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02 October 2011

Saudagar (1973)

Directed by: Sudhendhu Roy
Music: Ravindra Jain
       Starring: Nutan, Amitabh Bachchan, Padma Khanna, 
             Murad, Leela Mishra, Trilok Kapoor                    
A very serious offering from the house of the Barjatyas. And one of Amitabh Bachchan's first outings as 'hero', or at least the lead character. Because there is nothing heroic or superhuman about Bachchan's Moti. He is a flawed character, and Amitabh makes him human. Directed by Sudhendu Roy, a long-time associate of both Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Saudagar shows the influence of both his colleagues. 

The film opens with a long shot of a little boy running through the countryside, pausing when he comes to the date palms; a man is up on the tree tapping the sap of the palm.
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As the little boy watches wide-eyed, Moti (Amitabh Bachan), for it is he, comes down and offers the little boy some. The rest he carries to widow Mahjubi (Nutan) who boils the sap down to make jaggery for him to sell. Mahjubi is unhappy with the money she makes - after all, it is her skill that makes Moti the best jaggery seller in the market.
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Moti leaves, lamenting that her tongue is not as sweet as the jaggery she makes. He is followed by myriad village belles, each of whom hope against hope that Moti will look kindly upon her. As he reaches home, the village broker is waiting for him. He has brought in some marriage proposals - but Moti finds the meher too high. After all, he only earns money during the season. The broker is irritated - Moti wants a young girl as a bride; the bride must be beautiful; but when it comes to the meher then Moti has problems.

Moti's response is that one must cut one's coat according to one's cloth. The broker soothes him - he has another girl in mind, a girl from Moti's own village. Would Moti be interested? Of course, Moti would be, but he has to go sell jaggery, so they decide to meet in the market after the day's business is over.  

As always, Moti's jaggery sells out quickly even though it is more expensive, much to the chagrin of the other sellers. When the broker arrives, he suggests that Moti buy some sweets to take to the girl's house. As Moti is waiting at the halwai's, he sees a sight that shakes him to the core.
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His interest aroused, Moti follows the nubile young girl to her village across the river. Her interest is also piqued; she is not impervious to his charms and is quite aware of her own.  
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After having spoken to the boat owner about her, Moti follows her home and meets her father. And here he receives a shock. Her father is quite willing to marry her off, but he wants Rs500 as meher. Disappointed (that is a huge sum for Moti), Moti leaves only to be waylaid by the girl, Phoolbano (Padma Khanna).
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When he accuses her of being as greedy as her father, she teases him, but soon confesses that she is not interested in money; what she wants is a man whom she likes, who is self-respecting and hardworking. She promises to wait for him until the rains subside.

Soon Moti is going from pillar to post to raise the amount of meher, only to face disappointment. If he is already in debt to one lender, then another knows his annual income and is not willing to take a risk. One man does not have the money to lend him, while another asks him outright what he does with all his money - since he has no wife or kids to support. Moti gives him a breakdown of his expenses - he has to pay for the date palms from which he taps; he has to pay the jaggery maker a percentage of his earnings for every kilo of jaggery she makes for him; and then what is left is what he lives on. Where is the question of his saving anything? 

The moneylender advises him to marry a girl who can make jaggery - then he can save the amount he now pays the jaggery maker. Moti is struck by an idea, and he goes off and thinks some more about it.
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The end result is that he goes to Mahjubi's house in the dead of the night. She is surprised to see him there. As the conversation progresses, she is shocked, then she visibly thaws. Moti leaves, happy with the effect he has created.
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The next morning, when Moti comes to leave the sap and take the prepared jaggery, he asks her if she has made a decision. She answers him obliquely by inviting him for lunch.
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At lunch, Moti asks her what she would like as meher. She answers, "Suna hai bahut dilphenk ho, miya; kisi ko na diya ho, to mujhe de dena." (I have heard you’re quite a flirt; if you haven’t tossed your heart to anyone, then give it to me.) Moti’s plan has worked wonders.

Soon Mahjubi is married and sent on her way by her late husband’s brother-in-law who is happy at her good fortune. Not so the village maidens who cannot understand why Moti would marry an older woman. She must have ensnared him through black magic, they sneer. Mahjubi takes up the reins of her husband’s household and soon, the disorganised bachelor pad is turned into a comfortable home. 

Mahjubi works happily and hard; and Moti is soon leasing out another 50 date palms to keep his industrious wife busy.
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And soon, their hardwork pays off, and Moti has half the required meher. He visits Phoolbano’s father, but the latter is not as enthused as Moti expects; why should he send his daughter to a household where there is already one woman? Moti is unfazed – as long as the sap runs through the palms, and as long as his body is cold, Mahjubi will remain. When the south winds blow, they will take Mahjubi along with them. 

This callousness permeates every one of Moti’s dealings herewith. Yet, he is not completely heartless. When he comes back to hear Mahjubi singing happily at home, it gives him momentary pause – is what he is doing right? But he is so besotted by Phoolbano that nothing seems wrong when it is done in pursuit of her. 

And he proceeds to the kazi who married them – with the request that he dissolve the marriage – for Mahjubi has had illicit relations with the brother of her late husband.
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Mahjubi is shocked beyond belief, and is not one to take things lying down. If he had wanted her to leave, he should have just asked her. In that case, perhaps, she might have even blessed him as she left, the same way she came to him - helpless, in need, but without a stain on her character. Now, she warns him, nothing good will ever come of impugning the character of a good man, and destroying her reputation.

She knows that he has used her. And when she sees him bringing Phoolbano home as a bride, she knows just how much. Moti has set his feet on a path that is morally repugnant, but it seems like his sins will go unpunished. He marries Phoolbano and brings her home. And they are extremely happy. And while they are enjoying newly-wedded bliss, Mahjubi is facing the taunts of the village gossips.
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What does Mahjubi do about it? Is retribution never going to catch up with Moti? And what will happen when Moti discovers that Phoolbano doesn’t know how to make gur?

Saudagar is a simple tale, and it is to Amitabh Bachchan's credit that he grabbed the chance to do this role. With enough grey shades to his character (his Moti is not very likeable), Amitabh still manages to make us pause and think - if we were in those circumstances, what would we do? It's heartening to think that we would not diverge from the straight and the narrow, but life is complicated and sometimes, practicality trumps ethics. Is it right? No, and not even Moti would say it was. It just is. 

His expressions, his body language all proclaim his ambivalence toward the morality of what he is doing. He was spot on as the man who is the cynosure of all the village girls, but whose inherent weakness of character leads him to prey on the weakness of one woman to get another; and then face the humiliation of having to go back to the first woman in order to regain his reputation. And he is not beyond sleeping with his ‘wife’ even though he knows (but she doesn’t) that it is a short-term plan. We see his schemes, his guilt and his regret; this is a movie that Amitabh should be proud of having on his resume. 
If Moti was a revelation, then Nutan was the pivot around which the whole narrative unfolded. Her Mahjubi is a widow; by all accounts, many years older than Moti. When he proposes marriage, she is furious - was he making fun of her? Couldn't he find someone his own age? But his persistence pays dividends; she visibly thaws under his attentions, and one can see the hope dawning in her eyes - maybe there is a second chance at love? Once married, her careworn face regains the bloom of love and she is undeniably happy. When she is spurned on a trumped up charge, she changes into a virago. She is strong, independent, self-respecting - even when she is least in control of her circumstances.  
And who, having seen Padma Khanna in countless movies as the vamp could visualise her as a village maiden, naively sure of her own attractiveness? She is in total contrast to Mahjubi. Her Phoolbanu is as seductive as she is innocent; as hardworking as she is inexperienced in the art of making gur. She is no shrinking violet, expecting to be waited on hand and foot. Padma Khanna infused her character with a simplicity that is endearing, and it makes you wish that many more film makers had given her roles like these.
This is a film that is 'offbeat' in the sense that the story is king, the characters are human - intensely so - with all the strengths and weaknesses, qualities and frailties that make up being human. 
What also stands out is the simplicity with which this film is directed - an honesty that brings the characters alive. Based on a short story by Narendranath Mitra (Ras), and aided by Dilip Ranjan's cinematography, Sudhendu Roy brings to life a little village in Calcutta, much the same way he did in his debut film Uphaar.

And if you were ever interested in learning how palm sap turns into jaggery, then this film takes you through the entire process - and it's a very interesting process, too!


  1. Ha, I'm first, am I? :) I haven't seen this film, though I've heard a lot about it. It does sound good, so I'm going to put it on my to-watch list. I really liked Amitabh in his 'villain' roles (he was awesome in Parwana), and he too, played many grey shaded characters without much ado. (The other 'hero' who played morally-ambivalent characters being Dev Anand, of course. )

  2. A friend - who had excellent taste in cinema, and superb memory - had given me a blow-by-blow account of this film (though she did leave off well before the end), and recommended it highly. Since then, I've heard others praise it too, but have somehow never got around to watching it. Now I'm going to make a special attempt to get hold of it!

  3. Oh, you should. This is definitely a movie that has to rank amongst his best. Parwana was good too - he played obsessed lover long before SRK took on the mantle. :)

  4. dustedoff, I remember you saying that when I wrote up a mini review of this film for my post on Nutan. You should watch it - I think you would like it.

    And ah, I left the film off at mid-point too. ;)

  5. I never picked this movie up, because the DVD blurb made it sound so boring! And Nutan has never been a favorite of mine probably because I saw her in too many of her sour-puss roles - harsh eyeliner, gaunt face, stern look :( Though you have been recommending it so much, maybe I should give it a chance?

  6. Sour-puss roles? :) Come to think of it, you may be right. She did have a very disapproving look in most of her films in the eighties. But this truly is a gem of a movie, Tina, do watch it. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

  7. I saw this when Doordarshan telecast it way in the eighties. I remember seeing the announcement and thinking Kya bakwas film dikha rahe hai. But even as a teenager, I got hooked on to the story. The songs weren't all that great if I remember, but the acting was superb, and the locales were so beautiful, so real. I think I shall revisit this movie, Anu. Thank you.

  8. Ruhi, that was my original reaction to the movie too (when I hadn't seen it). Remember that I had already seen the mighty Bachchan in Sholay and Zanjeer and Anand etc., It was a shock to my sensibilities to see him in a lungi! :) But the film truly was a revelation. I loved it!

  9. Anu, thanks for recommending this to me! It was a very pleasant surprise, and I found that despite his flaws, I had a lot of sympathy for Moti. Wonderful acting by both Nutan and Amitabh; I even liked Nutan here.

  10. I'm glad you liked it, Tina. :) Despite Nutan??


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