Not many directors can change your perception of life in a mere 45-minute movie, but then Satyajit Ray is not just any director and Sadgati is not just a mere 45-minute movie.
Lost chapters in Hindi cinema are films like Sadgati which, unfortunately, not many people know about. And even if they do, not many are willing to watch it. Why, you ask? Well, the answer is a little complex.
Contrary to what people might think, it is actually very easy to make larger-than-life cinema. A big movie budget, a star-studded cast and a story of grand proportions can easily do wonders at the box office. But a film that captures the essence of humanity and all that it symbolizes is not easy. Films like Sadgati remind us of the harsh, very harsh cruelties of the caste system which is a reality that exists even today, a reality that we are not ready to face, much less counter. Which is why Satyajit Ray deserves every bit of honor that can be bestowed upon him because each and every one of his movies captures that very essence of reality. This also probably why he is the only Indian filmmaker to be given the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1992.
Condemning the vicious indictment of the caste system, Ray paints a picture of Dukhi (Puri), an untouchable who wants to invite the village priest to his home to decide a date for his daughter’s marriage. The priest who seems to be too busy eating and sleeping tells him that he would perform this task in exchange for labour and he gives him various tasks around the house which include sweeping of the verandah, shifting sacks of grain to the shed, and the chopping of wood. Meanwhile, his illiterate wife, Jhuria (Patil), struggles to learn a grocery list. Already ailing, Dukhi performs all given tasks without a word but as he starts to chop, his frustration begins to show. With every blow, his anger and force increase but soon he succumbs to his fatigue and falls to the ground, dead. The Brahmin, to dispose off his body, ties a rope around one leg and then drags the corpse to drop it off to a place where dead animals are dumped, just like he would have done with a mule or a bull, without a thought and worse, without a conscience.
Released in 1981 and produced by Doordarshan, Sadgati was primarily made for TV viewers. The film features Om Puri, Smita Patil and Mohan Agashe in leading roles who give extremely fine performances. The agonizing shriek Patil gives when she is given the news of the death of her husband pierces through the stillness of the scene and your heart. The brief scene where she weeps bitterly at her ill-gotten fate is almost excruciatingly painful. Dukhi is the embodiment of the caste segregation which labels people as untouchables who can be mistreated and be made to live as second rate citizens. Puri’s frustration is palpable and makes you curse the cruel world we have created. Though Ray makes you notice the bigger picture here, it is the smaller things that really define the film. The big mutli-headed idol in the Brahmin’s verandah, the grocery list, Agashe’s dilemma of disposing the body are all the things which subtly display the finesse of Ray’s work. Like all of his screenplays, the dialogues are short and precise.
As of today, there exists a faded copy in the National Film Archives, and has no subtitles. You can find an unclear version on YouTube but it can’t be downloaded. Yet I would recommend you watch it. Sadgati, or the ‘The Deliverance’, is a film that, in all its aspects, doesn’t fail to deliver.