Ray’s script is based on Munshi Premchand’s short story "Sadgati" that was first published in 1931, and it follows Premchand’s story quite closely . The original languages of Ray’s films were almost invariably his native Bengali, but since Premchand’s story was originally in Hindi (Hindustani, actually) and the film was to be released on national television in Hindi, Ray needed to produce a Hindi script. It is my understanding that in this case Ray wrote his dialogue for the film in English, which was then translated into Hindi by Premchand’s son, Amrit Rai.
The overlying theme of the film concerns the Indian caste system and its singular way of channeling human interactions. The Indian caste system has always been a matter of controversy – it has a long and disputed history, and, of course, it has manifested itself variously across India and evolved over the years. Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that the elements of the caste system date back to Vedic times, and that, though the system has been adopted and exploited by various invaders, the caste system has been basically unique to India and has been amazingly persistent over the course of time [2,3,4].
Caste is regarded as forming an innate part of character. The divine moral order (dharma) by which the social structure is knit together and sustained is the same as that which gives continuity to the lives of the individual; and just as the present is to be understood as a natural consequence of the past, so in accordance with the manner in which the present role is played will the caste of the future be determined. Not only one’s caste and trade, furthermore, but also all the things that happen to one (even though apparently through the slightest chance), are determined by, and exactly appropriate to, one’s nature and profoundest requirement. The vital, malleable episode at hand points back to former lives; it is their result – the natural effect of bygone causal factors operating on the plane of ethical values, human virtues, and personal qualities, in accordance with universal natural laws of elective attraction and spontaneous repulsion. What a person is and what he experiences are regarded as strictly commensurate, like the inside and the outside of a vase.
The correct manner of dealing with every life problem that arises, therefore is indicated by the laws (dharma) of the caste (varna) to which one belongs, and of the particular stage-of-life (āśrama) that is proper to one’s age.
The story begins in the morning with a diligent tanner, Dukhi (played by Om Puri), preparing a gift of cut grass to give to the Brahmin that he is to see. His wife Jhuria (Smita Patil) urges him to delay his meeting with the Brahmin, since he has not fully recovered from a recent fever. Meanwhile we see the well-fed Brahmin (Mohan Agashe) at home attending to his ceremonial makeup and rituals.
Dukhi arrives at the Brahmin’s home and humbly prostrates himself on the floor when he sees the Brahman. Since Dukhi is a tanner, he belongs to one of the artisan groupings that is considered fundamentally impure and untouchable before the revered holy man . The Brahmin’s response to Dukhi’s simple request to provide a propitious wedding date for his daughter is supercilious and scornful, and he tell Dukhi that he first must perform some menial tasks for the Brahmin. First he is to sweep his verandah and then move a lot of husk to the cowshed. Ray and cinematographer Soumendu Roy have a nice tracking shot here showing Dukhi dutifully struggling with the heavy bag of husk that he must carry to the cowshed.
A sympathetic onlooker, who is apparently a member of outcaste Gond minority, offers Dukhi some tobacco for a smoke, but he doesn’t have any way to light it. When Dukhi approaches the Brahmin for a little charcoal to light his tobacco pipe, the Brahmin’s petulant wife (Gita Siddhdarth) is offended that an untouchable should again cross their doorsill. Dukhi goes back to his hopeless task of chopping the log, and eventually slumps from exhaustion.
When the Brahmin wakes up from an afternoon nap and sees Dukhi’s inactivity, he imperiously orders the man to chop harder and harder. Dukhi puts everything he has into the effort and works himself into a frenzy of chopping, but it is finally too much for him. He collapses to the ground and dies on the spot.
Now all the Brahmins in the village have a problem. There is a corpse of an untouchable lying on their path to their water well. Their dharmic rules forbid them from walking there, and of course, those rules also prevent them from touching the untouchable corpse, too. The people from the tanning colony refuse to move the corpse, thanks to the admonitions of the Gond person, who knows that the Brahmin in our story is guilty of the tanner’s death. It is starting to rain, and the Brahmin knows that the corpse will begin to smell and the police may arrive and investigate the cause of this death.
So in the evening, with noone around to watch, the Brahmin uses a curved stick to help fasten a sling around the leg of the corpse without he, himself, touching it. Then he drags the corpse to an animal burial mound and deposits it there. In the morning, the Brahmin is seen proudly and ritually hand-sprinkling holy water (water from the Ganges) on the ground where the corpse had been lying so that that ground will be cleansed of the impurity caused by the untouchable’s body.
The Brahmin and his wife are not evil people, but they are comfortably situated inside a system that perpetuates injustice – and they take advantage of it for their own selfish gains. And those who remain, such as Jhuria and her daughter, can do nothing but suffer.
Dukhi was a dedicated believer in the social system in which he lived, even though he was an outcaste. So we see that traditional Indian society had similarities with modern socio-political hierarchies in today’s world (as reflected by recent political events) – the people who are most loyally supportive of their demagogic, populist leaders are the very ones who suffer the most at the hands of the exploitative, rent-seeking coalition that has control over them.
This filming of Sadgati has just the right tone for the telling of this tale. Besides the cinematography of Soumendu Roy, there is the impeccable work of Ray’s usual film editor, Dulal Dutta. And, as usual, there is Ray’s moody, low-key music that maintains the right tone.
- English translation: T. C. Ghai, “Prem Chand's story: Sadgati”, Interactions (Blogger), (12 March 2013).
- “Caste System in India”, Wikipedia, (18 November 2016).
- H. G. Rawlinson, India: a Short Cultural History, Praeger, (1937/1952), pp. 4,25,26.
- Heinrich Zimmer, The Philosophies of India, Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press, (1951).
- Ibid., p. 152.
- "Chamar", Wikipedia, (1 December 2016).