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Satyakam at 55

Cast: Dharmendra, Sharmila Tagore, Sanjeev Kumar, Asrani, Robi Ghosh, Tarun Bose, Ashok Kumar. For me, Satyakam is quite simply Hrishikesh...

Cast: Dharmendra, Sharmila Tagore, Sanjeev Kumar, Asrani, Robi Ghosh, Tarun Bose, Ashok Kumar.

For me, Satyakam is quite simply Hrishikesh Mukherjee's best film. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen this film which was initially released on April 4, 1969. However, what amazes me is how little most of us take from this film, in terms of its cinematic content and character development. To a vast majority of its viewers (me included till recently) Satyakam is about the honest upright refusing-to-bend/compromise lead character in the film i.e. Satyapriya (Dharmendra in the performance of a lifetime).

After having seen the film so many times over, I realize that Satyakam actually works not because Dharmendra is shown as a super-strong, morally upright human being who refuses to budge despite difficulties. Satyakam is an honest portrayal of the weaknesses and failures of a man who refuses to budge. And when I say honest, I mean it is so well depicted and well made that we actually feel for the protagonist despite his many short-comings (yes he has many....which in fact make him human and thus identifiable and lovable)

There is a line spoken in the film by Naren (Sanjeev Kumar in an equally superb performance, unfairly overlooked because of Dharam's tour-de-force performance) tells Satyapriya, "Too much of everything is bad". This probably sums up the entire movie. Satyapriya in his effort to remain honest and corruption-free doesn't realize when he has become rigid inflexible and dogmatic. He refuses to see any other way out even when it means suffering and disaster for his own family.

Satyapriya's honesty (and indeed weakness) comes to the fore when he initially refuses to marry Ranjana (Sharmila, delightful dignified, and dramatic all at once). His hesitation in accepting a proposal from Ranjana actually indirectly is the cause for her to be dishonoured and it is only after this incident that he agrees to marry her. A bold step, a great decision no doubt, but also perhaps a sign of trying to lessen his own guilt of being partly responsible for Ranjana's plight. 

During the film, we also discover that there is a complete absence of any physical intimacy between Satyapriya and Ranjana, much against her wishes. From the beginning we know, that Ranjana loves Satyapriya. She is willing to be his wife in the true sense of the word, but Satyapriya cannot forget her past which acts as a physical barrier between the couple. Satyapriya comes up with a lame, "Main tumhe baaki har khushi deta hoon na" hide his inability to forget her past.

Satyapriya's righteousness is evident when he suspends one of his subordinates for accepting a bribe. This is what he does best. Any signal of corruption and moral weakness is squashed by Satyapriya without batting an eyelid. He stands for truth and morality as effortlessly as he breathes. It is like oxygen for him. However, his weakness comes to the forefront once again when he is confronted by the wife of the suspended officer, who shows him the "reason" why he accepted the bribe (their child lying untreated, without any medical help). Instead of helping the couple, Satyapriya tears up the suspension order and resigns from his post, citing his inability to do anything to change the system and help them, beng the reason for his resignation. Satyapriya's intentions are never any doubt, but his weaknesses all too often, come hand in hand with his strength. 

Satyapriya's refusal to go and have a cup of tea with Naren, because it is his duty hour, is another classic example of the stubbornness of his character. Surely, with his house being located just above the office, a cup of tea with his old friend (and current Boss nonetheless) wouldn't have harmed anyone. 

Surreptitiously Hrishikesh Mukherjee bares all his weaknesses to us, but such is the power of his truth and the strength of his moral values, that we tend to gloss over them or perhaps not realize them as weaknesses at all.

In the end, when Satyapriya is diagnosed with a terminal illness, he passes on his virtues and values to Ranjana. He knows he cannot help them financially, yet refuses to part with his ideals and his beliefs. He hopes somewhere in his heart that Naren will do the needful after him, but while hoping for that, isn't he also aware that morally and ethically Naren is different from him and more 'worldly'? Surely Satyapriya knows this, but...

In the climax, Satyapriya signs a piece of document (which is very important to the plot progression) that Ranjana never expected him to sign. It stands for everything he was always against. But the moment she sees his weak smile when she tears up the document, she realizes that Satyaprya knew all along that she would do such. It's perhaps the single most tragic scene in the film, where it is impossible to decide who is on higher moral ground here, Satyapriya or Ranjana. 

My last viewing of Satyakam made me look at the character of the protagonist in a totally new light. It is the story of a very human man. A man who is strong and frail almost at the same time. A man who stands for morality and is yet almost simultaneously unfair and unjust to people he loves. A man whose strength becomes his weakness resulting in spectacular failure. 

Perhaps it is this constant struggle between right and wrong, moral and immoral, just and unjust, and a simple man's resolve to live life on his own principles and terms, is what makes the character of Satyapriya so endearing to us and the film such an appealing one.

By Pratik Majumdar 


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