Actor Mohan Agashe reminisces Satyajit Ray’s letter before signing film ‘Sadgati’

Mayank Chhaya-

Dr. Agashe was my guest on ‘Mayank Chhaya Reports’ to reminisce about his two weeks shooting for ‘Sadgati’ under Satyajit Ray’s ultra-refined sensibilities.

Satyajit Ray’s short film ‘Sadgati’ based on the short story by Munshi Premchand, popped up on my YouTube page the other day which was just as well because this year happens to be the 40th anniversary of the movie. Not that it matters but by some delightful coincidence it is also the movie I saw just as I was beginning my career as a journalist. We are both 40 in a sense.

This year also happens to be the great master’s 100th birth anniversary.

Watching ‘Sadgati’ again, I was as outraged now as I was then at the quiet but harrowing cruelty of India’s pervasive caste system it depicts. I have read Premchand’s short story in Hindi and remained fascinated by how matter of fact the great writer is in conveying the brutality of that social order.

The story’s protagonist, deliberately named Dukhi (sorrowful or aggrieved), is a so-called “low caste” tanner in a village. His life with his wife Jhuria is one of relentless struggles as can be expected for those living on the terribly oppressive margins of a north Indian village’s social pecking order.

The plot is quite simple. The couple, played powerfully by the late Om Puri and the late Smita Patil, want to start the process of their daughter’s marriage and need the local brahmin, played with effective heartlessness by Dr. Mohan Agashe, to conduct the rituals around it.  That an untouchable family cannot get their daughter married without the priest makes them terribly vulnerable to all the cruel routine that follows.

Premchand quickly establishes the grotesque inequities through an early exchange of Dukhi wondering to Jhuria where they would make the priest sit. It is a loaded question because the priest is not expected to sit on the “khatiya” or a couch woven with jute rope or string that belong to them. Jhuria responds saying that perhaps they should borrow one from the local wealthy man known as Thakur.

“Sometimes you say things that singe my body. The Thakur would not even spare a piece of ember and you think he would lend us his couch?” snaps back Dukhi.

It is not my intention to narrate the whole story the way Premchand wrote it nor the entire movie the way Ray made it. Let me just make a couple of observations about how with such practiced ease and a sense of entitlement the priest subjects Dukhi to some backbreaking house and yard chores before he would condescend to visit his house to perform the rituals.

Particularly galling is the way the priest makes Dukhi chop a giant piece of log on a hot summer afternoon and that too when the latter has not had a morsel to eat. There is an exchange between the priest and his wife (Gita Siddharth) whether to serve Dukhi some food. Eventually, they don’t, causing him to be so weakened by hunger and heat that the inevitable happens.

It is at once a moving and infuriating story that was all too real when Premchand wrote it perhaps a century ago, when Ray made it some four decades ago and very much remains so in 2021. I remember feeling utterly helpless and debilitated when I first saw it. I felt both those as well as a shrieking rage.

Performances are uniformly outstanding, particularly Om Puri who seemed to have a special handle on portraying the oppressed. Dr. Agashe, who is a respected psychiatrist in real life apart from being a much-celebrated Marathi and Hindi actor, captures the psychology of the village priest perfectly. There is a scene where, after a particularly satisfying lunch, the priest walks to his couch in the verandah for a siesta. The way Dr. Agashe half-stifles an upcoming burp tells you about how excellent an actor he is.

We all know Satyajit Ray to be a visual master in most of his movies but unfortunately, cinematically this film looked below his exacting standards. By that I don’t mean pretty frames at all but even the evocativeness of his shots. In my book Ray is the only Indian filmmaker who has an acute sense of cinema as a visual medium. He has no peers in India. It is from that standpoint that I felt a bit let down by ‘Sadgati’. Perhaps it is the cruel austerity of the theme that prompted Ray not to make a visual statement. But that’s a small quibble compared to the powerful and moving theme it addresses in a short time.