Suryatapa is a story of the resilience and indomitability of a woman emerging victorious against insurmountable odds. Antara revisits this Sandhya Roy-Uttam Kumar starrer that was more than just a rich boy-poor girl story.
There are films that are women-oriented. There are films that talk about women’s problems. Suryatapa is neither. Yet under its cloak of a regular mainstream film, Suryatapa upholds what is the biggest asset of any woman – self-respect and self-identity.
If you hunt for Suryatapa (1965) on the web, you won’t even find a Wikipedia page. If you list the classic films of Uttam Kumar, Suryatapa will figure somewhere down the order. If you think about films that projected strong women characters, chance is Suryatapa will not make it to the list. On the face of it, Suryatapa, a venture of the Agradoot camp, is a popular film of the mid-sixties with an interesting storyline, Bengal’s King of Hearts Uttam Kumar as the male lead and an impressive cast with Sandhya Roy, Pahari Sanyal and Chhaya Devi. But dig a little deeper into the film and you will find a rather remarkable movie that moves much beyond a regular romantic film with a twist in the tale and emerges as an ode to a woman’s sense of pride and dignity.
The story by legendary lyricist Gouri Prasanna Majumdar, traces a track different from the mushy romantic movies of the 50s and 60s. One can say the story is loosely inspired from the I Married a Dead Man, a 1948 novel by American crime writer Cornell Woolrich, who wrote under the pseudonym William Irish. The novel has, over the decades, inspired several films, including No Man of Her Own (1950) and the superhit Rajesh Khanna-Asha Parekh starrer Kati Patang (1971).
The film begins with a fairly straight narrative structure, (there are no flashbacks or parallel storylines), revolving around the trials and travails of Kanak (Sandhya Roy) who is thrown out of her brother’s home by her scheming sister-in-law and sets out aimlessly in search of a shelter. Her helpless brother is under the impression that she is headed to Calcutta to her Mashi’ (aunt’s) place. But Kanak receives a letter from her Mashi that that door is closed as well for now. Although she has no shelter in sight, Kanak does not share this with her brother, quietly tears up the letter and leaves for the station with a meager fifty rupees and a ticket to Calcutta in hand. The initial four-and-a-half minutes of the film give you the first glimpse into Kanak’s inner strength that refuses to bend under the weight of huge odds. She is quiet, speaks little and does not retaliate against her sister-in-law’s constant barrage of pinching taunts and insults. She is affectionate and loves her nephew. She has a close pal who is setting off to Calcutta after her marriage but Kanak does not share her miseries with her. She also doesn’t hold any grievance against her brother for his inability to support her. She doesn’t beg for help to anyone. She quietly leaves for nowhere.
At a junction station waiting room, while waiting to board the train for Calcutta, Kanak finds herself in a quandary when a lady asks her to look after her infant son for some time and disappears. A frantic Kanak misses her train in her vain attempt to locate the baby’s mother. The lady, named Surekha, had left behind a letter along with the infant’s milk bottle, a ring and some jewellery, addressed to anyone who would find a shelter for the infant Probir Narayan Choudhury as she, the widow of Aditya Narayan Choudhury is walking out of his life forever. From that moment Kanak, desperate to give some direction to her rootless existence takes on the identity of Surekha Choudhury and becomes the mother of little Probir.
For the next five years, she finds a shelter as a warm and efficient housekeeper of a homely guest house in Haridwar in her garb of a ‘widow’, bringing up her ‘son’. Somewhere along the line the identity of Kanak who never married gets submerged under the new identity of Bablu’s (Probir) ‘mother’ Surekha. The child gives her her only purpose to live.
A chance meeting with Aditya Narayan Choudhury’s Mamababu (Uncle, played by Pahari Sanyal) and mother (Chhaya Devi), who recognizes her grandson through the family heirloom ring pushes Kanak into her second acid test. Undaunted by threats and offers of money, Kanak refuses to let go of her ‘son’. He is her life’s anchor. She even attempts to run away with him but is finally persuaded to go to Calcutta by Mamababu.
Though Uttam Kumar, the most saleable star of Bengali cinema plays the male lead, we see him enter the frame a good 45 minutes after the film starts rolling. He is Diptendra Narayan (Dipu), ‘Surekha’s’ arrogant and somewhat rigid younger brother-in-law. Kanak now has two antagonistic forces to counter at every step – the mother-in-law and brother-in-law who hold ‘Surekha’ responsible for Aditya’s death and want her to handover the custody of Bablu to them and leave. Lonely and subdued in a huge imposing mansion, amid an army of servants and a cold and unwelcoming atmosphere, Kanak clings on to her son, helplessly watching him being sucked into the opulence and affluence of the Choudhury family.
What shines through this overbearing gloom is her fortitude. Emotionally ravaged by the constant fear of losing her son needling her, with her brother-in-law’s intense dislike of her becoming apparent in every snide remark, Kanak is at the most disadvantageous position. Yet, she refuses to be cowed down.
She doesn’t use the family vehicles for going out. She follows all the rituals of a widow, is respectful and dutiful and yet her quiet resolve to stand her ground makes her win the admiration of everyone in the household except Dipu. Not for a moment can Dipu rise above her in strength of character, despite being the one who calls the shots in the house.
She refuses to let uncomfortable discussions on her future put off for another day and firmly makes it clear that she and her son do not want to stay here and would want to return to Haridwar at the earliest. Had she wanted she could have ensured a financially secure future for herself and left. But no mother would give away her son for money and Kanak is no exception. This spunk and strong sense of dignity of Kanak does not go unnoticed by her mother-in-law who slowly begins to change her opinion. Mamababu, who develops a special bond with Kanak, becomes her only source of support and sympathy.
The past soon catches up and Dipu confronts Kanak with proof that she is not the real Surekha. Shattered, Kanak places Bablu’s future above everything else, manages to convince Dipu not to reveal her true identity to her son and leaves quietly without informing anyone. Dipu’s belief that money can buy everything takes a blow.
It does not matter that Kanak is not Bablu’s biological mother. What matters is that she IS his mother – the supreme bond forged with the motherly love, affection, caring and protection she had showered on Bablu the past five years become crystal clear to everyone when the little boy falls grievously ill on being separated from his mother. Suryatapa, which literally means an undaunted worshipper of the sun, reaffirms that a mother’s selfless love and her bond with her child can rise above everything – above every desire, every temptation, every relationship.
Directed by Agradoot, a group of film technicians signing collectively as director, a phenomenon unique to Bengali cinema, Suryatapa banks on a powerful story and characterization to emerge as a memorable film of 1965, a landmark year that saw a slew of remarkable films from stalwart directors including Satyajit Ray, Tapan Sinha, Ajoy Kar, Hiren Nag among others. However, it does not make any attempt to stride outside the mainstream.
The film has music composed by Hemanta Mukhopadhyay and a fairly straight-forward script. The growing understanding and sympathy between Dipu and Kanak is understated and sublime. Dialogues take place only where the exchange of words is needed, the actual communication happens more through expressions. The aristocratic ambience is created through rather detailed sets and establishing shots of a vintage mansion — Rajbari of the Gaine at Dhankuria (north of Calcutta). It is majestic palace with spires and turrets. The central compound or the thakurdalan is awe-inspiring, so are the verandahs and corridors, shots of which you can see in the film.
Sab kichhu bojhano ki jai (Suryatapa, 1965) Hemanta Mukhopadhyay / Gauriprasanna Majumdar / Hemanta Mukhopadhyay
Uttam Kumar, in his characteristic style, exudes the arrogance of a wealthy aristocrat with elan. Sandhya Roy, with her girlish charm fits the role of Kanak – a compassionate, soft innocence that hides a steely resolve. Interestingly, in Ray’s Kapurush and Tapan Sinha’s Jatugriha released in the same year, you will find women characters who outshine their male counterparts in terms of their strength of resolve to hold on to their individual identity and self-respect. Suryatapa may not match up to these classic in terms of the craft of film making, but in terms of celebrating the strength of a woman, it surely carves its place.
In fact, Kanak’s deep sense of self-respect is her biggest jewel. When a wisened Dipu realizes her true value and proposes marriage, to his dismay Kanak turns it down. Why? Only because she would not want him to marry her for the sake of giving Bablu the stability of parents, for the sake of pity. Suryatapa leaves the viewer with a feel good factor of watching the resilience and indomitability of a woman emerging victorious against insurmountable odds.
(This article was first published in Du-kool)
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