A Critic's Meta Review: 5/5
And so here we are again with yet another one of Satyajit Ray’s impeccable adaptations of a classic work of Indian literature - this time, a short (and yet so densely packed with masterfully handled thematic elements and biting social commentary) story by one of India’s most preeminent scribes, Dhanpat Rai Srivastava (better known by his pen name “Munshi Premchand”) entitled “Sadgati” - which translates, roughly, to “Deliverance”.
Though it takes place in a much different setting than the acclaimed 1972 thriller of the same name directed by John Boorman (which itself was also an adaptation of a literary work - a novel by the American author James Lafayette Dickey), the two films certainly share more than a few similarities. Both films, for instance, feature a protagonist who must endure an immense amount of suffering in the pursuit of a rather lofty end; in the case of Dukhi, the tanner who is delegated the Sisyphean task of chopping an extremely thick tree trunk with an extremely wimpy axe (which he attempts to sharpen using some water and a rock, to no avail), that end is the reception of a suggestion by the local panditji (holy man) as to what date would be most “propitious” for his daughter’s engagement to take place on (his daughter, by the way, appears to be no older than eleven years old).
From this, it is obvious that Premchand - and, by extension, Ray - had set out to highlight some of the more absurd tendencies of customary Indian behavior. First of all, the fact that the tanner’s young daughter is about to get married prior to even experiencing her first menstrual cycle is quite ridiculous and (at least to my mother when we watched this movie the other night) upsetting. However, we quickly come to sympathize with the poor guy once we get a load of this so-called “man of God” (Premchand’s words) and his wicked hypocrisy. On the one hand, he is taking aarti, making sacraments to various idols, and reciting verses from the Bhagavad Gita - a book that very strongly makes the case that one should do right by all people, for we are all essentially just different incarnations of the Lord Krishna and, as such, must all be treated with the same degree of reverence and respect; on the other hand, he banishes a man of a lower caste to the exterior of his esteemed palace of worship, subjects him to the most demeaning and futile of tasks, and then refuses to even feed him because, according to his warped logic, the few rotis he has left would not be enough to satisfy him so he is better off just not eating anything at all.
But he is a Brahmin. So things will work out for him and his family. And they do, as even when the whole village begins to turn on him and his sickening wife (who displays more cruelty towards the poor tanner than her comparatively pious husband) following Dukhi’s inevitable death by sheer exhaustion, there is very little they can do other than shoot a cold, hard glance their way and refuse to cooperate with their demands to move the corpse. On top of all that, the one person who is likely more affected by this loss than anyone else - Jhuria, the tanner’s hardworking wife, cannot even bring herself to think beyond the confines of ritualistic Hindu dogmatism, which has her convinced that her deceased husband has brought a curse on her daughter and, as a result, the whole marriage is bound to be nothing but a sham. This figurative notion seems to upset her even more than the literal reality that the man she has married is very much dead.
Perhaps the most powerful scene in this film takes place at the very end, however, when the panditji, his demands to move the tanner’s corpse having been turned down by everyone else in the village, must dispose of Dukhi’s dead body himself. He ends up dragging the corpse, by rope, out of the village and tossing it in a pile of decomposing livestock, where it is then picked apart by crows and vultures.
Following this disposal, the holy man returns to his abode and begins “purifying” the place with water from the Ganges River - which, according to Hindu tradition, is said to possess a sanctifying quality and, thus, remains a prominent fixture of most religious ceremonies - while reciting various prayers. He then draws himself a bath and, though the film soon ends, it is likely that this bath is followed by another one of his infamous naps.
So there you have it: you work hard for others your whole life and your reward is rotting in a pile of detritus while dogs and jackals eat at your remains, while a fat man in a robe who mindlessly hums a few hymns to himself and then sleeps the rest of the day gets to enjoy the fruit of your labor.
Karma at work...surely.