow poor workers to use official material for an annual festival. But Satyapriya is the exception. Compromise doesn't exist in his world (you can imagine him scoffing at the very words "jaane bhi do yaaro") and more problematically, neither does moral relativism.
At one point, when Naren asks "Woh sach kya jiske peeche shivam nahin, sundaram nahin — jisse kisi ko chhot pahunche?" ("What's the use of speaking a truth that serves no higher purpose and only causes someone hurt?"), Satyapriya's response is typical:
"Yeh buzdilon ki soch hai. Sach bolne waale ko agar dukh sahne ki himmat hai, toh dukh dene ki bhi himmat honi chahiye. Sachaai angaarey ki tarah hai — haath par rakho aur haath na jale, yeh kaise ho sakta hai?" ("Only cowards think like this. If the truth-teller has the courage to suffer pain, he must also have the courage to give pain to others. Truth is like a piece of burning coal on your hand.")
Mukherjee's film lets us see — not through didactic monologues but through the natural, graceful unfolding of its narrative — that such thoughts may be very noble in theory, but damaging and self-defeating in certain situations. This makes Satyakam a difficult movie to watch, as it draws the viewer into a quicksand of uncertainty and despair. (I can sympathise with the boy who fell asleep in the hall next to Ranjit Kapoor, especially if he'd already had a long hard day!) Throughout, there are counterpoints to Satyapriya's unalloyed idealism, as the film repeatedly places him — and us — in morally hazy situations.
For example, when Ranjana is raped by the ruler of a former princely state, it's an indirect result of Satyapriya's dithering about the finer points of propriety instead of taking responsibility for her. Shaken and contrite, he then decides to marry her (he must, after all, do the "right thing"), but only after a revealing scene where we glimpse his reservations. Later, it's implied that he is unable to achieve intimacy with her after marriage, and in this we see traces of his orthodox upbringing — here is a man so bound to traditional ideas that the woman he loves wishes aloud that she could die and be reborn "pure" so he would accept her wholeheartedly.
At times like this, not even the most naive viewer can see Satyapriya as an unequivocally heroic figure; his self-righteousness can even get annoying. And yet, he is also a man who is willing to look long and hard in the mirror — in this sense, he reminds me a little of Yudhisthira in the Mahabharata, an initially bland and irksome hero who grows in stature by confronting his own weaknesses.
It's possible to see the Satyakam worldview in strictly religious terms: what goes around comes around; there's someone up there keeping score; "bad" people will eventually get their comeuppance and "good" people will be rewarded. But I don't think the story can only be appreciated by those who believe in divine justice or in comforting patterns. The film stresses that every individual must find his own meaning in life. At the end, commonsense humanism wins the day and a point is even made about the undesirability of rigidly following scriptures: a narrow-minded old man is so moved by the honesty of a "fallen" woman that he admits his moral defeat and accepts his responsibility towards her and her child — thereby vindicating Satyapriya's belief in the power of truth.
There's so much to appreciate in this film. Note the subtleties of Dharmendra's unforgettable performance, the way his expressive face gets cagier and more careworn as Satyapriya buckles under the strain of fighting the world as well as his own doubts. Watch the young and relaxed Sanjeev Kumar (very good as the sprightly Naren) before he decided that being a Serious Actor meant playing much older, tight-lipped characters. Or the wonderful Robi Ghosh (Bagha in Satyajit Ray's Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne) in a supporting role as one of Satyapriya's co-workers. Rajinder Singh Bedi's dialogue is so rich with subtext that one viewing simply isn't enough, and nearly every character is carefully shaded. David — the archetypal kindly old man of Mukherjee's later films — plays a drunken cretin, willing to barter his daughter, but even he gets a brief scene where he gives the hero a dose of self-awareness. And how interesting it is that Mr Laadia (Tarun Bose), who cajoles Ranjana to get Satyapriya's signature on an important document, turns out to be not a stereotypical villain but a well-meaning man who is genuinely concerned about her family.
But I realise I've been going on about the story and the characters while neglecting how elegantly crafted this film is — which really is the thing I love best about it. Many mainstream Hindi movies of that time — even the good ones — seem to be in a rush to move the plot along, which results in awkward cuts, jarring shifts in tone, and a generally episodic quality; scene transitions tend to be functional rather than carefully worked out. Satyakam, on the other hand, is beautifully paced and structured. It's unafraid to be slow-moving, it plays like a stately visualisation of a good literary novel, and yet it has a strong cinematic sense too — I can't think of another Mukherjee film where each scene flows so organically into the next. He makes fine use of dissolves and fade-outs to provide a sense of time passing through Naren's narration, and cinematographer Jaywant Pathare's use of space is outstanding.
I particularly admire the shot compositions and camerawork in the climactic sequence where Satyapriya's dadaji (played by Ashok Kumar) blesses his dying grandson with a shloka about the unassailability of the soul. As Satyapriya's eyes close, the camera pans away, drifting past Naren and the others in the hospital room, moving almost searchingly toward a weeping Ranjana, and then fading into an infinite whiteness. In scenes like these — and in other, less flamboyant but equally classy shots — you see how personal a project this film must have been for Mukherjee, and how invested he was in it. It's rare to see such attention to visual detail in his later movies, which stress narrative over form.
A note on Satyakam and Anand; and the beginning of the rest of Hrishikesh Mukherjee's career
It's interesting to compare Satyakam with a much more popular Mukherjee film made two years later — the Rajesh Khanna-Amitabh Bachchan starrer Anand. Both films have a similar framing device — in each, the story is told by a writer (Naren in Satyakam, the doctor-writer Bhaskar Banerjee in Anand) as a tribute to a dear friend who died tragically young but whose life was an inspiration to those around him. However, Satyakam is a hard-edged film that never lets the viewer off the hook, whereas Anand is cheerier, more audience-friendly and makes the most of Rajesh Khanna's twinkly superstar persona (don't miss the sudden and incongruous swell of music that marks Anand's first appearance in the film).
In his essay "Cine Qua Non: An Undergraduate History of Hindi Cinema", Mukul Kesavan contrasts Satyakam ("the last rigorous celebration of idealism in Hindi films") with three movies, including Anand, which "instead of examining the consequences of idealism, use idealism to give the narcissism of their male stars a justification". I think Anand is a good film in its way, with one notable advantage over Satyakam: Salil Choudhury's lovely music score. But it does depend heavily on the Khanna cult, and on the fanboy's inability to distinguish between actor and character. (It's no coincidence that you regularly find comments on the Internet that use Anand's personal courage to extol the movie-star who plays him. Sample: "...the jaunty, winsome and death defying personality of Anand is superbly embodied in the vivacious expressions of Rajesh".) In my view, Satyakam is unquestionably the more nuanced and mature work between the two.
Mukherjee might have agreed. In interviews, he has mentioned that Satyakam was his favourite among his films. More intriguingly, he has implied that its failure led to a conscious decision to make lighter movies. As he says here, "I had thought corruption would end once we became independent. But this was not so. Then I thought there was nothing left to do but laugh. Which is why I made Gol Maal, Naram Garam and Chupke Chupke." It reminds me of Kundan Shah reflecting — as he wrote the Jaane bhi do Yaaro script — that absurdist comedy was the only reasonable way to deal with the world's injustices.
In hindsight, then, Satyakam was a turning point in Mukherjee's career. His later films suggest a more practical approach to a mass audience's needs — perhaps it could be said that he chose Naren's sincere but worldly-wise stance over Satyapriya's inflexibility. Through the 1970s, he made many fine movies with a stunning lightness of touch (even when they were about serious things), and that's the period most of us today associate him with.
There is relatively little lightness in Satyakam. It's almost claustrophobic in places, it doesn't have uplifting songs like "Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli" and "Aane Waala Pal" to provide the viewer with emotional succour, and at 2 hours 50 minutes it's significantly longer than most of Mukherjee's later films were. But it's a hugely rewarding work for the patient viewer, and for the cine-aesthete. I love the later Mukherjee films like Gol Maal and Rang Birangi, but I think Satyakam is a monument of Hindi cinema — a movie every bit as dignified and uncompromising as its doomed protagonist.
(Pics courtesy: Screengrabs taken by the author.)
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based freelance writer. His book about the making of the film Jaane bhi do Yaaro was published by Harper Collins in 2010 and he has also edited The Popcorn Essayists, an anthology of film writing, for Tranquebar. He writes the blog Jabberwock. More about the books here.