The value of truth as an absolute virtue is taken to its logical conclusion in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 1969 classic Satyakam“To me God is Truth and Love. God is Conscience. God is Fearlessness” says Sanjeev Kumar at the outset of Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 1969 film Satyakam quoting from Mahatma Gandhi. Satyakam is about the stubbornness of honesty in a world mired with compromises, the death and rebirth of idealism and one man’s feeble attempt to cling to his beliefs against all odds.
While Sanjeev Kumar plays a supporting role to Dharmendra’s eponymous lead it is he who becomes our principle eyes and ears in this tale. His role harkens in some fashion to the chorus in a Greek tragedy. In some ways like Mukherjee’s Anand, Satyakam makes the protagonist’s friend recount the tale; Amitabh Bachchan in the former and Sanjeev Kumar in the latter film. Kierkegaardian interpretation of Sat’s behaviour, although the film never expressly does so. Sat is not a cipher though. He is well aware that his conviction to truth more often causes both himself and his peers a great deal of discomfort. In a deeply touching scene, as Sat is in hospice, Naren prattles on about new medical breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer. Sat calmly tells Naren: “Tu itne din mere saath tha, abhi tak sach bolne se darta hai.” (We have been friends for so long; are you still afraid of proclaiming the truth?”). In scene like these one finds the dignity of Satyakam. Satyakam unwinds slowly and its reflective tone could put some off. Here is a story more interested in raising questions than it is in answering them. The casting of Dharmendra as Sat seems to reverse popular notions about his acting range. Sat is no conventional hero. There is little glamour in his person, he doesn’t win any fights and turns everyone around against himself. By then end he is a broken shell of a man, with his only victory coming from sticking to his truth. Dharmendra moves through the movie as someone discovering their own capacity for pain, almost on his own via dolorosa by the end of the film. Sanjeev Kumar’s performance as Naren fulfils the characters dual role as audience surrogate and as a narrator to the tale. Sharmila handles with grace an essentially thankless role of a fallen woman, who becomes a part of Sat's idealistic worldview. Satyakam is one of Mukherjee’s finest works as a director. He and cinematographer Jaywant Pathare masterfully block scenes. The lighting is excellent from the opening credits with sunbeams splitting through a wooded forest to the camera’s fluid movement into a white void towards the end. Although Mukherjee repeatedly stated that Satyakam was his favourite work, his oeuvre is often hailed for his more joyous protagonists – from Rajesh Khanna’s Anand to Amol Palekar’s Ram Prasad Sharma. Sat’s struggles to maintain a personal code of honour in a world that seems to have given up on virtue altogether are both venerated and lamented by Naren.In an era deemed post-truth by many, Satyakam challenges notions about the efficacy of adhering to some notion of absolute truth and a code of honour borne of it. Whether in the philosophy of the Upanishads or the class conflict of post-Independence India, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1969 Satyakam finds the heart of the heartless world and the soul of the soulless condition. This review is part of a series titled 'Cinematheque' centered around canvassing lesser-known films. Also read: Waking Life: A review Also read: The Sacrifice review: A cinematic offering Also read: The Passion of Joan of Arc review: An impassioned film Also read: Agantuk: Strange notions! Also read: Maborosi: A cinematic phantom Also read: High Noon: Lonely are the brave Also read: Party: The discrete charm of the literati Also read: Khandhar: Love amidst the ruins of life Also read: Once: A blue-collar melody Also read: Sans Soleil: If films were archaeology of the mind