I was first informed of Saudagar (« the trader » 1973), by Sudhendu Roy, through Carla and given my unruly interest for Nutan, and my unabated appreciation of Big B, I decided that I couldn’t wait any more, and I got that disc. It’s a very simple story, that of Moti (Amitabh), a village palm sap collector, who falls under the charm of a sexy but expensive country belle (“vamp” Padma Khanna). And in order to buy her, he offers to marry his business partner, a widow called Mahjubi (Nutan), with whom he successfully produces gur, a sort a sugary cake made from the boiling of palm sap. Marrying her (for one season) means he no longer needs to give her half the price for her work, and so he quickly gains the 500 rupees needed. He then shamelessly disowns Mahju and secures Banu. Of course this sham will not bring him luck, for his association with Phoolbanu, his supple young wife, no longer relies on the savoir-faire of the elder but keener Majhubi. Moti will meet first with financial failure, then loss of reputation, self-doubt, and finally the humiliation of having to go back to his former associate and beg for her renewed help.
And there you have it. It’s that short and straightforward. But the film is nevertheless (or perhaps because of that) a beautiful one. Viewers underline the acting by Nutan and Amitabh, who perform no-frills compositions. It’s perfectly true; both distil a subtle and effective mixture of restraint and emotion. The interest also comes from seeing Big B play the part of a villain and a hypocrite: he pulls it off quite well. But the film’s real worth lies in the almost documentary picturisation of rural southern India, where customs and practices weigh more than moral values. Moti decides to “talaq” Mahju, divorce her, as simply as he had decided to marry her, and thus fulfils his plan to the letter. Such cynicism might seem exaggerated; it’s probably only banal, and Islam give a man such superiority over women that he’s like an elephant in front of a goat: he can afford to ignore her.
Mahju’s sorry plight creates a pitiful pathos that gives the movie a lonesomeness and an emptiness which contrasts with what might have been, if Moti had seen further than his lust. His young love-interest, as he tells Mahju, is too raw and selfish (this was in fact a comment intended to woo her, implying that the younger girls didn’t match her seasoned worth). And he himself doesn’t see the riches at hand in the widow’s heart. So we are left with the pain of ignorance and the silent beauty of nature, both powerless witnesses to this drama of greed and deception. For nobody, save perhaps the trees, the birds and the wind understand what has been lost. Only the beauty of the river, of the sunset, is there to indicate that man has a destiny which should elevate him above his instincts and his immediate selfish desires. Tragically, it is a fraud (and a misplaced sacrifice) which reveals what happiness could have created, what a deepening of shared longing it could have caused. Moti is like a bull, which has seen a heifer, and the refined charms of domesticity elude him.
Well, in fact, only partly, and this is where the movie surprises and charms once again. First Banu isn’t the idling nymphet we thought she might have been; she does work hard to replace Mahju, and fails in her jaggery only through lack of practice. Then the end shows Banu and Mahju turning out to be lost sisters, and we understand that because of that, Moti will be able to be pardoned or reintegrated in some way. Human warmth and compassion is possible after all, and this is done through the benevolence of Mahju’s new husband, who hasn’t rejected Moti like all the others had. We see him at the market refusing Moti to give him the jaggery which he cannot sell – he wants Moti to accept the normal price for it. But once at home, the delicacy is still as sour, and he gets scolded by Mahju for having bought some of Moti’s new jaggery!
Meanwhile, things degenerate in Moti’s life and marriage. He starts despairing: Retribution has laid its heavy hand on him. His pretty wife leaves him for a few days. And so, in despair for a solution, he gets up and shuffles all the way to Mahju’s new home. Naturally Mahju doesn’t want to see her former cheater husband, but she relents upon recognising her sister (who had trailed behind Moti, wanting to know where he was heading). So one might say that Mahju’s confident love, and her hopes for something beautiful in life have indeed created the elevation towards beauty and virtue which humanity needs so much even when it doesn’t know it. Indeed it is probably because she accepted to relinquish her hopes that Moti would come back to her, and because decided to marry the gentle widower who was in need of a mother for his children (thus bringing him a balanced household where love could flow once again), that this man is still humane towards Moti, and enables him to be reintegrated in the community and forgiven a little. And a little shove from providence: by marrying Mahju’s sister, Moti has in fact enabled her to reunite with her family…
This story happens of course because of the “meher”, the dowry to be paid for a marriageable girl; if Banu’s father hadn’t sold his daughter, this inhuman business wouldn’t have happened. Obvious enough, but we become so accustomed to the sordid system that we tend to forget its role. On top of Carla’s review, I also recommend this one, by Uma Iyer. It is full of sensitive comments about the psychological beauty of the film.
Some more pictures from the film here!