It sometimes happen that you think you know a beloved old movie song really well — based on memories of listening to it on the radio or seeing it once or twice on Chitrahaar — and then you watch the full film and are struck anew by how well-crafted the scene is and how well it works within a larger context. The lilting “Bachpan ke Din” in Bimal Roy’s 1959 film Sujata had this effect on me. It is a happy number sung by two sisters, Rama (Shashikala) and Sujata (Nutan), who have a close relationship throughout the film; as such, it’s easily thought of as just a carefree ode to their shared childhood. But to watch the scene is to be struck by how unusual its use of visual space is for a Hindi-film musical sequence of its type.
Rama, who initiates the song by playing it on a piano, and Sujata — who hums along — are in the same house, and there are parallels in their movements and gestures (Rama spreads her dupatta playfully across her face, and a second later Sujata matches the gesture with the garments she is removing from a clothesline). But though their voices merge, they never share the frame — Rama is indoors throughout while Sujata is on the terrace above the room. And this tells us a few things about these characters and the film itself. It is visual shorthand for the fact that there is an invisible line separating the sisters’ lives and that Sujata isn’t, strictly speaking, part of the family. A low-caste “untouchable” by birth, she has been raised by Rama’s parents, an engineer named Upen babu and his wife Charu, and their undoubted affection for her has been tempered over the years by their consciousness of social mores and restraints — so that Sujata has grown up yearning to hear them call her “hamaari beti” rather than the more formal and defensive “hamaari beti jaisi”.
The scene also provides one of our first views of something that runs through the film: the association of Sujata with the natural world, or the outdoors. Much of her time is spent in the garden and the greenhouse, tending to plants, and we are constantly reminded that she is a child of nature, her true origins unknown (in the “Bachpan ke Din” sequence she literally has no roof over her head). Even a remarkable early animation sequence has the little Sujata dreaming of visiting a “sapnon ka sundar desh” where the trees have golden leaves — a setting that is just as mythical and improbable as a caste-free world.
Sujata’s early sequences show us the pariah girl gaining acceptance in increments; well-meaning, compassionate people working out what is right through common sense, rather than through what their elders and holy texts tell them; and a rapidly modernising India, across which the engineer and his family travel over the years, living in Dehradun, Bilaspur, Barrackpore and other places as Upen is transferred and promoted. But we also see how the ancient spectre of caste continues to dog their life even in this forward-looking milieu, and how social attitudes and prejudices form a mould, trapping even those who initially resist them.
This sets up a touching contrast between the guileless self-assurance of the child Sujata – who doesn’t yet know about the harsh ways of the world — and the introverted woman she grows up to become, an adult who has learnt something about maintaining a slight distance from her adoptive parents. Nutan’s delicately observed performance conveys Sujata’s push-pull relationship with her family very well — it makes credible the simultaneous existence, in one person, of two apparently contrary personalities: one that is happy-go-lucky (or wants to be happy-go-lucky), with an inborn zest for life; the other emotionally guarded. Sujata is an important reminder – one that is still, sadly, relevant more than 50 years after it was made — of how lives can be petrified by strictures, how individual conscience and raw human emotions can be weakened by the magnetic pull of tradition.
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer