The film Sadhana, ahead of its time, empowered the sex worker

Not much has changed in our society. How many Dalit girls marry Brahmin boys? And, when was the last time you heard of a working-class man marrying a sex worker?

Photo courtesy- social media
Photo courtesy- social media

Subhash K Jha

Aurat ne janam diya mardo ko,

Mardo ne ussey bazaar diya

Jab jee chaha masla kuchla,

Jab jee chaaha dhutkar diya ...

Aurat ke zinda jalane ko,

Kurbaanee aur balidaan kaha

Kismat ke badle roti dee,

Aur usako bhee ehsaan kaha...

Sahir Ludhianvi’s words on the status accorded to women in our society rings true to this day. And recalling B R Chopra’s commitment to reformist, progressive cinema Vyjanthimala, his leading lady in Naya Daur and Sadhana said, “I learnt so much from him during Sadhana and Naya Daur. Both were progressive, socially relevant subjects.”

Actresses seldom get roles like the one in Sadhana. And Vyjanthimala is rightly proud of the film. As a dancer, a tawaif to be more precise, she had already played Chandramukhi in Bimal Roy’s Devdas, three years prior to Sadhana. Chandramukhi was a relatively easier role to play. She played the all-giving courtesan with a heart of gold. In Sadhana, Vyjanthimala is initially portrayed as a gold- digging schemer. A dying woman Leela Chitinis’ son, a college lecturer Mohan (Sunil Dutt) takes the help of his avaricious, slimy but innocuous friend Jeevan (Radha Krishan) to ‘hire’ a Bahu.

Unknown to Mohan, Jeevan brings home a prostitute who throws off her Mujrewalli’s mantle to get into a simple saree to hoodwink the poor, dying mother. Ironically the woman recovers. And then begins the complications arising from the fact that Mohan, though progressive in his outlook, is repelled by the idea of a prostitute playing his wife. Vyjanthimala’s fiery speeches on women and their status in backward societies, were splendidly woven in the storytelling.

The nautch- girl Champabai’s transformation into a domesticated daughter-in-law Rajini was achieved through a remarkable synthesis of music and drama. While the early songs (composed by N Dutta) are seductive Mujras, the later numbers are spiritual Bhajans and of course the song with a social message Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko.

In all this Vyjanthimala remains supremely central to the conflict. From the sensuous dances to the desire to be a part of mainstream society, Vyjanthimala takes her character through the wide arc with a confidence that sublimates Champabai’s journey into a metaphor on societal prejudice.

Sunil Dutt, who had earlier played a Brahmin man who agrees to marry a Harijan woman (Nutan) in Bimal Roy’s Sujata, is here again in a reformist mode. An idealistic hero desirous of marrying and rehabilitating a ‘fallen woman’ is not new to Hindi cinema. Raj Kumar did it in Pakeezah, Dharmendra did it in Satyakam and Sharafat, Anil Dhawan did it in Chetna and Navin Nischol in Hanste Zakham. It isn’t easy being a saint and martyr when it comes to choosing a life partner. And B R Chopra doesn’t make Sunil Dutt’s journey into unconditional acceptance of a tawaif as a wife an easy one. There are pimps and touts trying to keep the couple apart.

Then there is the middleclass fear of being ostracized when associated with a ‘fallen woman’. Let alone marry one, a man from the educated middleclass would fear even the thought of being seen in the vicinity of a brothel. Social reform as a subject in Hindi cinema actually dates back to Franz Osten’s Achut Kanya in 1936 where a Harijan girl Devika Rani was “rescued” by a Brahmin boy Ashok Kumar.

Not much has changed in our society since then. How many Dalit girls marry Brahmin boys? And, when was the last time you heard of a working-class man marrying a sex worker? In Sadhana, the theme was dealt with by the literary screenwriter Pandit Mukhram Sharma with sensitivity, warmth and even humour. Chapmpabai’s kotha is visited by a motley crew of lechers masquerading as connosieurs of art who, she realizes after two voluptuous mujras, don’t give a damn about her feelings.

In the turning point in the film, Champa adorns herself with the family jewels gifted to her by Mohan’s innocent mother. When she appears before her customers as a bride, they laugh their heads off to see her in her new role. Hurt and traumatized she rushes back to her own room from where they coax her back by singing the popular Qawalli, Aaj kyon humse parda hai. Sadhana is a truly progressive film.

When the ‘decent’ god-fearing mother-loving academician who abhors prostitutes accepts Champa as his wife, he does so with the least condescension. Remarkably, his mother too comes around. If only lives of exploited women in real life had equally happy endings! Vyjanthimala On Sadhana: “When I look back on Sadhana, I feel it was a film ahead of its times. Chopra Saab very clearly said in the film that even a girl belonging to that kind of a profession deserves a normal life, that she deserves to be a wife.

To begin with, the dancing girl’s role was similar to Devdas, though in Sadhana I played a woman with grey shades. But she is transformed by the love and faith of the innocent woman who accepts her as her daughter-in-law. It was a very difficult role because I had to do many layers of acting and playacting. When I was in Sunil Duttji’s home, I had to be gentle, soft spoken and coy. The minute I left their home I had to throw off the pallu from my head and become the bindaas Champabai. I found my character very human. I loved it.

As for the dancing, I didn’t consider it filmy. I always brought in a classical element in my film dances. I’d say I was one of the first actresses to be called a dancing star. At the slightest pretext filmmakers wanted to use my dancing talent. I’d say dancing was integral to my role in Sadhana. I’d rate Sadhana as one of my best performances. I was quite pleased, and so luckily, were the filmgoers and critics. My rapport with B R Chopra Saab was wonderful. We were like one big family. It started during the outdoors of Naya Daur in Bhopal. Chopraji’s entire family was there.

So were my grandmother, my aunts and cousins. With Chopra Saab there was endless conversation, lunch and snacks. On the outdoor location of Naya Daur in 1957 my grandmother made many many buckets of rasam. It was like a picnic. Do you know BR Chopraji was supposed to make a sequel to Sadhana with me? He wanted to call it The Return Of Sadhana and he wanted it to be my comeback film after I quit the industry for marriage in 1968. But alas, that wasn’t meant to be.

Once I quit, nothing could tempt me back. I’d make it a point to visit him with my son Suchindra whenever we were in Mumbai. Chopra Saab was very humorous, jolly and honest. Directors like B R Chopra kept the dignity and grace of the heroines alive. I shared much more than a working relationship with B R Chopraji. Today I see that closeness crumbling in the industry.

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