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In this bimonthly series, Jai Arjun Singh recommends Hindi films from the fifties and sixties. In this instalment, he tells you why you should watch Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1959) starring Nutan, Sunil Dutt, Shashikala, Lalita Pawar, Tarun Bose, Sulochana. You can watch the film on YouTube. 

Because it’s a solid social-message film that also has a sense of cinema

Bimal Roy’s Sujata – one of the trailblazing filmmaker’s finest achievements – is about an orphaned baby girl, born into a low-caste family, who is reluctantly adopted by a middle-class couple and raised along with their own daughter. However, they are torn between their instinctive parental love for Sujata and society’s directives to keep her at arm’s length, and this tension informs much of the narrative, since it means that the protagonist is forced into an in-between life – always a “beti jaisi” rather than a true “beti”.

As that synopsis suggests, this is a socially conscientious story with a clearly spelled out message: caste discrimination is bad, commonsense humanity is more important than blindly following tradition. Serious film students are often wary of message-centric films, which can be static and dialogue-driven, sacrificing good cinema at the altar of preachiness. But you can’t level such charges at Bimal Roy’s best work. 

Even while telling stories about the various forms of oppression in our society, and being deeply influenced by the minimalism of the European neo-realists (such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica), Roy was a stylist: he had an eye for the aesthetically pleasing image, for the inventive visual juxtaposition, and most of all for framing that would achieve maximum emotional effect. 

“If he wanted a shot of a flower fluttering in the breeze just so, he could wait for hours to get it,” his daughter Aparajita Roy Sinha told me once, and this quality is evident here, especially in the many outdoor scenes.

“If he wanted a shot of a flower fluttering in the breeze just so, he could wait for hours to get it,” his daughter Aparajita Roy Sinha told me once, and this quality is evident here, especially in the many outdoor scenes. Sujata (played as a grown-up by the magnificent Nutan) is presented as a child of nature – not wild like Heathcliff, but most at ease when she is by herself – and much attention is paid to the natural world in both sound design (birds chirping nearby as two characters talk) and little visual details (a brief shot of dew dripping from a leaf).

This is a carefully constructed film, not just in terms of the obviously showy sequences (such as the striking montage of close-ups – flowing water, a flickering street lamp, a hand clutching a shoulder – in a dialogue-less scene where Sujata laments her fate near a Gandhi statue on a rainy night) but also for the subtler moments that might elude a first-time viewer. Take the marvelously designed song sequence, “Bachpan ke Din”, which introduces the grown-up Sujata and her sister Rama (Shashikala): while Rama sings in a room, Sujata hums along from the terrace, literally without a roof above her head; though they share the song, and care deeply for each other, the sisters never share the frame – the composition keeps them firmly apart.

For demonstrating that it’s possible to sing to a loved one over a rotary phone

Another song by the SD Burman-Majrooh Sultanpuri combination, the lovely “Jalte hain jisske liye”, has Adheer (Sunil Dutt) singing to Sujata on the phone. On paper, this isn’t a premise with exciting visual possibilities (it mainly involves showing close-ups of two people holding instruments), but it becomes a stirring, emotionally complex scene because of the quality of the song, the sincere performances and the conflicting feelings being depicted: Adheer is lovelorn, but Sujata has just found out she may be about to lose him forever, and is weeping silently even as she derives some strength and hope from the lyrics.

For the novelistic pacing, and the screenplay’s delicate handling of the tradition-vs-modernity theme

The films I grew up with in the 70s and 80s always wanted to tell the main characters’ back-stories very quickly, to dispense with the child actors within the first 10 or 15 minutes, so that the hero could make his appearance. One thing that pleasantly surprised me about Sujata was how much time it spent on the important establishing story about how the engineer Upen (Tarun Bose) and his wife Charu (Sulochana) slowly come to accept the little girl. The grown-up Sujata and Rama only make their appearance forty minutes in, but one doesn’t mind the wait: these early passages are like a mini-film that helps flesh out the older characters, making them more relatable than they would have been if they existed only to provide obstacles to the protagonist’s happiness.

The pacing is immaculate. The scenes depicting the family’s constant train journeys (as Upen gets posted from one town to another) provide the impression that they are traveling restlessly in search of that one idyllic space where caste no longer exists (much like the fantasy land little Sujata dreams of in an animated sequence) – and not finding it, even though India is becoming modern in so many ways. By taking its time to depict the life of this family, the film shows how social strictures can run roughshod over good intentions. 

Nabendu Ghosh’s screenplay, from Subodh Ghosh’s novel, brings a nuanced perspective to the conflict between tradition and progress, duty and liberalism. Adheer, who falls in love with Sujata, is an admirable young man, but like many other high-minded bhadraloks in films of the time, he seems a little out of touch with life’s realities. Meanwhile his grandmother (a superb performance by Lalita Pawar) starts out seeming like a standard-issue antagonist (one of the film’s most eye-popping scenes has her tossing the infant Sujata away in disgust!) but shows a sentimental, introspective side as she acknowledges that she is a relic of a bygone time, that attitudes like hers might be outdated.

The irony, of course, is that 60 years later those attitudes are very much around – whether at the macro level of caste killings or at the everyday level of how we treat our domestic staff at home – which makes Sujata as relevant thematically as it ever was, while also being solid, economical filmmaking.

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