Satyakam: The truth shall set you free

Last Updated: Sun, Jul 21, 2019 19:36 hrs

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.

As the film opens, Kumar recalls the story of the philosopher-sage Satyakama Jabala who takes on his mother's name in light of his missing father.

When Satyapriya's (Dharmendra) mother dies in childbirth, and his father turns to asceticism, he is taken in and raised at his grandfather’s ashram. Satyasharan Acharya (Ashok Kumar) is a Sanskrit scholar and a man of stern principles.

While studying engineering he befriends Narendra ‘Naren’ Sharma (played by the ever jovial Sanjeev Kumar) but they part ways at the end of their studies. The two pose differing visions of life; Sat is the uncompromising idealist and Naren the pragmatic realist.

After their graduation, as a post-Independence India ushers in an age of rapid industrialisation, the two young engineers spread out across the country. As Sat moves up in the world, he gradually learns of the little compromises one makes along the way: the exchanging of small bribes, the use of nepotistic influence to get jobs and so on. But such concessions do not exist in Sat’s world.

During his early days he meets the beautiful but dolorous Ranjana (Sharmila Tagore), a young woman shunned from society for her ‘lowly’ birth to a prostitute, seemingly doomed to be the plaything of wealthy letches.

As Sat comes to know her and her circumstances, he begins to care for her. Torn between his personal desires and the demands of orthodoxy and reputation, Sat commits to the marriage nonetheless. Where this turn leads his life to, what bitter price he pays and its touching, nigh spiritual ending, is the real draw in Satyakam.

Missing parents is a theme consistent throughout the film as is the struggle between an idealist and realist worldview.

This conflict between pragmatism and romanticism is pointedly observed in a conversation between Naren and Sat.

Naren asks “Woh sach kya jiske peeche shivam nahin, sundaram nahin – jisse kisi ko thes pahunche?” (Of what use is a truth that serves no higher purpose, has no beauty – that causes someone hurt?”)

To which Sat pointedly replies: “Yeh buzdilon ki soch hai. Sach bolne waale ko agar dukh sahne ki himmat hai, toh dukh dene ki bhi himmat honi chahiye. Sachaai angaarey ki tarah hai – haath par rakho aur haath na jale, yeh kaise ho sakta hai?” (“This is a cowards thought. If the one who speaks the truth has the courage to suffer hurt, he must also bear the courage to cause hurt. Truth is like a piece of ember – how could you hold it in your hand and not feel its heat.”)

A case could even be made for a 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.

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