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24 May 2012

Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda (1992)

Directed by: Shyam Benegal
Music: Vanraj Bhatia
Starring: Rajit Kapoor, Pallavi Joshi, 
Neena Gupta, Rajeshwari Sachdev, 
Riju Bajaj, Raghuvir Yadav, 
Amrish Puri, KK Raina 
Long live Doordarshan! I do not know how many times I have said this in recent years, but the fact remains that the more I watch (or do not watch) on the plethora of channels on Indian television, the more I long for the days when Doordarshan was the only channel we had. It was Doordarshan that introduced me to many award-winning films, both in Hindi and in the regional languages (even ones that I did not speak); it is through Doordarshan that I first came across Guy de Maupassant's stories, or soaked in the rural ambience of Malgudi which I had only read about until then. It is through national television of the eighties and early nineties that I was introduced to a lot of world cinema. And the bonus was that amidst all the serials that we watched religiously, there was not a single saas-bahu one.

Instead, we laughed at marital issues through Mr ya Mrs, and at life itself in Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, we supported the put-upon Ghar Jamai and laughed at the stereotypes presented there, we empathised with the motley ordinary characters who populated Nukkad and cheered for the quiet romance between Guru and the widowed school teacher, winced through the powerful Tamas, were introduced to Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, watched Feluda and Byomkesh Bakshi with as much interest as we waited for Sherlock Holmes. It was through Doordarshan that I received my introduction to Shyam Benegal and Satyajit Ray, Govind Nihalani and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Ritwik Ghatak and Girish Karnad, Akira Kurosawa and Vittorio de Sica. Indian and Western, we watched and imbibed movies and literature.

Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda is a film that came towards the fag end of Doordarshan's glory days. Like many a so-called 'art film' those days, Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda ended its theatrical run very quickly and ended up being shown on Doordarshan. Unlike many art films though (Elipathayam, I am talking about you!), Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda was humorous, touching, and above all, caught and held my interest from the beginning. It perhaps helped that the film had a stellar cast of actors, and two of my personal favourites - Rajit Kapoor and Pallavi Joshi.

(Warning: This post has the whole story; so for people who haven't seen the film yet and do not want to know the story, please skip this. For others who do not mind watching a film even if they know how it ends, go ahead, because this film is so much more than just the story itself, even if it is nice to watch these events unfold on screen. It is about life, and choices, made or not taken, and how decisions once made, affect not only the person who is doing the deciding, but others whose lives are interconnected, and some, who do not seem to be connected in any way.)

Based on a book by Dharamvir Bharti, Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda is a set of inter-connected tales narrated by the protagonist, Manek Mulla (Rajit Kapoor). He is introduced to us by his friend, Shyam (Raghuvir Yadav), who, years later, reminisces about their college days. And so starts a flashback that spreads over twenty four hours, and a narration that covers many characters and parallel lives.

Manek is a railway mail supervisor, a job that presumably allows him plenty of time to think up stories. Older than the others by a few years, and with his own income. it is his house that becomes the adda every evening. As always, the conversation veers from politics to love. Manek is a raconteur par excellence, and can keep his young companions engrossed for hours as he weaves fact and fiction into an impossible-to-differentiate whole.
When he pooh-poohs Devdas as not being relevant to the times because it is not rooted in the economic struggles of the people, a question is thrown at him - what has love, or love stories got to do with socio-economic or class struggles? Manek is unrepentant - all good love stories have their foundations in class.

He begins the first of his stories titled Being True to One's Salt. It is his story, he avers, and it is the story of Jamuna (Rajeshwari Sachdev) who lives in the house next door. He was in high school then. He is only a disinterested participant, given that Jamuna is in love with Tanna (Riju Bajaj) the son of Mahesar Dalal (Amrish Puri). Jamuna and Tanna have grown up together; her father is even in favour of arranging their marriage. However, her mother is reluctant. 
Tanna's father does not have a good reputation, and besides, they belong to a lower gotra. Jamuna is adamant - she will marry Tanna or no one. Manek's brother is sure that Mahesar Dalal will never agree to his son marrying Jamuna. After all, while they may belong to a higher caste, Jamuna's father, a bank clerk, cannot afford to pay her dowry, and Mahesar Dalal is sure to want a hefty one.

Jamuna is older than Manek and bullies him as much. He provides her with books, and is reluctant witness to her love affair with the timid Tanna. While Jamuna manages to convince her mother, Tanna is petrified of his father. Manek becomes her support, a reluctant one at first, but slowly they draw closer to each other.
The story ends with the usual twist, and the friends deliberate on the moral of the story. While the others, including Manek, are by turns amused and irritated by the banal end, it is Shyam who understands the reasons for the story ending the way it does, and is hurt by it. 
Manek consoles him - Jamuna does get married.

So begins the second story - The horseshoe. Jamuna is still unmarried when the story begins. Her parents cannot afford her dowry, and her mother is of the opinion that it is better to die than marry out of caste. A relative comes with a proposal - her mother is all for it, but Jamuna's father is appalled. The 'boy' is twice-widowed, and is almost his age. Is she seriously proposing that he marry his daughter off to a man older than her father? However, he, and Jamuna, are forced to bow down to the inevitable.
The Jamuna who comes back a few weeks later is no longer the dreamy, idealistic girl who was in love with Tanna. When faced with the fact that she may have to bail out her parents, she demurs. She is learning to look out for herself, for the children she will one day bear. However, that is not to be as easy as it seems. And so begins a long saga of early morning dips in the Ganges, temples and prayers and lucky horseshoes.
Finally, the unhappy girl is forced to desperate measures. A birth and a death soon follow. The day is ending, but as always, there is a twist to this tale too. The young men are not sure there is a moral to this tale, but as Manek avers, there is a difference between a moral tale and a morality tale. As they discuss this further, it is clear that one of them is cynical; the other is indignant that Manek chose to tell a story of a flawed heroine, instead of a 'pure' one, while Shyam, the one who feels the most, retorts that 99% of the women would be Jamuna - caught in circumstances not of their own making, forced into lives where they now have free will. That is the plight of the middle class, rues Manek, where dreams soon disappear into smoke. Where million Jamunas are forced to compromise every step of the way.

The next story begins - the other side of the first one. This is Tanna's story. And that of his father. When Tanna's mother died, his father brings home a mistress, ostensibly to look after his children. Tanna is totally cowed down by his father. While Jamuna's father speaks to Tanna about his marriage to Jamuna, her mother is as rigid in her own way as Tanna's father. And so between the two, young Tanna and Jamuna are the ones who suffer. Jamuna, the stronger of the two, is willing to stand up to both parents, but Tanna, meek and beaten down, lacks the will to rebel.

On a visit to town, Mahesar Dalal's gaze falls on Satti (Neena Gupta) who lives with her uncle. Satti is a no-nonsense young woman who is perfectly capable of taking care of herself. In the meantime, he is also looking at prospective brides for Tanna. And we are introduced to Lalitha / Lily (Pallavi Joshi), a wealthy, educated young girl with a mind of her own. 
She too is forced by the norms of her upbringing to give up her education (a wife cannot be more educated than her husband), and marry Tanna. When she becomes pregnant, she leaves for her mother's home and does not return. Not only that, she has the courage to stand up to her father-in-law's bullying.

Tanna, beaten by his father and his circumstances cannot stand up to his strong-willed wife either. Tanna is a good man in an increasingly complicated world. It is his inability to stand up  to his father that sets in train a series of events that destroy not only him, but the girl he loves. Old before his time, Tanna plods along, until he is beaten down further by a fate he cannot withstand. Ironically, it is Jamuna, not Lalitha who is at his bedside. When Lalitha does come, it is to comfort Jamuna, two women bound inextricably by a common fate.
Night has fallen and the friends disperse. Manek is unable to sleep. So it seems Shyam, whose night was disturbed by strange dreams. He comes back the next morning, and is followed by the other two. Manek, whose night has also been disturbed by the past, begins to recount a story - a story that begins and ends in 24 hours. A story whose beginnings go back in time, and is interwoven with the story of other characters. It is the eve of Lily's marriage to Tanna, and we soon realise that she and Manek were in love. It is a tender moment as they talk of their love for each other. 
Manek leaves, and Lily is left to cry her heart out.

While the friends are nonplussed at what they see as a lack of any regret at the end of a love story, Manek is matter-of-fact. When one leaves a relationship, there is always another waiting in the wings. For him, it was Satti. Accused of telling 'simple' stories without any technique, Manek retorts that it is those who do not have anything to say who resort to 'technique'. He is a fan of Flaubert, Chekhov and Maupassant, who can narrate a story about simple everyday objects or incidents. His friend, who had idly picked up a knife from the table, challenges him to narrate the story of Satti using that as a prop. 

Manek is unperturbed - the knife belonged to Satti, and in fact, played a very important role in her life.

Thus begins the third story - the story of the unfortunate Satti. She was the foster daughter of Chaman Thakur, a retired, handicapped soldier who made ends meet by making soap. While he had seen her around the village, his acquaintance with them deepens when Chaman Thakur requests him to take care of their accounts. That acquaintance ripens into a friendship between two unlikely people. 
Mahesar Dalal, whose gaze has fallen on Satti before, is now exploiting Chaman Thakur's weakness for drink. Satti, who is no one's fool, throws them both out of her room, much to her foster father's chagrin. Maheshar is not one to give in however, and pays Chaman in order to 'marry' Satti. That night, she is raped. Manek's brother has already warned him against a further involvement with Satti - their family's reputation is on the line.  

The next night, Manek is astonished to see Satti at his house. She has escaped the clutches of both Maheshar and Chaman, and seeks sanctuary with Manek - she beseeches him to take her away from there. 
Frightened, the boy (for that is all he is - Manek has just passed his intermediate) approaches his brother, who brings Chaman and Maheshar home. They take Satti away, while Manek watches. The next morning, the village is agog with the news that Chaman Thakur and Maheshar Dalal  were seen with a shrouded body near the river banks. That is the last that anyone sees either Chaman Thakur or Satti in the village.

And that is the end of the story-telling: one of his friends excoriates Manek for being weak. Manek agrees that he holds himself responsible for Satti's death. His writing has also been influenced by that incident. Shyam, the most sensitive of the four, is the one who is the most affected by these stories. Manek advises him to weave his feelings, his emotions, and his thoughts into stories. After all, stories are a strange mixture of truth and lies, fact and fiction. And as they sit there talking, comes a voice and a face from the past.

So, what is truth? Which of Manek's stories were completely true? Which not? Does Manek even exist? Or is he a figment of Shyam's imagination? After all, he is the writer.

Shyam Benegal follows a non-linear approach to story-telling, allowing the three disparate strands to weave themselves together at different points. What we get is not only three different stories (it finally turns out to be just one), but each story being told to us from the perspectives of the different characters. And so as each story is told us, we see the same events, the same characters weave in and out, playing themselves, and we hear the same dialogues; only, the emphasis changes. At the end, we, as much as Manek's friends, are at a loss to decide how much is fact and how much is fiction. 

Rajeshwari's Jamuna is a curious mixture of romantic idealism, native intelligence, and a strong core. She is willing to fight for what she wants; even when she is defeated by the social norms of the day, she makes her own rules (and flouts others) to find a way to attain her goal. She mothers Tanna, bullies Manek, and finds ways to assuage her growing loneliness. 
Pallavi's Lalita / Lily is a woman who holds her own in a world not of her own making. She gives in once, but learns quickly enough that she will never get the support she needs from the men in her life. Neither Manek nor Tanna have the courage to stand up for their love. And so, she leaves both men behind to make her life as a single mother. Who needs men, she scorns, secure in the knowledge that she has her wealth to fall back upon. She can be independent, and independent she will be.
The strongest, yet most exploited, is Satti / Neena Gupta. Hers is the most poignant of the stories because she is betrayed by the one person in whom she places her trust. Her affection for Manek is based on their friendship; she is willing to pay for his education, and wants to see him succeed in life. There is the knowledge that there can be no other relationship between Manek and the likes of her. She is resigned to the fact that she was raped; there is no hand wringing, no shame - not until she sees Manek's reaction. It is not her fault she was raped, and she knows it. 
Rajit Kapoor is a woefully under-utilised actor, though he did become a Benegal regular, acting in Mammo (another fine film, and out in the NFDC remastered series), Zubeida, and Well Done, Abba. Apart from this, his debut film, I would put his role in Train to Pakistan and in the Malayalam film Agnisakshi as two of his best performances. As Manek, he plays the character. He is Manek - flirtatious, detached, weak, and almost fictional himself. Watch as myriad expressions flit across his face as he narrates the stories.
Pitching in able support were Ritu Bajaj and Amrish Puri, not to speak of theatre regulars such as Virendra Saxena and KK Raina. This was Benegal at the top of his game, his directorial baton firmly held, making the sort of films he  wanted to make without giving in to market considerations.

For those who want to read the original, the novella, published in 1952, is still in print. There is a Bengali translation available that won the Sahitya Academy Award for its translator, Malay Roy Choudhary. I have saved the best for the last. The National Film and Development Corporation has woken up at last and is doing something about the many films that are languishing in its archives. They have begun to bring out a series of digitally remastered DVDs of these films, and the result is a clean, crisp, sub-titled copy of films such as these.

The first set of 25 films has already been released (there may be more since I last checked) with excellent sub-titling and no annoying audio or video breaks. What is even more encouraging is that the remastered films include films from Malayalam, Tamil, Oriya, Bengali, and Marathi, apart from Hindi. The DVDs are reasonably priced at Rs199 and the response should hopefully encourage NFDC to bring out more such. 


  1. I am sure I have seen it! But I can't remember a thing except for Rajit Kapoor and Pallavi Joshi. All otherwise gone.
    Agree with you completely on DD. DD was a propaganda machine for the government, but it had good cultural programmes. And as you put it right it didn't show suffering women as role-model. It had Hum-Log and Buniyaad.
    Thanks for this wonderful review and also the news of NFDC DVD releases. :-D

  2. Thank you, Harvey. :) Yes, DD had Katha Sagar, and Hum Hindustani, Malgudi Days and Karamchand....

    Also put a search for NFDC + Cinemas of India. That is what the series is called.

  3. I want to see this movie now, I will try and find it. Thanks for a wonderfully detailed review.

  4. You are welcome, Samir. It's available in two parts on YouTube - decent print, no subtitles though. 

  5. Thanks for a great review as always. This is one of my favourite literary adaptations, your previously reviewed film Chitralekha being one of my others. They are both examples of films that inspire you to read the originals.
    Doordarshan was indeed a flagship national broadcaster before the onset of cable tv. A very Indian BBC. Like you, it was my first introduction to regional language movies. They introduced me to so many Indian languages. There are so many movies and series that I remember watching as a kid that really made me think, unlike the brainless tat that is broadcast nowadays. 
    I feel that this rubbish has led to regional culture in India being eroded to some extent by aspiring to a new pan-Indian urban culture that is a kind of pseudo-culture that is being portrayed in film and media and which is not grounded in India's past and present reality. Works like Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda are firmly grounded in that reality and are still relevant today. 
    Thanks for this review. 

  6. Thank you, Anoushka. I'm glad someone else (besides me) appreciates what Doordarshan used to be. :)

    My issue with the proliferation of new channels is that their idea of a rural India is a very regressive one. And forget regional literature even being on their ken, or even world literature, for that matter. Sigh. Nostalgia strikes.

  7. Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (a wonderful title) is probably Shyam Benegal's movie that enthralled me the most. I think it was the time when I was learning to appreciate 'art' cinema perse and the movie made quiet an impression. I know that 'Ellipathayam' can be quite a testing experience (though easier than Aravindan's), but then Adoor's movies have never been about the audience but more his experiment with the meduim and so is in a slightly different genre.

    While I don't have very strong memories of the movie (having seen it in DD probably around the same time as you had), I think I felt a bit uneasy as the movie ended. Among all the stories, I seem to recollect Neena Gupta's story more clearly than the rest and her unfortunate tragedy. As you point out, it is ironic that the strongest woman in the movie is the most exploited one too! What makes it interesting is the structure of the movie as it moves between fact and fiction and as in every Benegal movie, questions our conventional acceptance of norms, without being pedantic.The movie is also, I think, the last among his best ones, though I've heard highly about 'Samar' and 'Making of the Mahatma' too.

    DD has fond memories for many of us and it's true that with the arrival of new channels, exposure to languages other than Hindi and mother tongue have almost evaporated. The Sunday 1.30 pm regional film slot gave so many memorable movies; it's a pity that such a time slot for regional movies no longer exists (actually exists in DD-Lok Sabha/Rajya Sabha channels but then I suppose no one watches these channels).

    I did read about NFDC bringing about digital remastered DVDs (probably from Jabberwock's blog) but did not realise that it was already in the market. But where do you buy them from then? Available online, is it??

  8. I love the title too - and I love the explanation for it being used.

    I like Adoor's movies - well, except for Elipathayam. It bored me to tears, as did Prakash Jha's Damul. :( I was one of the three people who watched Adoor's Anantharam in the theatre - it played for One. Single. Day. That was sad.

    I picked up three titles from NFDC's Cinemas of India series when I was in India earlier this month. They have been out since the beginning of the year, and were available in my local DVDwala's shop. Ofcourse, being Maharashtrian, he is more likely to keep DVDs such as these. :) Rhythm House has all 25 and has free delivery to boot. What are you waiting for? :)

  9. Anu, I read your warning and stopped reading further. Will come back here when I get the chance of watching it. :)

  10. I'm glad. That was why I posted the warning on the home page. :) A very good print is available on YouTube, pacifist, as I was telling Samir. Please do watch it - I think you will like it.

  11. Like pacifist, I read your warning (it popped up at me before I'd even got past reading the first sentence of your post), so I had to skip this one - because I do want to watch Suraj ka Saatvaan Ghoda sometime. Which reminds me, I must finish watching the Byomkesh Bakshi DVD... :-)

  12. I'm not sure that I'm glad now that I posted that warning.  I seem to be driving everyone away from my post. :)

  13.  Better than having people grumble that you've spoilt it for them!

  14. They grumble, or I grumble. Either way, someone is grumbling. :)

  15. I didn't read the full post, since I do want to watch the movie sometime. But I am very impressed by Rajit Kapoor's choice of roles. And to know that he's worked with directors of repute like Shyam Benegal, Basu Chatterjee etc., shows his penchant for perfection.

    On the nostalgia part, looks like you were also born in early 70s and had a very memorable childhood due to Star Trek, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, Hum Log etc.,

    Even today I look for these serials on you tube and relive those memories.

    Thanks for bringing back those days anyways, Anuradha :-)

  16. :( Grumble, grumble, grumble... now I know why I shouldn't put warnings out in full view. No one reads my posts!!!

  17. Good review, Anu, though I admit I did quit reading it half-way. I'm so glad that NFDC has come out with a few of the films they made, and hope they complete the job. 

  18. Thanks, Banno, though why I'm thanking people for *not* reading my post beats me. :D

  19. Such an amazing script... the sheer imagination and the ability to keep all threads together, unwinding one at a time, linking to another, keeping it taut and complete. Only a master director can pull off a story like this on screen!

    I found Satti's character to be the most compelling, the most 'paavam,' in a sense.

    I watched this movie a long time ago but I recall thinking that it was SO tough to take sides in this movie, as opposed to the regular films where the good-bad divide is thick and clear.

  20. Hai la, someone actually read through the whole post! :) It is true what you say about it being difficult to take sides, though one wants to kick Rajit Kapoor at least a few times through the movie - what a fine actor he is!

    Satti was, to me too, the most pathetic character - 'pathetic' in its real meaning. So spirited, so independent, so matter-of-fact, so trapped.

  21. Oh, no! I didn't read it just because I wanted to watch the movie some time. Not because it was a bad post or something. In fact, like all others, I am very happy to have come across your blog. I do read you other posts fully :-)

  22. Dustedoff - Byomkesh Bakshi can be viewed on you tube as well. Most of the episodes are uploaded there.

  23. Ah, you are one of those greats who was born in the 70s....just like me !! ***ducking for cover***** :-D

  24. Anu/Harvey - Do you remember "Darpan"? It used to be cast in the mid-80s. Basu Chatterji was the director.

  25. Oh, I know. I was just kicking myself for putting that warning out there. :) Otherwise, you chaps would have read the whole post. *Evil grin*

  26. :) Well, you called me 'great', so I'll forgive you. :)

  27. Oh, yes, I do! I do, indeed. Basu Chatterjee had Darpan, and Hrishikesh Mukherjee had Hum Hindustani with Ashok Kumar, AK Hangal, and I think Utpal Dutt was also there - there were four oldies, and the whole thing was set in an apartment complex. Great fun!

  28. Stumbled upon the post looking for more insight and context for the movie.
    Have to say, a very well detailed post and what's heartwarming is your appreciation of the nuances of Manek, the myriad expressions and the unnerving sense of reality that each character has. Personally, it was the bringing together of the stories and the irony at Tanna's deathbed plus the irony of the last scene that have left a thinking impact on me.
    Glad to have read through your review after the movie though! Had I read it before, I'd have been totally influenced by it!

  29.  Thank you so much for the appreciation, Srujana - it keeps me going - and welcome to my blog.

  30. I agree about the "good old Doordarshan days" because we did get to watch some great movies which would never have been hits. Some good Malayalam movies too like "Thingalazhycha, nalla divasam", etc. I am glad to hear that some of the older, not-so-popular movies have been re-released and would like to get hold of some of them. 

  31.  I keep buying DVDs when I go home. Lots and lots of DVDs. Even VCDs of older films because I have no great faith that they will be released on DVDs at all. I used to like their regional film service, because it introduced me to some great movies that I would otherwise not have seen at all.

  32. i also miss old DD, today only i saw this movie but missed the end due to electricity, so was surfing and came here..it was a lovely movie with so many star actors..

  33.  Yes, it was, Renu. I do hope you will be able to catch the end one day, not just read about it.


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