Dilip Kumar towered over Hindi cinema for decades. His major non-Hindi film, however, was a noble failure.

In 1970, acclaimed Bengali director Tapan Sinha made Sagina Mahato, inspired by labour unrest in the tea estates of Darjeeling in the early 1940s. Sagina Mahato starred Dilip Kumar, Saira Banu and Anil Chatterjee. The Hindi remake, Sagina, followed four years later.

Sinha was coming off the successes of Hatey Bajarey (1967) and Apanjan (1968), both well-regarded explorations of class relations. Her met Kumar through a common friend. “His gentle, friendly nature evoked instant enthusiasm in me to explore the subject of the film he had brought with him,” Kumar recalled in an interview with IANS in 2009. “We met quite often during his stay in Mumbai. The more we interacted and exchanged thoughts, the more convinced I was that I should work with him.”

A poster of Sagina Mahato (1970).

The 1970 production, shot in black and white, won the National Film Award in the Bengali language category and was also screened at the Moscow International Film Festival. Based on Bengali writer-journalist Gour Kishore Ghosh’s scathing short story of the same name, Sagina Mahato explored the limits of violence as Communist leaders attempted to organise workers against their employers.

The 1974 film was in colour and was made on a bigger budget, but it proved to be a diluted version of the angrier original. While the Hindi remake equally criticised the ruling elite and undemocratic ways of the armed Left, Sagina was tonally inconsistent, careening between star vehicle and serious dramatic fare.

Mahato is portrayed as part-jester and part-leader. While he does not hesitate to physically avenge the mistreatment of an elderly co-worker Gurung (Om Prakash), he also ensures that the workers do not rise up to a rebellion that might disturb the status quo.

Dilip Kumar in Sagina (1974).

Yet, Sagina’s potential earns him a place in a Communist party. Sagina is seduced by the attention, and particularly by the articulate and beautiful party member Vishaka Devi (Aparna Sen). He becomes a welfare officer at the tea estate, but it is later revealed that he is a pawn in a conspiracy cooked up by conniving Leftist leader Aniruddha (Anil Chatterjee) and the factory’s British owners. Back in Darjeeling, the estate’s workers are tortured by the police, and Mahato’s enemies poison their minds against him.

Kumar is fantastic when he isn’t compelled to play the village bumpkin or deliver high-voltage lines. Sinha “respected my commitment to render my scenes as faultlessly as I wished”, Kumar recalled in the IANS interview.

In the occasional well-written scene, Kumar is restrained and beautifully conveys the pathos of betrayal. The sequence in which Mahato and Vishaka Devi share stories of their upbringing is the most poignant in the film, and is better remembered than the song Saala Main To Sahab Ban Gaya.

Saala Main To Sahab Ban Gaya.

Corrections and clarifications

The original article erroneously stated that Sagina Mahato was Dilip Kumar’s only non-Hindi film. He had made a guest appearance in the Bengali-language Pari in 1966.