Thursday, September 11, 2008

'SATYAKAM' - Dharmendra's Best Performance?

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.

The rest of the cast is excellent as well – Ashok Kumar is fantastic as usual in his small (but pivotal) role, especially in the film’s final scenes, a young Sanjeev Kumar is simply brilliant as the sweet Naren – he perfectly embodies the ‘everyman’ that his character is – I loved how wonderfully he brought to life the love, and most importantly, the respect, that has for Sat.

Sharmila Tagore is also excellent as Ranjana – although I felt that her character wasn’t given sufficient dimension until much later in the film, she uses her acting chops effectively to keep the character from becoming a boring caricature, and when she does gets some ‘meat’ later in the film, she goes for it and really makes her character memorable.

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!)

Up next… a Director’s Round-up (been ages since I did one) on the undisputed king of ‘traditional family values’: Sooraj Barjatya.


Anonymous said...

Good to see you back!

I watched this movie years ago and remember being a bit turned off by Dharam's character. He was almost inhuman in his fanatic zeal to be truthful, honest and upright. But everybody looked lovely and that itself makes this one worth several watches!!!

Have you seen Anupama? Thats another Hrishikesh Mukherji film with a much softer approach to idealism. Its my personal Dharamendra favorite and I think he does as good a job there as in Satyakam.

Daddy's Girl said...

Hi bollyviewer, thanks so much for your comment (and for the warm welcome!) I know exactly what you mean about the fanaticism of Dharam's character in 'Satyakam' and how it sometimes renders him less than likeable. It's one of the things I like so much about this film, the fact that the character is almost inhumanely rigid in his desire to overcome his own humanity, and the fact that the viewers have to make your own mind up about him (and I don't think that audiences at the time warmed to him much, which I think is why this film wasn't able to reproduce the success of 'Anupama'). It's also interesting to look at the reasons why Satyapriya is the way he is and how those possible reasons fit into his very black-and-white worldview. I haven't seen 'Anupama' yet, but I recently ordered it and can't wait for it to arrive!

Nicki said...

Hey! Like bollyviewer said. Welcome back!

I adore your Dharmendra love. My mom is in love with him too. He's her fave all time too.

Honestly, I have to admit that I was a bit shock that you seen just a handful of Dharmendra films but it's okay. He is very loveable!

I added you to my Blog List so I'll know when you update. Take care!

Ciummaa said...

Hello! I'm reading Your blog for a few monts but I comment for the first time:) I've also watched Satyakam lately and my impressions are quite similiar... Frankly, this movie 'was in my head' quite long after watching and made me feeling very unconfortable...It's really great movie but I don't think I return to him...too 'heavy'.
But I for sure watch again 'Anupama' which is one of my favourites movies from 60-ies (not only from Dharam films) so I wait eagerly for your opinion about this movie.

Daddy's Girl said...

@nicki: Thanks so much! I really enjoy reading your blog.

@mariola: Thanks so much for the comment... I really relate to what you said about 'Satyakam' being a heavy watch... it sure is. I will definitely post my review of 'Anupama' when I get to see it.

Anonymous said...

Hi DG. Thanks very much for your hugely enjoyable posts, I visit fairly regularly! Just re-watched Satyakam recently, and your review, as usual was incisive. The screenshots, by the way, are fabulous! Incidentally, Hrishikesh Mukherjee always acknowledged Satyakam to be his best film. I’ll dig out some stuff I’ve come across on this if you’re interested.

You may, of course, already be aware of the fact that Dharmendra has been receiving a fair bit of attention of late? That the industry has ignored him in terms of according recognition (i.e., awards for specific performances) is a sore point to many and he was quite emotional about it, I believe, when he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from IIFA last year. If you haven’t seen it, here’s an article from the Outlook magazine on Dharam of May 2008 that’d gladden the hearts of his fans!

Miss Opeke said...

I don't know how you do it but one thing I can write is that you have been consistent with what you write about Bollywood...
Sometimes it is not doing what others want you to do but what you feel comfortable doing.

Great job on your write-ups...Just keep being yourself wonderful self...
How have you been???

Daddy's Girl said...

@suhan: Thank you so much! I really enjoyed reading the article, and I have to agree with the writer that Dharam hasn't gotten his due, and that's at least partly down to his looks. 'Satyakam' was so beautifully shot that getting nice screencaps wasn't hard at all. I did hear something about H. Mukherjee thinking 'Satyakam' was his best film - I think he must have felt personally invested in it, it just seems very... personal. I would love to know more. Thanks again for your comments.

@miss opeke: It's been FOREVER!!! I've been fine thanks. How have you been girl? I've missed you. Hope you've been well. You're right, I do love writing about Bollywood (and especially Dharmendra). This year I have been terrible at keeping this blog updated, and have only done a couple of posts, but it does make me happy. Take care.

Anonymous said...

DG: Here's a link on Hrishikesh M. Satyakam is discussed in some detail.

Daddy's Girl said...

Suhan, thanks so much for the link! It's a great piece - gives a really good, in-depth overview of Hrishikesh's wonderful films... thanks!

Anonymous said...

DG--Here's another on Hrishikesh M. Tell me when to stop!