Sujata is an orphaned Dalit girl brought up by a Brahmin couple with a daughter of their own. Her earliest lesson in long-distance affection comes soon after she has been given shelter by the kind-hearted Upendra (Tarun Bose) and Charu (Sulochana) as a baby. Charu (Sulochana) sings a lullaby to her daughter Rama – the lovely Nanhi Kali Sone Chali – as Sujata cries in the servants’ quarter. Charu isn’t broad-minded enough to take Sujata in her arms, but she comes to the window and continues the song. Its gentle notes carry over to the infant and lull her to sleep.
Sujata (Nutan) is rudely reminded of her position in the caste hierarchy after she has become an adult. The handsome and sensitive Adhir (Sunil Dutt) has fallen for her, but he misunderstands her reticence as an inferiority complex over being adopted. He also doesn’t know that he is supposed to marry Rama (Shashikala). After promising her heart to Adhir, Sujata learns both about the proposed match and plans to marry her off to the first available groom. Then the phone rings.
Bimal Roy’s quietly profound films, including Do Bigha Zamin (1953), Madhumati (1958), Sujata (1959) and Bandini (1963), explored Indian social realities with curiosity, complexity and immense delicacy. A forerunner of Indian neo-realist cinema, Roy created richly textured social dramas in the 1950s and ’60s that wove together romance, humour, tragedy and thought-provoking themes. He found apt situations for songs in his films and ensured that they fit snugly into the narrative.
Sujata has several SD Burman classics that complement the emotional states of the characters. Jalte Hai Jiske Liye, sung by Talat Mehmood, is the song with which Adhir serenades Sujata over the telephone. It’s vintage Bimal Roy: the camera movements and editing cuts are minimal, like the song itself; there are close-ups; the plot moves forward. Sujata is in agony as Adhir mouths Majrooh Sultanpuri’s lyrics in Mehmood’s tremulous voice. He is full of ardour, while she crumples her sari and silently weeps into the phone. Roy rhythmically cuts between the characters and resists any attempts to ruin the moment with flourishes. The rage is all in the lyrics. Adhir tells Sujata that his song is as delicate as glass and must be handled with care – just like Roy treated the sensitive subject of caste discrimination way back in 1959.