Munshi Premchand’s short story Panch Parmeshwar is the story of two close friends, Jumman Sheikh and Algu Chowdhary. Algu is called upon to perform duty as a sarpanch in a dispute involving Jumman and his old aunt. Much to everyone’s surprise, Algu rules in favour of Jumman’s aunt. Jumman is angry at this betrayal and vows to take revenge. He gets an opportunity when it is his turn to mediate between Algu and Samjhu Sahu.

As soon as he assumes the sarpanch’s seat, Jumman realises the importance of his position. Thus transformed, he ends up giving a fair decision that favours Algu. Panch Parmeshwar is a remarkable tale of how ordinary people can draw upon their inner sense of fair play, justice, righteousness and devotion to duty when put to the test.

Panch Parmeshwar has echoes in two movies about idealistic public servants – Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam (1969) and Amit Masurkar’s Newton (2017). Mukherjee’s film is based on Narayan Sanyal’s Bengali novel Satyakam, and it stood out among the mainstream films of that decade. Satyapriya (Dharmendra) is a civil engineer who sets out, degree in hand, with a dream to build the nation. His woes begin almost immediately.

Satyapriya is shown as obdurate and unflinching in his devotion to the straight and narrow path, and he has no inclination to return the romantic overtures of Ranjana (Sharmila Tagore). When Ranjana is sexually assaulted by his employer, Satyapriya marries her in a fit of remorse. However, guilt haunts him, and there is no romance in the marriage.

The plot is tragic, and the viewer’s heart keeps sinking at every turn in the tale. Fleeting redemption comes only towards Satyakam’s final dying moments, when he is able to convert Ranjana to his case.

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Satyakam (1969).

Satyakam was co-written by Bimal Dutta and Rajinder Singh Bedi. The narrative was linear and Satyapriya’s characterisation was severe. Dharmendra did full justice to the role of a flawed hero. The villains are easily identifiable – powerful individuals who exploit the Licence Raj to make money. Bedi’s sarcastic line about Satyapriya, “Yeh aadmi bahut hi badmaash aur paaji hai, rishvat vagerah nahin khaata (This man is a scoundrel, he doesn’t take any bribes),” indicates the changing mindset of 1960s India.

Although despair looms large over Satyakam, there is also the glimmer of hope that even if there is one Satyapriya amongst us, Indians may yet survive and prosper. Perhaps Satyapriya was Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s idea of a Gandhian, one who never wavers from his duty even at the cost of neglecting his family responsibilities.

The titular hero of Newton (played by Rajkummar Rao) is equally unflinching in his devotion to duty – though what exactly is his duty, whether he can correctly comprehend it, and whether he is able to fulfil it, is subject to the viewer’s interpretation.

Unlike Satyapriya, who is Raja Harishchandra and Yudhishtra rolled into one, unassuming Newton is yet to obtain mythical proportions. He is an ordinary man and is more likely to invest in human relationships, and this aspect of his personality may yet save him from annihilation.

Newton is a Gandhian who also follows Ambedkar (the latter’s picture adorns the wall in his room). Newton may have stood up to his parents against child marriage and dowry, but he would perhaps not be averse to getting married. Satyapriya is a loner; Newton takes his team along, whether it is the local recruit Malko (Anjali Patil) or the old hand Loknath (Raghubir Yadav).

Newton faces a complex situation in his very first job. It’s not enough for Newton to act as presiding officer of an election in a Chhattisgarh village. He has to understand for himself what a “free and fair election” means. He is pitted against the paramilitary officer Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), who is also diligently performing his duty.

Satyapriya has to fight the easily identifiable enemy of the state; Newton must face the defenders of the state who do not share his world view. In one of the early sequences in Newton, his trainer tells the character that his problem is that he carries a visible chip on his shoulder. Newton seems convinced that he is the only honest person around, and in this respect, he is as flawed as Satyapriya.

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Newton (2017).

Another big difference is that Newton is naive but a quick learner and waits for the right opportunity to gain the upper hand. Satyapriya represents every honest public servant who loses his or her life while fighting corrupt forces (such as Satyendra Dubey) because they don’t know how to play the game by the rules. Newton survives because he uses his wits.

We need more such heroes, flawed and weak as they may be. We need sincere young men and women who understand what public service means. We need to believe that a weakling can take on the might of the state to defend constitutional values and protect the interests of fellow Indians. We need to believe that an ordinary upper division clerk in a government office can turn into a “Panch Parmeshwar” when the occasion so demands; a public servant who believes in an India where there is space for everybody. We need to believe in the Newton residing inside each one of us, even those of us in public service who have become cynical and who have long abandoned idealism for realism.

We let Satyapriya die. Newton must live.

(Nirupama Kotru is a civil servant. Her batch recently completed 25 years in service. The views are her own.)