Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Celluloid idealism

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.


Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil:
What beautiful film reviews you have written. It certainly makes me want to go and see these films.

Anonymous said...

Sad Satyakam is not on Netflix. Did find Red Beard though. As Michael points out...I want to see it now.
And: "Red Beard has been moved to the top of your Queue."

Btw, have you seen "Main Azaad Hoon"? (Got reminded of it because the original title was Satyam)

Sourin Rao said...

Awesome man. I remember the days vowing to grow up like Satyapriya , all because of this incredible movie. Excellent stuff all around. And that excellent Asrani/Paintal song ' Aadmi hai kya, bolo aadmi hai kya'. Satyakama, Do Beegha Zameen, Bandhini and Anand remain high on my all time favourites. You have ignited nostalgic memories.

Anonymous said...

Nice reviews, Sunil. I want to watch those movies. Have you seen the recent Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi? I liked it very much.

In Indian cinema, the movie would invariably go the "formula Bollywood" way by depicting every social evil...

This is exactly where Swades failed to impress the people. They could have shortened the film by focussing more on the bijli part. Bijli took a backseat during most part of the movie, only to return in the end.

Sunil said...

Thanks Michael.

Prashant, Satyakam is one of Hrishikesh Mukherjee's finest movies, this was in his earlier days, before he started making his timeless comedies like Bawarchi, Chupke Chupke etc. Its amazing though, when you see Dharmendra in these classics, and then think of the roles he later started doing. He was a fine actor.

Sourin, yes indeed....Aadmi hai kya.....
Do Beegha Zameen was Bimal Roy at his very best. Only someone like Balraj Sahani could have pulled off that role.....such a moving movie.

vishnu.....I've been wanting to watch it for a while. Especially since the wife has seen it already, and raved about it. But someone has borrowed the movie from our local Indian store, and has "forgotten" to return it, so i'm stuck without it. The larger Indian grocery stores have multiple copies of the movie, but they're a few miles away from here, and i've been avoiding the bus ride.

I liked Swades, though it tried to cram in too much into a movie, and preached a little too much. Gowarikar should get a lifetime achievement award just for making Shah Rukh Khan act like a human being.

Anonymous said...

Gowarikar should get a lifetime achievement award just for making Shah Rukh Khan act like a human being.

:-))) That made my day!

Iyer the Great said...

Nice reviews Sunil. Satyakam is indeed a great movie. I must try to get Red Beard here - unfortunately, unlike the US, options are limited here in Norway - even with Norwegian subtitles.

The last movie that I saw where the human spirit triumphs is Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring by Ki-duk Kim.


Anonymous said...

Sunil, nice review of Satyakam (have not seen the Kurosawa though) - Hrishikesh Mukherji was an amazing director- he brought to life everyday characters and built involving stories around such simple everyday situations.

and the sing from satyakam - zindagi hai kya. smile everytime I think of it:)

Jabberwock said...

Hey, so nice to find that someone else appreciates the less-remembered side of Dharamendra's screen persona. Check this post I made a few months ago:

Sunil said...

Rahul.....I actually hadn't heard of it....but now will locate it on netflix and add it to my queue. Hurrah for Netflix! see it, and I hope you have a fantastic trip to India.

Charu.....i don't like evangelizing, but will make a strong pitch for Kurosawa. A lifetime watching movies is incomplete without seeing Kurosawa's brilliance.

Jabberwock....i've cross posted this comment on your blog.

Somehow, after revisiting Dharam's old movies (of the 60's and early 70's), i now try to remember him as he was....debonair, charming, and presented with some absolutely immortal roles. Too bad he ended up going the garam way....

Dilip D'Souza said...

Sunil, I need to admit somewhat shamefacedly that last week, I saw one of Dharmendra's better-known films for the ... first time. You know, that insignificant thing called "Sholay".

Have to say, I don't like the man much. Nor Sanjeev Kumar, whom I've always thought of as an over-rated actor. (Hope the toes I'm stepping on are not too mangled by now).

But perhaps I'll think about Satyakam.

Usually don't care about the way blogs look, but I have to say I preferred your old look. Not least because yours now looks identical to a crummy blog I know of.

Sunil said...

Aw....all right Dilip, I'll try not to remind you of your blog :-) ...

(much more importantly, the wife thought the old one was better also. But I just discovered that changing the template just takes the click of a mouse, so thought of trying it).

Suhail said...

Excellent reviews Sunil. Indeed Dharam paaji was a dude of his times. His B&W photos, he had the personality to die for. Not mama's boy. Not the super-duper hero. And not like today's metrosexual (not-here-not-there) brylcream-gelled biceps. The photo you hv on this post is also a good one.

And what was that you said abt award for Gowariker :-) I think I've said it somewhere earlier in yr comments the exact same thing. Couldn't agree more.
For me the high pt of Swades was that SRK actually played the role of Mohan Bhargava and not "The KiKikiKing Khan".

Kiran said...

Beautiful review of Satyakam. Really must watch that movie now... Dont know if I will ever get a copy though.

Sunil said...

Suhail.....I just have to thank google images for the pic. He was a limited actor, but in his early years selected/ or was given an opportunity to portray some outstanding characters. It was a pleasure to watch him. Another thing he didn't capitalize on was his exceptional ability for comedy.

Kiran.....I remember having seen a VCD at the landmark bookstore in Bangalore. They had a number of Hrishikesh Mukherjee movies.
You just might find it in some such large store somewhere....

greatbong said...

Sholay marked the end of Dharmendra's "Acting" days and the start of the "Main Tera Khoon Peeee Jayoonga" era....of course Sholay is a masterpiece and Dharam is suitable garam there...Sanjeev Kumar was over-rated (definitely)(Satyajit Ray had a horrible experience with him during "Sataranj ki khiladi" but Sholay man...noone can be faulted.

Sunil said...

Thank you very much for the link, Vikram......

now i'm going to spend all my money there :-((

Anonymous said...

Kutte!! Kameene!! Mai Tera Khoon Pijaoonga!

Ravi said...

Satyakaam was indeed a lovely movie. Haven't watched Red beard will borrow it frm Prashant when he gets it :p. btw Prashant, Satyakaam is available at Mayuri...while @ Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the man so famous for making light-hearted movies has made some beautiful (yet simple) movies on more "serious" topics like Satyakaam, Abhimaan, Mili, Anupama, Namak Haram, Musafir (the last one in this list was his directorial debut..alas I've been unable to procure it's dvd/cassette will be highly appreciated!!)

Sunil said...

Vikram.....I'm still awed by nehaflix :-)

Dharm singh deol, :-). Reveal yourself.....

Ravi...indeed. Which is why Hrishikesh "da" is one of my all time fav. movie directors. His serious movies are so carefully crafted, while his comedies keep you in splits. He portrayed the Indian "middle class" better than any other director ever did in Hindi cinema.

Sunil said...

Pennathur.....correction noted, with gratitude! are right here.

Casual and offhand about being over rated or limited? Am I missing something? Not sure I understand.

Anonymous said...

Late addition

Anonymous said...


Your review of Satyakam was stolen from the IMDB review. How ironic to take credit of a review of a movie like Satyakam that not even yours!!

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