LOOKING BACK ON: FIFTY YEARS OF SAUDAGAR
‘Saudagar was not a commercial success probably because it was neither marketed nor publicized properly. But critics gave the film very positive reviews and it was also shortlisted for the Academy Awards though it was later dropped’, writes Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji.
The year 1973 was a watershed year for the then-not-very-successful Amitabh Bachchan. This, though he had pretty established his talent three years back in Anand. But 1973 happened to release four outstanding films featuring him as the protagonist. These are – Zanjeer, directed by Prakash Mehra, Saudagar, directed by Sudhin Roy, followed with Namak Haram and Abhimaan both directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
Among these films, Saudagar is the only film adapted from a short story by noted Bengali littérateur Narendranath Mitra called Ras. But the narrative justifies the Hindi title more than the Bengali title which means “juice” derived from the juice the hero extracts from the palm trees he owns. The protagonist of the film, Moti Miyan, performed by a very thin, lanky and slightly awkward Amitabh Bachchan, turned his life into a “business” not only in terms of his enterprise in making a success of his business in selling palm jaggery cakes in the local market but also using his “business” sense while dealing with close relationships like the women he marries. So, he is a ‘saudagar’ in the truest sense of the term.
Saudagar marks many firsts and lasts in the fifty-year-long career of this legendary actor. First, he played hero opposite Nutan, much senior, talented and awarded actress who played his first wife in the film. She played his mother many years later in another film. It appeared to be a massive mismatch but it wasn’t a mismatch because the story demanded this very mismatch. Second, Padma Khanna, an actor who had established herself as an item number, played her only major role and that too, opposite Amitabh Bachchan. Third, for the first and only time in his long career, he lip-synced to songs in the film written and composed by Ravindra Jain and they did not partner each other for any film ever again. And last but not the least, Saudagar fleshed out the character of Moti Miyan in completely negative colours with sunshine missing entirely from the manipulative, diabolic and almost evil young man except in a few fractional moments in the second half of the film when he realizes how loving and helpful his first wife, Mehjobin (Nutan) compared to his second wife Phoolbanu (Padma Khanna) was who fulfilled his lust but could not help him with any expertise in converting liquid jaggery to wonderful cakes the way Mehjobin did.
Phoolbanu is not a bad woman either. She is very sensual who openly makes overtures to Moti Miyan though she knows he is already married. She is young, voluptuous and considered to be a raving beauty but Moti Miya is disappointed in her after the initial honeymoon when he discovers that his business is collapsing because his attractive wife lacks the skill in making jaggery cakes and openly admits to this failure.
He marries the widow Mehjobin because it will save him from paying for her labour of making jaggery cakes as she is the most skilled in the village. Poor Mehjobin has no inkling that his action of marrying her is sourced back to his saving Rs.500. Phoolbanu’s father has demanded as mehr to allow Moti to marry his daughter. Once the money has been saved, the cold-blooded and calculating Moti invites the village Mauvi to enable him to pronounce “talaq” three times in his presence so that he can marry Phoolbanu. He does it in complete cool, without any inflections in his voice or tone, with a deadpan face which leaves Mehjobin shocked and terribly angry. The Maulvi tells her that Moti wants to divorce her because he suspects her of adultery. She immediately collects her small bundle and marches out of the house to her earlier hut and takes up the job of a cook in someone’s home.
Marrying Phoolbanu brings down Moti’s business to ground zero and one day, he takes it out on her by bashing her up badly with a stick. It is now Phoolbanu’s turn to go to her father’s place for a few days. So she packs a bag and Moti does not have any objection.
Roy kept the closure of the film quite open when Moti very sheepishly steps into the home of Mehrjobin now married to an elderly but very good widower (Trilok Kapoor) with three small kids from his former marriage. Mehjobin is very angry and tells her husband to throw Moti out. But Moti requests her to make jaggery cakes for him from the two earthen pots of juice he has brought with him. Phoolbanu listens from outside the door and then steps in and the two women hug each other in a strange and sisterly bonding.
As director, Sudhendu Roy who remained one of the most outstanding art directors of Hindi cinema, had a light in tackling the stories he chose to make films on. He was also involved in giving his films a very good musical score mainly through songs than through a music track. And he was quite bold in choosing the cast of his films.
Saudagar has one song too many and one in the beginning lip-synced by Bachchan himself that goes har hassen cheez ka main talabdar hoon sung by Kishore Kumar as he walks back home cheerfully with the earthen pots of palm juice hanging from his hands. One song lip-synced by Nutan on the voice of Lata Mangeshkar that goes tera mera saath rahen is very melodious and suits the soft and subdued character of Mehjobin. One of the two boatman songs shot in the river flowing between two villages that goes door hai kinara belted by Manna De throws up rich visuals of the rural landscape offering us a glimpse of the beautiful canvas of a small village. This, juxtaposed against the milling crowds in the local market, the noise and the shouts calling customers, or Moti’s rivals poking fun at him when his jaggery cakes are burnt and unsold, offer a holistic picture of a time and place we no longer belong to even in villages and small towns today. It is a village where Hindus and Muslims live in total harmony and there is absolutely no communal or religious conflict.
For perhaps the first and last time in his entire career, we find Amitabh Bachchan climbing tall trees wearing under shorts or folding his lungi to reveal his long, very thin legs not once, but again and again and he does not appear to look awkward in that attire. He expresses his dark mindset through his smouldering eyes, not in anger, but in cold calculation. The story goes that Tarachand Barjatiya who produced the film, did not like Bachchan for the film at all so much so that the film was held back for two years till Barjatiya changed his mind and the film was finally made.
He is a bit awkward in some scenes specially when he reveals his treachery to the unsuspecting Mehjobin. Whether this awkwardness is because the actress against him is Nutan, a much acclaimed actress who came much before he did or whether it is because he feels a bit guilty or whether the character demands some awkwardness in him is for the audience to judge. He looks far from handsome with his hair almost uncombed and his smoking the hookah which appears to be a habit with the Muslim men in the village. His deep set, dark eyes, slightly horsey face speak much more than his dialogues do.
There are some very offensive dialogues which, today, may be read as a scathing insult to women. When Moti Miyan scolds Phoolbanu when she says that she is very pricey, he gets angry and tells her to sit on a basket and take herself to the market to sell herself. Her retort is “I will be weighed against precious stones like diamonds and rubies” and this is brazenly derogatory to women coming directly from a woman.
He is mostly dressed in a kurta and lungi outdoors with an occasional jacket to cover the kurta but his gait is also touched with some element of consciousness. He expresses his dark “Otherness” through his smouldering eyes, not in anger, but in cold calculation.
Nutan as Mehjobin is outstanding which is expected of her even when pitted against a much younger and new hero with a negative image, like Bachchan, who was 32 at the time. But it is Padma Khanna as Phoolbanu who spoils the film with her artificial acting. Her eyebrows are neatly plucked, her skin has obviously gone through several facials and her way of draping her sari to reach just below the knees is just not the done thing so it is jarring. Her performance spills over with put-on coquetry and nakras which do not suit the village ambience she lives in.
The film opens on a small boy waiting beside a palm tree with an empty glass. Moti climbs down the tree and pours palm juice in his glass before he walks away. Towards the end, a desperate, angry and frustrated Moti climbs up a palm tree but instead of bringing down the pots with the juice gathered in them, breaks them all and walks away in disgust. The same small boy, waiting with his glass, gets scared and runs away through the tall grass.
Saudagar was not a commercial success probably because it was neither marketed nor publicized properly. But critics gave the film very positive reviews and it was also shortlisted for the Academy Awards though it was later dropped. But it remains one of the best films of Bachchan in the beginning of his then-shaky career that offered us a glimpse into the versatility of this young man who came to stay for fifty years.