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08 March 2016

Sadhna (1958)

Directed by: BR Chopra
Music: N Dutta
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi
Starring: Vyjayanthimala, Sunil Dutt
Leela Chitnis, Manmohan Krishna, Radhakrishan
Today is International Women's Day. Continuing with the ongoing saga of women's films, comes the hard-hitting tale of a prostitute and her quest for dignity and respectability, from the flaming fifties. BR Chopra's films have always contained a strong indictment of several burning issues of the day, and Sadhna is no less. Dealing with the rehabilitation of sex workers and their quest to retain their dignity in a society that treats them like commodities, Chopra uses the story of one woman to highlight the double standards of a patriarchal society. It's a pleasant coincidence that I should post this today - March 8 also happens to be the birth date of Sahir Ludhianvi, who is the lyricist for this film.

Mohan (Sunil Dutt) is an honest, morally upright young professor who teaches Sanskrit literature in a nearby college. He lives with his ailing mother (Was Leela Chitnis ever any other kind?) who has only thing on her mind - getting Mohan married off. Mohan loves his mother very much, but doesn't seem to want to get married at the moment. His mother leaves no stone unturned in her bid to change his mind.
He escapes by telling her that he's resolved to remain a bachelor until he turns 25. At college, the lesson that day is on Shudrak's Mrichhakhatikam. While giving them the background to the play, a discussion evolves on whether prostitutes can also fall in love. (Vasantsena, the 'heroine' of the novel, is a courtesan, who falls in love with Charudutt, a married merchant.) When the students demand to know their lecturer's opinion, he shares it frankly - according to him, prostitutes are a disgrace to society; a prostitute can never fall in love with a man; she can only love what he can offer her.  
Mohan may hold very strong opinions on the behaviour of dancing girls and prostitutes, but he's a loving son, who helps his mother cook and clean and wash up without much ado. (I like that the film shows this in a very matter-of-fact manner.) Despite the mother bringing up 'bahu' at every opportunity (including pleading for divine intervention), it is clear that there is a mutual love and respect between the mother and son.  
But 'Ab shaadi kar' seems to be a punctuation in her speech; she says it in every conversation. After the nth iteration of this statement, Ma (who's suffering from fever) goes off in a miff, and manages to fall down the stairs. Mohan gets her to bed, calls the doctor, who prescribes medications - she's already weak, and now she's hurt her back; she'll need to rest and take it easy, he tells Mohan. 
Her condition deteriorates towards the evening, the doctor is called again, injections are given, but none of it seems to make any difference. Her condition is serious enough that all their neighbours make an appearance. Even in her delirious state, Ma has only one thing to say: 'Mohan, bahu laa de.' The doctor is worried, and while Mohan is justifiably distraught, the neighbours present all add their two pence, and so Mohan gets advice - lots of it: do the religious rites, give her Gangajal, if he doesn't marry, then his mother's soul will never know peace... they are all sure she's not going to last the night.  
Mohan is disturbed; his mother is still muttering 'bahu' - where's he going to get a bahu at this time of the night? One of his neighbours is still there; Jeevan (Radhakrishan) is a freeloader, who seizes the opportunity. He has many creditors, and he sees a way to earn some money to pay them off. He thinks up a scheme - he has a cousin; perhaps he could ask her to pretend to be Mohan's fiancée? But there's a problem - his uncle is a greedy man, and will surely ask for money. Mohan, not knowing what else to do at this stage, agrees. 
Jeevan's destination is a kotha in the seedy part of town; there, Champarani (Vyjayanthimala), a famous tawaif, is entertaining her clients with a song that mocks their presence there - what have they come to buy? Everything is for sale in this bazaar - her body, her flirtations, her love, honour, and if they don't have any self-respect, well, she sells that as well.
As her admirers file out after her evening's performance, Jeevan tells her of his scheme. Champa is an opportunist, and a clever negotiator. Finally, after her Ustad, Lallubhai (Manmohan Krishna) puts in a word, she finally agrees to a payment of Rs100 to pretend to be Mohan's fiancée for the evening. (When Jeevan tells her that she has to pay him Rs25 as 'commission', she retorts that if he can negotiate Rs125 from the 'client', she would gladly give him Rs25.) Champa goes in to transform into a traditional 'bahu'.
Ma recovers enough to faintly bless the 'couple' a long and happy married life. Champa has had enough; she just wants to leave. Jeevan signals her to wait - he has to get the money from Mohan. Which he does, though he claims his 'uncle' has demanded Rs200 for this farce - 'Such a selfish man!' While leaving, Champa, introduced to Ma as 'Rajini' nearly makes a misstep - she nearly responds to Mohan's greeting with an adab, but recovers in time.

They return to the kotha where Ustad asks them if everything went off well. Champa is irritated - where had he forced her to go? Both mother and son are fools! She parodies Ma's blessings, and laughs about Mohan's nervousness at standing next to her.
Jeevan callously dismisses both mother and son - how does it matter? She had been paid for her masquerade, that's all that's important. Champa asks Jeevan to cough up the money, which he does, reluctantly. Lallubhai appropriates the money. 

Meanwhile, the sight of her 'bahu' seems to have worked like a miracle tonic on Mohan's mother, who now demands that Mohan bring her bahu back - she hadn't even seen her face properly the previous night. If only Mohan had told her he loved someone, she would have got him married off to her - why didn't he? 

Poor Mohan.  

On his way to college, he stops by at Jeevan's and asks him to bring 'Rajini' home once again. But... but... stammers Jeevan; she can only come at night, and her father... When he hears that money is not an object, he promptly agrees. That evening, at the kotha, Champa is once again entertaining her clients
Champa is not very eager to go back, but between Jeevan and her ustad, they convince her that earning a hundred rupees for very little work is not a regular occurrence. Champa is quick to increase her rates - she'll take Rs200 for tonight's pretence. Eventually, they strike a bargain at Rs150.

Champa is not very well-versed at playing the god-fearing bahu and is irritated at having to pretend to be one. However, her ears perk up when she hears Ma enumerating all the money and jewellery that she has been painstakingly collecting for Mohan's bride. Champa plays her cards well, and soon Mohan is beginning to find himself attracted to this young, soft-spoken woman. 
While Champa is more than attracted to the jewellery. 

Thinking quickly, she agrees to Mohan's mother's suggestion of visiting during the day, and even refuses to take the money that Mohan offers her; Jeevan is taken aback - what will her father say? 'Rajini' tells him that she will convince her father. As they leave, Jeevan expresses his irritation - why did she refuse the money? But Champa is playing for big stakes here - what is Rs150 when the jewellery is worth Rs10,000? 
The next evening, when 'Rajini', accompanied by Jeevan, puts in an appearance at Mohan's home, he's busy reading the Ramayan to his mother. Mohan is surprised at seeing her there, but also pleased. So is his mother, who asks Rajini to read the Ramayan to her. Champa is taken aback, but does as she is asked. Then Ma asks Mohan to bring the jewellery and the bridal sari; she wants Rajini to try them on. When Rajini demurs, the wily Jeevan persuades Ma to let Rajini have the jewellery and the bridal outfit to take them home and try them on. Ma is easily persuaded and Champa and Jeevan take their leave. 

Back at the kotha, Champa and Jeevan have a falling out, when she refuses to give him a share of the jewellery. She has no further use for him since she has no intention of returning to Mohan's house - ever.  
The next evening, before her clients arrive, Champa decks herself in the sari and ornaments. Her raucous clients, initially praising her as a 'devi' (goddess), 'dulhan' (bride) and 'kulvanti' (of noble birth) soon make a mockery of those very words. Their laughter echoes in Champa's ears as she flees, humiliated, and breaks down in the privacy of her room. The ornaments she wore with such joy now seem to burn her.
Even as her customers begin a qawwali coaxing her out of her quarters, Champa quickly composes herself. When she returns to the mehfil, dressed as she usually is, however, her customers wonder why she changed out of the bridal outfit. They liked her 'new look' they tell her, they want to see her dance like a dulhan, like a devi, a kulvanti... This second humiliation is too much to take; to them, she's just an object they pay for. Not a human being with feelings or emotions. Furious, she snaps at them. If they so badly want to see a dulhan dance, or a kulvanti's performance, they should go home, and get their mothers, their sisters, wives to dance for them. She is a prostitute, a nautch girl. 

The next morning, Mohan goes to meet Jeevan - why hadn't Rajini come home the previous evening? She'd promised to come wearing the jewellery and sari. Jeevan excoriates Mohan for giving expensive jewellery to a girl he doesn't know very well. She may have promised to come to their house, but her father hadn't. After all, Mohan knew how greedy her father was! 
Mohan demurs; Rajini was not greedy. Jeevan promises to find out what happened, and sends Mohan off on his way. 

Meanwhile, a woebegone Champa, who has realised that she is worth nothing in the eyes of the men whom she entertained every night, has come to visit Mohan's mother - she returns the jewellery and sari. Ma, who is sure that her 'Rajini' is sad because she had a tiff with Mohan, consoles her. Her loving welcome and affectionate embrace make Champa feel even more dejected.
While Champa is beginning to feel the warmth of a mother's embrace, her ustad has discovered Champa's absence and blames Jeevan for it. While Jeevan is trying to extricate himself from that mess, they run into Mohan who also wants to know 'Rajini's' whereabouts. With his usual oiliness, Jeevan manages to slip away, and Mohan, who's beginning to find Rajini very attractive indeed, returns home in a daydream. He is thrilled to find Rajini in his house. Seeing her hesitation, Mohan gently, but surely, makes his attraction to her very clear. 
Champa is torn; on the one hand, she is falling in love with him as well. On the other, she's a tawaif and she knows that respectability is not for the likes of her. She tells him as much - he's mistaking dross for gold; no one who associates with her will ever be respectable; she's not a good woman... 

Sadly, she takes her leave of Mohan and his mother, both of whom do not know what to make of her grief. That night brings no relief to either Champa or Mohan. While the former tries to convince her wayward heart not to dream beyond her reach, Mohan yearns for Rajini's return to his home and heart.
The next evening, as her regular clientele make their way to the kotha, Champa refuses to perform. When Lallubhai asks her why she hasn't changed into her costume, Champa quietly replies, 'Main dil badalkar aayi hoon.' The customers are not too happy, and Lallubhai is even less so. When the angry customers leave, Lallubhai insists she dances - he's the person who took her off the streets; she'll dance or be damned. However, Champa doesn't back down before his threats. 
After excoriating him for living off her earnings, she throws him out saying that the Champa he wants to kill is already dead, and if he doesn't leave now, she will kill him. Lallubhai leaves, but not before promising revenge - he will make sure she dances again, not in the kotha, but in the bazaar. 

Meanwhile, Mohan has come to meet Jeevan; his mother wants to meet Rajini's father. Making full use of 'Rajini's father's' supposed greed, Jeevan extracts Rs50 from Mohan. When he goes to meet Champa, he discovers her doing puja, and tells her that no one can call her 'Champa' any more. But Champa is realistic - changing her name doesn't change what she is. When Jeevan tells her that Mohan would like to marry her, Champa recoils - he wants to marry 'Rajini'; she is Champa, a prostitute. She will never step into that world again. That story is over. She asks Jeevan not to ever let Mohan know who she really is. Jeevan (being Jeevan) agrees - at a price. 

Alas! The best laid plans of mice and men! Champa is on her way to the temple when Mohan sees her. 
Champa runs away, but Mohan follows her calling her by the only name he knows - Rajini. His error is quickly rectified by the neighbourhood men - who's Rajini? She's Champarani, a prostitute, the famous tawaif
Mohan quickly makes his way to Jeevan to confirm this news - faced with an angry Mohan, Jeevan breaks his promise to Champa. After all, he tells Mohan, which respectable girl would have agreed to become a temporary bahu? He brought Champa home only because Mohan's mother was ill. Mohan is aghast. What's he to do now? What will his mother say when she learns that Champa is a prostitute? 
He begs Jeevan not to let his mother know the truth - the poor woman will kill herself. Jeevan acquiesces - for a price. However, when he reaches home, Mohan faces another challenge - his mother wants to know whether he met Rajini's father. Mohan informs the bewildered woman that he is not going to marry Rajini, and that he doesn't want to hear of her ever again.
While the poor woman is still trying to make some sense out of what her son is saying as compared to what she knows of Rajini, Champa is decrying the hypocrisy of the society in which she lives, with its double standards for men and women. 
What's to become of Champa? Will Mohan's love for Champa transcend his hatred of prostitutes? If it does, will Ma accept her beloved bahu's past? And even if they do, do they have the strength to withstand societal disapproval that dictates a prostitute can never be a wife, a daughter-in-law? What about Lallubhai? He has vowed to get even - how will he react?   
Sadhna proved to be one of Chopra's hat trick of successes at the box-office. Following the success of Ek Hi Rasta (1956) that dealt with the question of widow-remarriage, and Naya Daur (1957) that dealt with the ills of rabid industrialisation, came this tale of a woman's resilience and fight for respectability, regardless of her profession. 

Based on an award-winning story by Pandit Mukhram Sharma, Sadhna was unusual in that it not only dealt with a prostitute (not the golden-hearted paak courtesan that was so beloved of Hindi filmdom, but an opportunistic woman who's bent on taking advantage of her good fortune), but it gave her a happy ending as well. What makes this even more noteworthy is that this happiness does not arise merely out of fighting societal prejudices, it comes from fighting Champa's own feelings of unworthiness. She has internalised the stigma of being a prostitute and cannot believe in the goodness of Mohan or his mother. It is difficult for her to accept that she too can do puja, for instance, or be 'good'.  
That hesitancy, that internal struggle to fit into a role she doesn't have any experience with, was ably chartered by Vyjayanthimala, and it says much for Chopra's vision that he gave shape to this story more than half a century ago, dealing with the subject with empathetic sensitivity. N Dutta's music and Sahir's lyrics play a great role in the shaping of this journey - the serene Tora manwa kyun ghabraaye re plays when Champa (as Rajini) is hesitating to touch the idol of Krishna in the puja room. (It is also a great instance of a song leading the narration along - the lyrics query why anyone should hesitate at the doors leading to God.) 

Indeed, one cannot talk about Sadhna without mentioning its music. Datta Naik (or N Dutta, as he was more popularly known) may not have been among the top rung of music directors, but he composed some excellent melodies for this film. And who can forget Sahir? From the sarcastic Kahoji tum kya kya kharidoge to the vitriol-laced indictment of Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko, Sahir's pen complemented Champa's conflicting emotions. (Can you listen to Yeh woh beizzat cheez hai jo, bant jaati hai izzatdaaron mein and not cringe? Or Ye woh badkismet maa hai jo beton ke sej pe leti hai... that line always makes my hair rise.) As an indictment of social hypocrisy, Sahir checks all the boxes. 
Like he did in many a film, Sunil Dutt (very young - just 28- and very, very good-looking)was content to play a supporting role, both literally and figuratively. In Sadhna, he plays a morally uptight man who has very rigid views on 'fallen women'. The film, therefore, is as much his journey towards empathy as it is Champa/Rajini's journey to a better future. It says much for Dutt's personal convictions that he continually played the secondary role in progressive films, allowing his heroines the space to carve out characters that are both strong and remarkable in their characterisation.  

His Mohan is a good man, a kind one, and after he initially rejects his 'Rajini' when he realises she's the notorious Champabai, he discovers that love can indeed conquer all - including his moral repugnance. His notions of right and wrong are conflicted after Champa gives him a rare dressing down. Her questions spark off his own doubts and eventually, he discovers that rarest of qualities - empathy, along with sympathy, that adds a sheen to his deep love for the woman he has come to know as Rajini. In a pivotal scene, he pleads for his mother's understanding: Woh toh ek toota hua saaz hai, usse raag nahin cheekh nikalti hai. 
Sadhna was Vyjayanthimala's show all the way. From being the opportunistic Champa who has no qualms exploiting the men who exploit her, to being 'Rajini', a respectable woman who has been given a glimpse into a life she's hitherto been unaware of, Vyjayanthimala traverses her journey with unnerving ease. As the courtesan whose job is to make men lust after her, her gaze is flirtatious as she shows off her dancing skills in the two lovely mujras. That same gaze flashes fire as she questions the double standards of a society that arrives in droves at her door, but look down upon her because she is a prostitute. The condemnation is not only in her voice or in the words she utters or the lyrics she sings; it is in her flashing eyes and the curve of her lips, it is in her heaving bosom and the arch of her eyebrows.  

The humiliation she faces when her clients laugh at her dressed as a bride, the sadness with which she returns the bridal dress, the shock of being lovingly embraced by a mother figure, her hesitancy at being asked to read the Ramayan or perform puja... barely 22 years old and having worked in about 25 films, Vyjayanthimala bit her teeth into the twin characters of Champa and Rajini and relished every bit of it. It was a seasoned performance and earned her a Filmfare award, a salve to an actress who had refused to accept the award for 'supporting actress' for Devdas the previous year. 

Both she and Sunil Dutt were ably supported by Leela Chitnis, Radhakrishan as the comic-villain and Manmohan Krishna (here playing a pimp instead of his usual goody-two-shoes roles). In fact, it is Manmohan Krishna's Lallubhai who voices Sadhna's essential truth, and points out the hypocrisy that underlines social mores.

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