It’s rare that you cherish or really enjoy a movie where the protagonist is some sort of supreme idealist, because invariably such movies degenerate into sermonizing sagas, or becomes unbearably soppy, or completely loose track. In Indian cinema, the movie would invariably go the "formula Bollywood" way by depicting every social evil, proclaiming a solution for it, and creating a holier-than-thou hero who also masquerades as a vigilante seeking justice. But sometimes, a movie comes a long that just stays in your mind. It becomes a "timeless classic", and worms its way into your system, as you watch “human spirit triumph”.
Red beard (Akahige) is one of Akira Kurasawa’s lesser known films. This one did not sublimely blend Shakespearean tragedy with Noh theater. It did not inspire the Star Wars saga (Hidden Fortress), or the classic “Man with no name” Eastwood westerns (Yojimbo and Sanjuro), or become the template for a dozen rip offs or “adaptations” (Seven Samurai). It does not demand your attention from the very first scene. It starts innocuously, in early 19th century Japan (still under the Shogunate), in obscure rural Japan. A young, ambitious doctor arrives at a village hospital on a brief visit, to discover that he has in fact been posted there. Kurosawa then takes his time to leisurely but meticulously develop his characters. The movie then unfolds before us, like a well-constructed novel, with a languid but beautiful sound track.
The young doctor finds that he has to work under the legendary head of the hospital, Red Beard. He is disappointed with this posting in obscure rural Japan. Influential and well educated, he dreams of being the Shogun’s personal doctor, not someone who would serve in obscurity. But working with Red Beard changes his life, as Red Beard teaches him to value compassion, and the duty of a doctor to cure, no matter what the circumstances.
But it is here that Kurosawa’s mastery shines brightest. He is effortlessly able to leave his central narrative, the tale of the young tyro and the veteran doctor, and build around the stories of some of the inmates. In each story, there is a sensitive and deep understanding of human nature. Each story makes you pause and ponder, while it begins to affect the young doctor’s feelings towards his profession and towards patients. Three mini-plots develop, the first of an insane inmate (who we discover was abused as a little girl), the second of an old, sick man, well loved by the inmates, who has his own sadness, and the third (the most beautifully portrayed) of a young girl who is rescued from a brothel (where she had been ill-treated for years) by Red Beard, and put in the care of the young doctor. While the young doctor tries to cure her, he falls sick himself, and the girl (filled with hatred for humanity) nurses him, and while doing so, heals herself, and also finds joy in helping a little kid.
Towering over this entire movie is Kurosawa’s talisman, the legendary Toshiro Mifune in his last screen appearance in a Kurosawa movie. No man ever swaggered like Mifune ever did. In this movie, his role is perhaps a third that of the young doctor (Yuzo Kayama), yet he breathes life into every scene he appears in. His presence is felt in the background in every scene. And he gets his one samurai like fight, fast, furious, and remarkable. After beating up the goons, Red Beard proceeds to treat their injuries, and you are left smiling, and wondering if you would ever meet a doctor like him. And Mifune indeed remains a samurai; single minded in his devotion to healing as Red Beard.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam was a veritable lesson on how to pull the viewer’s emotional strings. Dharmendra was gifted his career’s finest role (those of you who scoff at “Garam Dharam”, visit his past with movies like Anupama, Chupke Chupke, Ankhen and innumerable others). He plays Satyapriya, an individual who values lofty ideals of truth above all else; his career, family and life itself. This movie could so easily have degenerated into a soppy melodrama, but Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s skills are at the forefront. Satyapriya and his friend Naren (the inimitable Sanjeev Kumar) finish engineering college, and set out on different career paths. Sanjeev Kumar remains honest, but practical, and works hard to become successful. Dharmendra remains in his world of idealism and resolute resistance to compromise, and struggles through every step. Yet, not for a moment does he waver from adherence to truth.
In his very first job, he works for a debauch prince (this was set in the pre-independence/ early independence era). The prince desires to “own” Sharmila Tagore (the illegitimate daughter of his manager, David). Through chance occurrences, Dharmendra lands in a situation to protect Sharmila, but in a moment of weakness, wavers. The prince rapes Sharmila, and the idealistic Dharmendra then marries Sharmila.
How is this different from any other sixties flick, you ask? It is here that Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s talent in portraying human nature, and developing characters shines through. Dharmendra, though the supreme idealist, is unable to accept Sharmila or her child completely, and even through his idealism, his completely human nature shines through.
Later Naren (Sanjeev Kumar) reappears, and beautifully personifies the every-day man, one of us, who would compromise (but only so slightly) in order to move ahead in one’s career. Yet the compromise would be “practical”, never something that would weigh on one’s conscience. The contrast between the two characters is one of the movie highlights. Dharmendra is unable to accept these compromises, and the conflict is beautifully wrought out. Dharmendra eventually dies of cancer, and the film leads to its incredibly moving climax.
Ashok Kumar (Dharmendra’s father) wants Sharmila Tagore’s son to light Dharmendra’s pyre. Sharmila (who is not accepted by Ashok Kumar) in a moment of stark honesty, says that the child is not Dharmendra’s son, but is illegitimate. Satyapriya’s honesty lives on.
It is one of those touching climaxes where it is far easier to let tears flow, than hold them back.
Moving celluloid moments, where human spirit triumphs, and characters are carefully crafted, that remain etched in memory. As, I’m sure, there are movies that remain etched in yours.