Sadgati Turns 40: Satyajit Ray’s ‘Cruellest’ film to date holds up the mirror to Dalit Atrocities


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Sadgati is Satyajit Ray’s 1981’s Hindi Television film, also Doordarshan’s first color outing. Based on a short story of the same name by Munshi Premchand, the film starred Om Puri and Smita Patil in the lead roles. Although the stiry was almost 100 years ago and the film was made 40 years ago, its storyline still holds relevance in today’s time. It portrays the story of the evil shadow of untouchability and caste crimes that hover over us.

1981’s scathing Sadgati, is rarely mentioned in the same breath and yet, it remains one of Ray’s most powerful broadsides against the caste system.

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Caste based violence and discrimination reveals the darker edges of a country that in other ways is fast moving towards globalisation and economic progress. The shocking thing about this is the persecution of the lower caste even enjoys social sanction in many instances.

Attacks on Dalit women, gang rape, lynchings, the Hathras incident, the Bhima Koregaon case… the atrocities against Dalits is a common reality that most of us turn a blind eye to. Rohith Vermula wrote that he was happier “dead than being alive.” In 1935, Babasaheb Ambedkar condemned caste violence as “man’s inhumanity to man.”

Sadgati is a story of a poor and low-caste village cobbler, Dukhiya (Om Puri), who lives with his wife Jhuria (Smita Patil), goes to the village Brahmin (Mohan Agashe) to fix the date of his daughter’s marriage, the Brahmin asks for unpaid labour in exchange. The cobbler is made to sweep the Brahmin’s house and cut wood for him.

Dukhi does all of this work without having eaten since morning. The ensuing events turn the tables against the priest, who in the end has to forgo the lofty traditions, including that of untouchability, that he has held so dearly all his life.

Sadgati is no easy watch but the haunting climax stands out as probably the most gut-wrenching moment in a film that one critic called Ray’s ‘cruellest’ to date. When the movie first premiered on Doordarshan it “provoked a strong reaction from audiences and critics. It was said to be both too shocking and not shocking enough, even by the same critic,” writes Andrew Robinson in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye.

Unfortunately, even today, the underprivileged face the wrath of poverty. They struggle for basic amenities and fight for their rights almost on daily basis. It’s high time that we as a collective community come forward and take a step to shred casteism.

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