At the risk of being critically slaughtered by puritan academics of literature who may feel hit by lightning, Calcutta University has just introduced a syllabus in its Masters’ course in English Literature that, among several Sally Potter films, has included Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay and Ajoy Kar’s Bengali film Saptapadi.

For film critics like yours truly who could not study cinema academically, the very idea of including mainstream films into mainstream academics, that too, within English Literature, is a dream-come-true reality which the youngsters will be able to take advantage of. This however, does not mean that Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Eliot, Beckett, Pinter, Derrida, Foucault and Marquez will be shown the exit door.

This means that the horizon of academics at the postgraduate level will expand considerably. The choice of the two Indian films are significant and logical because they are mainstream, they are box office hits and they are timeless because these are loved films across time and space. Let us take a closer look.

Sholay (1975)

Ramesh Sippy’s all-time hit Sholay is perhaps the most-reviewed film in Hindi mainstream cinema. But no critic has ever explored its possibilities of reading it as a road movie. Probably because the storyline had different layers – revenge, love, hate, bonding, pride, solidarity, integrity, courage, greed, fun, happiness, and so on. Sholay is such an all-encompassing film covering every kind of human emotion that one completely misses out on pointing out the rootlessness, the sense of casual adventure, the bonhomie and the essential loneliness of the two small-time thieves Veeru and Jai.

Till Veeru and Jai reach Ramgarh to take on the assignment Thakur has for them, they are constantly on the move. When their pockets are empty and they must settle down before the next action, they get themselves caught by the police and take some respite in prison. Veeru and Jai are thieves. But they are good-natured, simple, bold, strong and extremely likeable souls.

The two have neither home, nor family, nor any roots to hold on to. Nor does one notice any desire in them to get rooted and settle down in one place. They appear to be quite content with their lives in a constant state of flux, geographically and financially. The film opens with the two friends singing away yeh dosti hum nahin bhoolenge on a funny mobike with a flexible carrier that moves away and comes back to join the main vehicle during the song. As the film moves in flashback, we find them inside a moving train where they meet the much-younger Thakur for the first time.

When they meet him again many years later at Ramgarh, his hair has turned white but Veeru and Jai remain as young as they were when the film began. Thakur’s hair has turned white before time probably because of the shock of losing his entire family except the younger bahu in the vengeful attack by Gabbar Singh. Veeru and Jai’s rootlessness and living away from the mainstream appears to have stopped the ageing process for them.

The two metaphors of wanting to belong, wanting to be loved, are expressed when Veeru says he wants to get out of thieving, marry, and have a train of kids. Jai’s mouth organ, a small musical instrument that can travel with its owner everywhere, is a symbol of his desire to be loved and to belong. Every night, he sits outside his outhouse in the Thakur’s mansion and plays on the mouth organ, waiting for Radha, the widowed young daughter-in-law to come out on the balcony.

The tune he plays is the same everyday, because that is probably the only tune he knows to play. It is a sad, melancholic tune that reflects the sadness of his life and the pathos underwritten in the solemn and silent face of the widow. It is also a silent pointer to the tragic end of this love story. When the film ends, it is again inside a train where Basanti, the tongewalli, is waiting to go away with Veeru to begin a new life together. Will they settle down to domesticity? The film keeps the question hanging in the air.

The sub-texts in the film are interwoven with journeys. One journey is the one Sachin takes on the back of a donkey making his way to a job opening in the city. It turns out to be a journey of no return when the donkey trots back to Ramgarh slowly without its rider. Basanti running away in her tonga pleading with Dhanno to take care of her ijjat when Gabbar’s men are on a hot chase is another brief journey, the first step towards the long-winded melodramatic and action-packed climax.

The flashbacks into Thakur’s past and the past of the two good-hearted goons are stranded together with journeys across time and space with the train and the railway tracks as a repetitive motif, giving the narrative a circular structure that opens and closes in a moving train. There is a beautifully shot and edited scene of men on horseback running parallel to the running train when the dacoits and the police are pitted against each other.

Basanti’s tonga is a motif of Basanti’s unusual characterization. The trotting sounds of the horses pulling the tonga with Basanti wielding the whip from time to time is a sound metaphor that suggests her dynamic character. She is a strong young woman, courageous enough to carry male passengers from the nearest station to the village and back. Yet, she is also naïve who cannot see through the simple tricks Veeru invents to draw her attention. She does not deny her femininity and slowly falls in love with Veeru. She is naughty – she puts on the postman’s spectacles while pretending to read a letter to the old Muslim priest of the dargah.

According to several studies, this film has “borrowed” from some famous international classics which, it may be satirically said that “copying from one source is plagiarism, copying from several sources is research. But research implies the researchers citing their sources which Sippy did not. Yet, the film remains an example of how to make an all-time classic that every section of the audience loves just by “copying” from here and there.

Saptapadi (1961)

Set against the backdrop of World War II, Saptapadi begins with the present and goes into flashback. The reverend Krishnendu (Uttam Kumar) runs a military hospital in Bankura. A drunken Anglo-Indian nurse is brought to him for treatment and he recognizes her as his former love Rina Brown (Suchitra Sen). The two of them were fellow medical students who initially clashed with each other but fell in love following a stage performance of Othello where Krishnendu played Othello to Rina's Desdemona.

Rina's father agrees to the match providing Krishnendu converts to Christianity. Rina does not want him to change his religion for her but Krishnendu is willing to do anything for her. His father, a staunch, orthodox Brahmin, (Chhabi Biswas) visits Rina and tells her he will never accept this marriage and pleads with Rina to let Krishnendu, his only son, go. Rina sacrifices her love even as Krishnendu converts to Christianity. She says she cannot marry him because she has lost respect for a man who can give up his religion so easily!

It is an excuse she hides behind and it changes their lives forever. In response, Krishnendu, now a different man, says, “I believe in only one religion - the religion of mankind. There is no difference between a temple or a church in that religion.” During an argument with her British father, Rina discovers that she is the illegitimate daughter of her maid (Chhaya Devi) who her father had impregnated but did not marry.. She becomes an alcoholic and joins the army as a nurse with the Red Cross. Back in the present when Rina realizes the doctor who treated her is Krishnendu, she tries to kill herself. Ultimately the lovers are united in the midst of the war.

The choice of Saptapadi may have been sparked by the following reasons:

(a) the story is adapted from Jnanpeeth Award-winning author Tarasankar Bandopadhyay’s cinema-friendly novel of the same name,
(b) its beautiful storyline of love created and lost and united again structured within a carefully designed screenplay against the backdrop of atheism versus belief,
(c) the interspersing with a small scene from Shakespeare’s Othello that links with the racial and caste-centric links to the tragic love story,
(d) the wonderful musical score and song picturisation,
(e) the brilliant lighting and camera work by the director Ajoy Kar,
(f) the touch of conversion from Hinduism to Christianity by the hero,
(g) and the magic of romance spelt out graphically on screen by Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen without any kissing or intimate scenes or skin-show.

The story carried as many dramatic elements but this did not appear to be forced impositions. The issue of illegitimacy is brought out through Rina Brown’s being the offspring of parents who never married and her mother remained a maid all her life only to be shot while trying to save her daughter. Krishnendu’s father persuades Rina not to marry his only child and alienate him from his parents.

Krishnendu converts to Christianity to fulfil Rina’s father’s condition. By then, Rina, having promised his father to keep away from Krishnendu, shuts her door to him forever. Krishnendu becomes a Catholic priest who, as doctor, goes away to a leper’s colony to treat lepers and to tend to the occasional victim of World War II.

This is how Rina Brown re-enters his life, now reduced to a World War II nurse of the Red Cross, addicted to smoking and drinking, a wreck of her former self. She is no more than an over made-up, drunken, Anglo-Indian who also entertains the war troops. These ingredients fit neatly into the commercial mould yet, Ajoy Kar’s treatment, approach and style married to lovely music by Hemanta Mukhopadhyay and brilliant cinematography by Ajoy Kar makes is a classic film and perhaps a masterpiece of the time when it was released.

Saptapadi released just after Durga Pooja on 20th October 1961. It ran without break for 15 long weeks drawing a full house in each show, bringing back four times the money invested. Based on an extremely cinema-friendly novel by Jnanpeeth awardee late Tarasankar Bandopadhyay, the film was produced by Uttam Kumar and directed by one of the most outstanding mainstream directors of the time, Ajoy Kar who also cinematographed the film. Saptapadi was the 23rd film in which Suchitra and Uttam were paired as star-crossed lovers.

In the original story, there was no happy ending. In the celluloid representation, for commercial reasons, a happy ending was concocted and according to reports, Bandopadhyay did not complain.