Pikoo (1980) and Sadgati (1981) were short films Ray directed for television, marking his shift into the 1980s and both acting as precursors to his 1983 full length feature Ghaire Bhaire. Whilst Pikoo was made for French television, Sadgati was based on a story by writer Prem Chand whom Ray was familiar with from his adaptation of The Chess Players and funded by Doordarshan, a new state run television company. I have yet to see Pikoo and have read from Andrew Robinson’s book that it is a film about the gaze of an innocent. I hope I can see it on a good print one day. Sadgati, translating as Deliverance, lasts for fifty minutes and contains very little dialogue yet is as accomplished and powerful as his masterworks including even The Apu trilogy. The story is located in rural India in a small village and concerns the relationship between a lower caste tanner Dukhi (Om Puri) and a Brahmin Priest Ghashiram (Mohan Agashe). Before his daughter is married, Dukhi needs the approval and blessings of the Brahmin Priest to set an auspicious date but when Dukhi goes to ask Ghashriam to come to his house for the ceremony, the priest takes it upon himself to exploit Dukhi’s predicament by forcing him to complete various chores. Having instructed his wife Jhuria (Smita Patil) and daughter Dhania to anticipate their arrival with food, Dukhi complies with the orders of his master, the Brahmin Priest. He begins by sweeping the outside of the house then lifting sacks of wheat but when it comes to the ardous task of chopping firewood, Dukhi comes undone.
However, Dukhi’s sorrows are made much worse when Ghashriam catches Dukhi asleep in the afternoon sun exhausted from fatigue and hunger. Incensed by Dukhi’s apparent insolence, Ghashriam berates him and forces him back to work. In one last moment of desperation Dukhi attempts to chop the wood but having had nothing to eat all day and suffering from an illness, Dukhi falls down dead. Panic sets in for Ghashriam as the removal of Dukhi’s body becomes imperative if the high caste villagers are to carry on as normal but none of them can touch the body as this would mean becoming contaminated in some way. Ghashriam sheepishly pleads to the lower caste workers to remove the body but they ignore his command in light of another fellow worker who was witness to the painful destruction of Dukhi. Such are the horrors brought on by village orthodoxy, Dukhi’s corpse becomes a symbol of rural depravity and the caste system. When Jhuria discovers her husband is dead she breaks down and mourns his loss but even she cannot move his body. Finally, to avoid being directly implicated in the death of Dukhi, Ghashriam using ropes, and using a stick to touch the body, drags the corpse away from the village, dumping it in a field of rotten carcasses. In a final act of vitriolic caste politics, Ghashriam decontaminates the ground upon which Dukhi died and corpse lay with droplets of holy water.
What is brilliant about Ray’s approach to the story is that it all plays like a piece of silent film. Unfiltered, prolonged and detailed throughout, the neo realist tone is poetically evoked by the incredible rhythm of the narrative over which Ray has terrifyingly precise control. Whilst Ray was critical of what he saw as a New Indian Cinema in love with European art cinema, the work of Shyam Benegal was one film maker that impressed Ray in many ways especially his command of actors that included Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil with whom he would also collaborate. Ray has said himself that his early films were not political and whilst he was one of the first Indian film makers to turn the lens on the imperfections and wonders of village life, Benegal’s rural trilogy beginning with the seminal Ankur in 1974 offered a somewhat radical politicisation of rural cultural values. In many ways, Sadgati should be viewed as a reply by Ray to his contemporaries at such a particular moment in time, proving quite brilliantly that polemicizing such political discourse did not necessarily equate to great storytelling and cinema.
I got the distinct impression whilst watching Sadgati that Ray was inadvertently responding to the directors of New Indian Cinema as if to articulate his own vehemently angry and outspoken ideological position on the politics of rural India. Ray had originally intended to make a documentary on the issue of child labour but was met with opposition from the government which was trying to actively discourage and effectively prevent film makers from representing such deeply important social issues like poverty on screen. Sadgati was a response, small scale though, to such critics alike and the fact it was filmed in Hindi for a television audience seemed to suggest Ray was reaching out to a much bigger audience. Interestingly, all three of the main leads including Om Puri, Smita Patil and Mohan Agashe were all regular collaborators with Shyam Benegal and their collective presence offers a concrete link to such cinema. Ray takes a very visible observational approach to the action and the camera rarely moves, resulting in a stillness that complements the slow and at times languid pace of village life. Sadgati is available on DVD in the UK as part of a 3 DVD set released by Artificial Eye.