I’ve wanted to watch ‘Satyakam’ for ages… about 2 years now actually, ever since I first read a review that described Dharmendra’s performance in it as his career best. It wasn’t easy, but I finally got my hands on it. My next post was supposed to be about something light-hearted and frivolous…‘Satyakam’ is anything but. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not exactly a depressing, dark film – but it definitely made me pause and reflect, which I think was what Hrishikesh Mukherjee and his team intended.
Speaking of the late Hrishikesh Mukherjee, I am a huge fan of his work – he’s my favourite Hindi film director and I’ve loved all the films he directed (that I’ve seen so far). But ‘Satyakam’ was totally different from the others I’ve seen, which is interesting as it’s also the earliest one (1969) that I’ve seen. It’s not fun and light-hearted (like ‘Chupke Chupke’ or ‘Gol Maal’), and it doesn’t quite have the sweetness of a ‘Guddi’ or ‘Bawarchi’ or the heart-tugging (but nicely done) melodrama of a ‘Mili’ or ‘Abhimaan’. ‘Satyakam’ is measured and restrained. It unwinds slowly (perhaps a little too slowly at the beginning, actually) and its tone is reflective. I love the fact that it raises more questions that it answers, leaving its audience to ponder on the issues for itself.
Where is the balance (if there is one) between being ‘yourself’ and adapting to the harsh realities of your environment? How much of your true self is dictated by your genes and the circumstances of your birth, and how much is dictated by life experience and the pressures of everyday living? Are values important enough to live or die for? Does dogmatism always either devour itself or collapse into hypocrisy? Can one man really take on the system? Must there be a sacrifice of values for the sake of ‘greater good’ (however defined)? Where is the balance between personal honour and emotional truth? Is there even such a thing as truth, or is it really all about shades of grey and personal judgment?
Speaking of judgment, is it really possible to ‘temper justice with mercy’? What dictates the true value of a life? Where is the line between the protection and preservation of self and family interests on the one hand and the service of higher interests on the other? These are just some of the questions that ‘Satyakam’ raises. It doesn’t answer them all, but in raising them, it tells a compelling story of one man’s devotion to truth, the people he meets along his path, and how ‘successful’ he is at being the man he aspires to be. There is also an interesting subtext that I feel was a bit under-developed (or maybe I was just rather inadequate at unpacking it) – the relationship between Satyakam’s story and the story of a young and newly independent India, finding its feet, making its choices, navigating the constant socio-moral seesaw between concession and right, and arriving at its own destiny.
Satyapriya (played by Dharmendra) comes from a long line of honest, upright, truth-tellers. He has been raised in the long-held family traditions of honour, truth and respectability by his beloved and noble grandfather (played by the brilliant Ashok Kumar). While at college, he meets and becomes firm friends with Naren (played by Sanjeev Kumar in one of his first film roles).
After college, the friends separate and Satyapriya (‘Sat’) takes his first job as a project engineer. He quickly comes face-to-face with corrupt, self-serving, dishonest men. From Day 1, he firmly and boldly takes a stand against every practice that goes against his values, and of course, there are consequences. While dealing with this, he also meets the beautiful but sad Ranjana, a young woman cast out of honourable society due to the circumstances of her birth and destined (it seems) to become the plaything of wealthy men. Even her own guardian has no quibble with subjecting her to this future – as far as he’s concerned, she can hope for nothing better with her history, and life in ‘service’ to a rich, lecherous will at least fetch a handsome income.
When Satya becomes familiar with her circumstances, he wants to help but is torn between the demands of heritage and reputation, and the need to protect a helpless woman who cares for him (and who he comes to care for). In many ways, this proves to be a watershed moment in his life. What does Sat choose to do? How does his decision affect his relationships and his future? How does he come to terms with the fact that he will always walk alone? How does his fierce, black-or-white brand of personal integrity hold up against the challenges of his future? Does he find peace and personal fulfillment in the life he has chosen? Well, you'll have to watch this film and find out for yourself.
Although I said earlier that ‘Satyakam’ isn’t like any of the other Mukherjee films I’ve seen, it does have some of his hallmarks. As always, he is masterful at setting up moments and scenes that are so poignant and real that they stay with you long after the film is over. The film has the grace of his other films (but is less formulaic and more multi-dimensional than the others I’ve seen). I always love how Hrishikesh Mukherjee could capture something special and intimate in the most seemingly mundane, simple things. Another thing I love about ‘Satyakam’ is the fact that, with its subject matter, it could very easily have degenerated into an over-simplified preach-fest, with Satya hitting us over the head with melodramatic railings on the value of honour; but instead it’s restrained, dignified, and rich with subtext. I love that.
The cast of ‘Satyakam’ features some of Mukherjee’s ‘favourites’: David, Asrani, Ashok Kumar. Then of course, there’s the core cast: Dharam, Sharmila and Sanjeev. The choice of Dharmendra for this role, to my mind, must have gone across the grain – the role of Satya is no simplistic, hackneyed ‘handsome hero’ part – it requires real acting to capture the complex situation and emotions of this character – but Dharam does a bang-up job of it. He really is ‘Sat’ – he reflects the inner resolve and grapplings of his character beautifully and with great restraint, while also balancing this out with Sat’s charm, humanity, simplicity and honesty. It’s a lovely performance.
Memorable... that’s the word I would use to describe ‘Satyakam’. When I had finished watching it, I felt like I had been put through the wringer. I felt like I had felt what each of the main characters had felt… I was saddened, but also uplifted. And most of all, watching this film was more than just a pleasant way to spend two evenings. That doesn’t happen very often.
And finally, you may be wondering, do I agree with the pundits who consider this to be my dear Dharam’s best performance? Well, it’s certainly the best I’ve seen so far. It doesn’t have any of the stylish, ultra-cool, Dharam-trademarks that I’ve liked so much in other films of his I’ve seen, but what it does have is deeper and more powerful, and makes me respect him more than I ever have (you gotta excuse a fangirl her schmaltz!)