I don’t know how many of Raj Kapoor’s movies are called “his best”. This one belongs to that collection, judging by most IMDb user comments (on the other hand, very few bloggers have written about it…). Sangam (“Confluence” in English), which came out in 1964 is perhaps not Raj Kapoor’s best movie, but it has some excellent credentials to the title. At the time, the actor/director had broken up with Nargis and struck up an affair with Vijayantimala, who stars in Sangam.
Certainly, Raj Kapoor’s genius cannot be limited only to a reflexion about love and desire, but I believe that his relationships with women or models have had a great role in the shaping of his art. By the way, this affair with Vijayantimala (Radha in the movie) is a clue to understand the otherwise enigmatic swerve of Radha’s allegiances from Gopal (Rajendra Kumar) to RK (Sunder) after the wedding. Even if in Hindu belief a women’s husband is her Godhead, she appears so quickly in love with Sunder that I at first thought the film was really negligent psychologically. On the other hand, spectators are not supposed to know about the actors’ private lives so as to be able to follow the movie: but anyway, this impression is rather fleeting, and the film’s second half makes up abundantly for that little flaw.
Here is the story for those who don’t know it. Three childhood friends, Gopal and Radha, who belong to a wealthy upper-class, and Sunder, who’s from a lower extraction, meet at a party Radha has thrown to celebrate Gopal’s return to India after his studies in England to become a successful lawyer and magistrate. The smart and handsome Gopal has loved Radha since young, but so has Sunder, and contrary to his friend, he doesn’t hesitate to make this feeling known to everyone. He’s a “funster”, a musician and amateur pilot, not a serious professional like Gopal, and Radha’s family of course see that first. Sunder is much too unpredictable. But he’s Gopal’s best friend, and as such, all the big doors are open to him. But Raj Kapoor isn’t going to spin a rags to riches yarn here. What interests him is the complexity of the ties which link the trio. There’s a process he’s going to observe closely, all the way to the end.
The tricks that enable him to pursue his experiment are first Gopal’s shyness, because this makes him inferior psychologically to his friend Sunder, and enables the latter to ignore Gopal’s love for Radha. Then there’s Sunder’s rebuttal by Radha, and his subsequent decision to “do something” which would make him worthy of her. So because he’s a pilot, he joins the army and asks for a dangerous mission in a war-zone. Of course, he is reported dead, and this opens up Gopal’s prospects, even though he had promised Sunder to keep Radha for him. “I’ll be back for you”, Sunder had said to his beloved, who hadn’t been able to tell him clearly she didn’t love him, and that for her he was just a friend. Gopal and Radha plan to marry, but just before they can, Sunder returns “miraculously” (this is part of RK’s experiment, so we grant him the right to appear predictable, waiting for what’s to come), and Gopal thanks God he hasn’t married yet. He steps aside, leaving a love-hungry Sunder to court Radha, who cannot break Gopal’s decision to let his friend become her suitor. Of course, now Sunder is fitted with all the desirable qualities (war-hero, saviour of the nation, the whole works…) to make Radha’s parents change their minds. And Gopal ties the knot which makes his friend and his beloved husband and wife. Radha tries to forget him; she manages very well in fact (see above), and we have the delicious honeymoon in Europe (see later).
The problem in the arrangement is that Sunder knows neither of Gopal’s sacrifice, nor of his passion. For him, Gopal is the chivalrous servant who has kept guard over his belle dame while he Sunder went out to kill the dragon, walk through the kingdom of the shadows and return alive to claim his rightful Lady. One understands Meitschi’s reaction, calling the film “on the surface a rather exasperating melodrama”. But he continues thus:
“but in depth one of the most unsettling stories of traffic in women between males (though I am not sure that the movie was really meant to be that critical). In this story, two men rather sacrifice a woman's happiness (and at least one of them his own) than bringing their own relationship - the emotional depth of which seems to go well beyond "ordinary" friendship - into jeopardy. They indulge in their own martyrdom and commitment to each other, while they use the (ostensibly beloved) woman as a gift to each other and as a proof of their mutual friendship/love. Though she sometimes speaks out her mind in quite a bitter way, she can never get what she really wants, no-one is interested in her feelings and wishes.
I think this comment points to one of the great psychological interests of the film. Sangam could be written off as yet another story of conflict between the relative importance of love and friendship. But when Meitschi writes “ordinary” friendship, one does wonder about the nature of that friendship. Indeed, if Sunder and Gopal have a homosexual bond (it would have to be unconscious, but it’d be no less strong), it could explain Gopal’s sacrifice. It would also explain Sunder’s sacrifice at the end too. But (there’s the rub!) it would not at all explain Gopal’s suicide. Because if Gopal and Sunder were the story’s real love-interests, then the one thing they would do is stay alive for the other. So we have to find another solution.
I suggest we should look in the direction of the famous Song Dost dost na raha : Sunder sings it in the presence of both Gopal, who’s sitting behind him, rigid with embarrassment, and his baffled wife, back from the honeymoon, during which she had asked Gopal (invited by Sunder!) not to come to their house any more. Obviously, each time she sees him, she wavers in her determination to be faithful to her husband, and Gopal’s unexplained attitude upon Sunder’s return is thrust into her face once again. Here are Sunder’s words (by the way a wonderful tune by Jaikishan and sung by Mukesh):
My friend was no friend
My beloved was not true;
I have no more faith in life
The one to whom I gave my love,
Was it not you, my friend?
Were you not the one?
You were the one.
There are no more secrets
I have no more faith in life
As soon as the song’s over, Sunder collapses, for no apparent reason. For him, the song reminds him of a fellow-pilot who’d sung it the night he had asked his commander for the dangerous mission, and had declared Sunder very lucky to have such a friend as Gopal and such a sweetheart as Radha. He had not had such luck. Before singing it, Sunder says the song still gives him gooseflesh. But he still insists on singing it. Now, the film’s surface suspense comes from Sunder’s ignorance of the relationship which Radha and Gopal enjoyed when he was thought dead. If he knows nothing about Gopal and Radha, as the story-line insists is the case, why does he collapse, crying? Obviously, the song is here to prophesy what will be revealed only later on, and which Sunder’s unconscious has sensed in the other two. He collapses because he is afraid of the truth, expressed in the song, which concerns him: his wife will later appear to have loved him whereas she had already been involved in love before, and that, with the friend who was supposed to keep her until he came back. The secrets that are no more are the ones concerning the relationship hidden by both Radha and Gopal.
Okay, this is fine, and would perhaps be enough to explain most of the film’s twists and turns. Yet, there are other inconsistencies which point to another story, another structure. If the film’s “solution” is contained in the love/friendship conundrum, and could be expressed thus: love cannot but destroy the friendship between two men, or: friendship between two men who love the same woman is doomed, then why do we have the film’s lengthy honeymoon in Europe? Why does Gopal let Sunder take Radha from him without resisting, if not explaining? I’m not sure Raj Kapoor would have signed the interpretation I’m going to give: perhaps he was satisfied with the love/friendship problem. But I believe the film shows more than that.
During an early scene, Sunder tries to seduce Radha, and she explains that she doesn’t mind him, but that there are limits not to cross. Obviously, for her kissing would be such a limit. But Sunder doesn’t take the hint: “Tell me, he asks her, what are the limits?”
We can see that he’s involved in a relationship which knows no norm, no boundaries; his love or desire has already started burning him beyond what is sensible love. And during that famous foggy boat ride, Gopal is actually all smiles, as Sunder takes Radha away from him: shouldn’t he feel rage or affront? What he’s feeling is admiration, in fact: he’s admiring the way his friend is loving his sweetheart, he’s loving her in the mirror of his friend’s courting. We have a splendid case of mimetic relationship, where the “mediator” (1) is Sunder and the object Radha. Gopal cannot help letting his friend, who is psychologically far superior to him, show him how to love, and he reaches the pleasure of love through this “generosity” of his.
Thus Sunder represents the modern lover whose object is indicated to him by another and in turn becomes an allurer. Gopal needs Sunder to get pleasure from Radha, and Sunder needs Gopal to see pleasure in Radha: for both, if Radha is the object of another man’s desire, she becomes desirable. “Modernity” here means that love has become that sophisticated need of minds too knowledgeable about simple person to person attraction to be turned on by it any longer, and Raj Kapoor feels this trend of our “civilised” love relationships.
This can also be seen, I think, through the treatment of the relationship between Radha and Sunder on their honeymoon. On the surface of it, the famous scene in the French hotel is a pleasant petition for female empowerment in the couple: women should not remain traditionally submissive; they should take the lead, etc. But seen in the context of the film, such an insistent demonstration must also mean that love can be renewed or refueled by pushing the limits, going beyond the norms and accepted practices. I had the feeling during the scene that we spectators were Sunder’s Gopals! Because indeed Raj Kapoor's game involves us spectators, as voyeurs of his disanchantement.
The logic is that this story will end in death, because that’s the price to pay for such transgressions: at one point, the structures of human relationships break and normal exchange of feelings is no longer possible. Radha might well plead for the restoration of humanity, it is too late. Gopal’s suicide makes complete sense in such an interpretation: he sees himself as the victim of Sunder’s game of desire, and cannot accept it any longer, and so he breaks the mirror.
Before he dies, he tells his friend that the two rivers of Ganga and Yamuna must merge, and that for this to happen the third confluent, the Saraswati river, which he represents, must dry up and die. But Saraswati represents “intelligence, consciousness, cosmic knowledge, creativity, education, enlightenment, music, the arts, and power” (link) and I wonder if Raj Kapoor the director, through the death of Gopal, has not wanted to allude to the destruction of all these civilisational values which were dying in our sophisticated world, where desire reigns supreme, unchecked by the guidelines of education, culture, and higher spiritual values, which perhaps he has absorbed to wreak his own destructive enterprise. Sunder would therefore reflect the modern broken hero ("sundered" in two), whose mental build has been contaminated by desire and cannot but infect all those around him. Such a nihilistic conclusion sounds frightening indeed, but for me it contains the film's truth, sad to say. Raj Kapoor’s face at the end of the movie would then be an apt illustration of the line in the song:
I have no more faith in life
(1) A "mediator" is the person who subjugates others with his splendid, enviable desire, according to the inventor of this theory, René Girard, and who makes them desire what he desires.