Sujata, an untouchable Nutan

Publié le 21 Novembre 2009

In Sujata (The well-born, 1959), Bimal Roy has made the untouchable touching, adorable an object of disgust, and visible a pit of darkness. I’m not saying that he has made THE unique Dalit movie (I don’t know which one this would be… Ankur?), but for me the character he’s cast as the untouchable in the film, Nutan, is his attempt at visualising on the screen what he thought about any human being: Bimal Roy could have signed this famous Shakespearian verse:

O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is!

O brave new world! That has such people in't!

(The Tempest, V,2)

Man, this divine creature, possesses a beauty which testifies to its origin, and all men, no matter how ugly and deformed, are all as beautiful in the eyes of their maker, who sees in us the divine image (Genesis 1,26), and not the surface, our mortal envelope. But of course, the cinema is the cinema, and even if one might perhaps regret Roy’s choice of the heavenly Nutan, because a plainer heroine would have more easily deflected our stare towards the inner sanctum than she does, nevertheless I believe we can say she displays such a charming modesty, such an delicacy and such a simplicity of manners, in short such a grace, that this way one does not forget that innocence and beauty do sometimes (perhaps even often) go hand in hand, and that man’s divine creational status is made visible thanks to her. And because of the sheer artistry she has put in the role, Nutan is way up there, untouched by rivals!


I will not tell you the story, because Madhulika at Dustedoff has done it for me: she summarises mostly the beginning of the story, but it helps to have all the circumstances. So thanks Madhu, but I shall also take the opportunity to thank her because she was the one who enabled me to see the movie, and who gave me the hint as to where to find it.

It’s the story of an untouchable girl, as my DVD cover writes. These persons, according to the Hindu religion and caste system, cannot be touched (cf. Untouchable, by Mulk Raj Anand). If people from the other castes do, they are defiled, and must wash in order to regain their purity. Such a phenomenon is common in ritualistic religions. In ancient Judaism, it was also defiling to touch a leper, or a woman having her periods, for example. One might understand why the contact with the leper was proscribed, but in fact it is the same thing as the other cases: any apparent illness or physical disorder was believed to be a sign of divine rebuttal, and touching meant not only being contaminated, but also become excluded from the community, because the sick, the cripple and the destitute were visible proof of an inner sin against the divinity. Siding with them meant incurring the divine wrath which caused their sign of exclusion.

Touching somebody in primitive societies (of which our more evolved ones still inherit) also has ritual potential. Medical and magical powers often travel through the hands, which are a way to bestow authority and inheritance. Touching means asserting the reality and resistance of whatever is touched. In official ceremonies, there often is a sign by which the hand signifies the contract, or the alliance. And so naturally in rites of passage, the hands are endowed with the power which enables them to perform what is intended by the rite. I am not an expert in these matters, but perhaps hand decoration, in various cultures of the world, has a significance in this respect. At any rate, touching always means an influence, a power, an acceptance which integrates the receiver in the community. Being untouchable does the opposite; it prevents the person from any integration, and forces untouchables to be touched by other untouchables, thus doubling their curse.


When Sujata is first touched by Adhir (a Brahmin, played by Sunil Dutt), she winces; the hand to shoulder contact means of course man to woman contact, with all the sexual load attached to it, but it’s also a transgression of another kind, which cannot be experienced as pleasurable: anguish and fear are increased by this simple gesture. Whereas humanity resides in a meaningful (and not only emotional) practice of touching between human beings (such as it is expressed by the rites we have mentioned), the existence of untouchability has perverted this human bond that builds trust and confidence into a barrier which separates people. Touching normally enables a proximity, a language beyond the words; untouchability (or any kind of apartheid for that matter) recreates the distrust and fear which was the consequence of the Fall in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3,10).

(In the greenhouse, cornered by Adhir, Sujata brushes against a Mimosa pudica (above), that reacts to touch by folding in its fronds - an apt symbol for herself!)

What the director associates in the movie with Sujata being touched for the first time by her suitor is the trembling frond of a tree: as she is touched, we have in a flash the picture of a quivering branch with leaves, which recalls the scene where Sujata, at first realizing that a pleasant-looking youth of a higher caste loved her, runs out in the garden and communes with the life of nature, a nature full of exuberant movement, as if it was dancing and twirling to answer the flutter she experiences at that moment. So just as nature has responded to her arousal, she herself responds (to Adhir) and braces herself, like a rope suddenly taut. In her, life which had naturally flowed from birth and had been stopped, is, by that touch, set free within her once again. Hence perhaps all the water in the film, all the tears, all the rain. When life flows again through her body, the shock she feels overwhelms her. There are also tranquil waters, as in this night scene:

Of course the end is melodramatic and very predictable, and that’s one of the weaknesses of the movie. I would almost have preferred the union of Sujata and Adhir not to have been possible, because this would have seared a much deeper hole into the confidence of the India consciousness. Yet the image of the blood transfusion contains both power and truth. That the life of a dying community, represented by the mother Charu (Sulochana Latkar) needs to be transfused by the love of its enemies the untouchables, what a subversion of everything the Indian society used to believe in! And perhaps (as Madhu suggests in her review) India at the time needed the (“hard-hitting”) happy ending (and the unsubtle allusions to a crying Gandhi) to make it aware of the necessity of including dalits in the social fabric as everybody else, and so to transition towards an abolition of casteism.

I’d like to say a word about Upendranath’s character (the father, Tarun Bose) whose calculated compromise with caste prejudice represents perhaps one of the reformist solutions. Not that he’s very adventurous! But his only half-refusal of the baby at the beginning, and his feeble enthusiasm at chasing Sujata when she’s little, coupled with a ready acceptance of her when sufficient signs of “destiny” have transformed the family into a foster one, all this has enabled her to escape death. He’s the one who gives her her paradoxical name, too. But of course, that name is true: she’s well-born, being born with the right, life-saving blood of generosity and selflessness. Upendra represents non-violent wisdom, even if not quite assertive enough, but such an attitude is for me by far preferable to revolutionary methods with their accompanying bloodbath.


Some more pictures from the movie here!

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Film reviews

Commenter cet article

Shilpi Bose 06/10/2010 16:45

I am Tarun Bose's daughter and I came through Sharmi's blog -oldfilmsgoingthreabare. It does not cease to amaze how knowledgeable non-Indians are about Bollywood. I saw dad's Bandini screen cap
and I now think I am going to be a regular visitor to your blog.

yves 07/10/2010 12:18

Hello Ms Bose,

I am very honoured to have your visit on this blog, and I wish to take the opportunity to say how much I appreciate Tarun Bose's cinematrographic career, not only in Sujata, but also in
such memorable works such as Anupama and Bandini which you mention. I admire in your father this particular brand of dedication and research of perfection which enlightened
Indian movies of the time. He is one of a number of actors who thanks to their sheer presence (he had a great physique which enhanced this) brought intensity and strength to his characters.Thanks
again for visiting, and do not hesitate to call again.


Sharmi 18/05/2010 08:41

Hello Yves,

Your detailed analysis of Sujata is mindblowing!! I really love how you have dealt with the different imagery!! Great write up :)

yves 19/05/2010 21:44

Thanks Sharmi, it's great that we can share our appreciation of these superb works of art!


Filmbuff 03/12/2009 04:43

Answer to your question - yes most likely. Pls note - this is not a response on Madhulika's comment.

Filmbuff 02/12/2009 03:54

Yves, Bollyviewer has answered your question about people who have converted to other religions from being upper caste hindus and still sticking to their original caste status. Yes the Goan Brahmin
christians tend to marry only within their community.

I also agree with Bollyviewer's points about the ending in Sujatha. The film makers wanted to bring about a postiive change in social attitudes. A happy ending was the right way to demonstrate the

yves 02/12/2009 22:06

Thanks for this confirmation. So what do you think about Madhulika's point (message n°1), when she recalls her mother saying:"We don't have a caste," Mum explained. "We're Christians, you
see."Would such a reaction only be possible if you were converted from a lower caste?

bollyviewer 01/12/2009 07:47

Caste in India, transcends most barriers. I've heard of Christians and Muslims who claim to have converted from higher castes and therefore, refuse to marry into "lower caste" families of their own

I love this film. The script for the first half is very well written - I loved how Sujata is adopted in a family that does have the urban caste-ist beliefs but who land up setting them aside
because of their attachment to a lovable child. It seemed so natural. The second half of the film, though, just rushes past as if in a hurry to get its message across. I wish Bimal Roy had taken
more time over developing Sujata-Adhir's relations and tried for a less dramatic climax!

As to the ending, I believe a lot of earlier Hindi films (1936's Achchut Kanya, for example) did follow your advise of not letting the lovers unite. The message about the
unfairness of caste system was delivered over and over again, before. By this point, I think there was a need to show that there could be a light at the end of the tunnel! Plus, I think that the
lovers uniting actually conveys a more searing indictment of the caste system. It not only conves that the caste system is terrible, it also suggests that it is redundant in modern society and CAN
be cast off - something that a lot of people need to learn even today!

yves 02/12/2009 22:02

Hello Bollyviewer,
And thanks for your precision about Brahmin christians: in fact, it's as I thought, but perhaps I hoped that some of the Christian universality and spirit of equality would have trickled through
more. But as Jesus says: "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of Heaven!" (Here, the Brahmin might well be the rich).

I cannot but agree with you about your description of the botched Sujata-Adhir relationship. You're right, we would have enjoyed - and the purpose of the film would have needed - a more detailed
exploration of the attachment between the two young people. Perhaps this under-treatment is explainable because of Bimal Roy's need to put forward his ideological point? He would then have
sacrificed the psychological intensity of the movie to its social and political efficiency.

I was interested in your perspective of prefering the ending to be a happy one; it is true that I lack a certain background that might indeed have made me agree with Bimal Roy's choice. Perhaps I
was a victim of the prejudice according to which nothing is stronger than love, and so if a director sacrifices love in his story, the spectators will revile the cause of this sacrifice (here,
casteism). Do you think then that back in the fifties, people would have preferred the movie to end with the separation of the lovers, if one of these lovers were an untouchable?


Filmbuff 30/11/2009 04:35

Good review of a truly good movie. Nutan was an excellent actress and has done so many good movies - Seema, Sujatha, Bandini, Anari, Milane etc. yesteryears India needed a movie like this.

About ur question on conversions of higher caste into christianity - you do have a lot of brahmins from Goa who are christians (portugese colonised Goa in the 15th century and insisted on
conversions). I have come across Goans who continue to identify themselves as Brahmin Christians in modern India! You are right in your observation about other castes usually converting into

yves 30/11/2009 21:12

Hello Filmbuff,
Thanks for visiting; I'm pleased to hear about these Brahmin christians, and perhaps you know a little about the way they behave concerning their caste: has it become secondary, or would they tend
to consider their caste as something still important? Consequential christians would normally tend to refuse casteism, or at least consider it as more cultural than religious. Would Brahmin
christians, for instance, accept to mingle with dalits?
Thank you,

dustedoff 22/11/2009 17:22

Bye for now, and I'm looking forward to your next review!

dustedoff 22/11/2009 16:41

Maslow's heirarchy of needs? Yes - until you have enough to eat, what God you believe in is pretty immaterial. And whichever God promises a full belly and a roof above one's head is good

yves 22/11/2009 16:49

Very true! OK, well thanks for the little conversation!
By for now.

dustedoff 22/11/2009 16:00

Yes, my ancestor got disinherited because he converted - so none of his father's massive wealth came to him! ;-) Materially, I'd say he lost out, but then his faith was compensation, I suppose. I
think there were, at least in the early 1900's, a fair number of conversions because of faith (as opposed to material gain). But there have been, especially in later times, a lot of conversions
either because dalits want to get away from the caste system (not that conversion always helps - caste tends to 'stick'), or because missionaries often provide material help - schooling, medical
aid, and so on. It's become a sore topic in parts of India (especially central India - Jharkhand and so on), and there have been movements to do 'reverse conversions' - recent converts become
Hindus again on being assured that they will get material benefit.

yves 22/11/2009 16:14

Ha, well I suppose this is only normal, up to a certain extent; when you have trouble making both ends meet, you will probably think first about what can fill your plate and enable the children to
get medical treatment, and if that's promised by a Hindu-dominant state, then perhaps the faith that your parents or grandparents chose isn't seen as very important any more. I wonder if modern-day
"missionaries" still tilt the scales though. I have half a feeling that since the Independence, they would perhaps be less present, leaving Hinduism slowly come back into its old position.

dustedoff 22/11/2009 15:12

Yes, we were converted from Hinduism to Christianity - but on both sides of the family (my mother's and my father's) it was a result of conviction rather than anything else. My father's grandfather
and his elder brother were orphaned during an uprising, and were rescued by two Scottish missionaries. The boys stayed with the missionaries for several years and remained very orthodox Hindus (I
don't know if they were Brahmins, but definitely 'high caste' enough to even insist on cooking their own food), until one fine day they decided they wanted to become Christians!

My mother's family were wealthy Brahmin zamindars from Bengal, and her great-grandfather (I think) decided to convert. His father was so angry, he disowned his son.

I initially thought this might seem a little unusual, but then one might also consider that at least in the case of my mother's ancestor, being a well-educated and wealthy Bengali would have meant
being exposed to a more Western philosophy, and not being as hide-bound as some others... so perhaps more amenable to converting because of a true belief in Christianity.

yves 22/11/2009 15:25

Hmm... You're lucky, because then the situation of your 2 families is really the best you could hope for in terms of choice. Do you know if a lot of brahmins converted to christianity? I have a
faint memory that some of them were poor. Not that I would want to reduce conversion to being mainly feasible if you were poor, but certainly that must have played a role, don't you think? After
all, in your story, if that ancestor was disowned, well, he must have had a very strong Christian faith. Because obviously, being disowned would probably have meant exclusion from the family, no?

dustedoff 22/11/2009 06:28

Yves, wonderful review - I really like the connection you've made with hands and touching. It's sad that people continued to hold on to such antiquated ideas till so late. My mother recalls a lady
- the wife of a government officer, in the 1970's - asking Mum what caste Mum was. "We don't have a caste," Mum explained. "We're Christians, you see." The lady refused to accept, and insisted that
after all, before we converted to Christianity, we must have been Hindus, so what caste were we then?

Just goes to show how important it was to have films like Sujata! But seriously, for someone so completely prejudiced, I doubt that a film would have had much of an effect...

yves 22/11/2009 14:29

So were you (or your family) actually converted to christianity? That lady's remark doesn't seem completely pointless, nevertheless, because I've heard that many dalits converted to christianity,
as opposed to higher classes of hindus. Logical, because for them it "elevated them", so to speak. Converting if you were a brahmin wouldn't have given you that social advantage, especially in
India. So there was perhaps reason to wonder whether, if your family was a Christian one, they hadn't been untouchables before having converted?
Thanks for your support, by the way!