Shyam Benegal’s docudrama Susman (The Essence, 1987) opens with gorgeous sarees filling the screen. Vanraj Bhatia’s striking soundtrack plays as Mandira (Neena Gupta), a designer, slides her hands over each saree, feeling its texture and commenting on its distinct design and colour. Mandira is preparing for an exhibition and knows exactly what she wants. While her glamorous models suggest the patrons of such sarees, Benegal’s film is about the endeavour of the threadbare community that weaves them.

Later in the film, Ila Arun’s rendition of “Charkha chaley “(the wheel spins on) is as much a weaver’s mantra as it is a metaphor for life.

In his seminal work, Film As Visual Anthropology, Chidananda Dasgupta writes, “Both [Manthan and Susman] show a singular ability to make fiction out of documentary material without compromising the complexity and basic truth of the material… With Benegal we reach the frontiers of documentary and fiction and get the feeling that beyond this point, the portrayal would cease to be recognisable.”

Far from city and spotlight, in the village of Pochampally in Andhra Pradesh, Ramulu (Om Puri), a highly skilled weaver, works at his loom. While he is determined that his schoolgoing son shall not inherit this small existence, Ramulu’s wife Gauramma (Shabana Azmi) is more concerned that their daughter Chinna (Pallavi Joshi) be married soon. A frustrated and violent brother (Annu Kapoor) and his much abused wife Janki (Ila Arun) are Ramulu’s other dependants.

Susman (1987).

The main characters keep the storyline strong and firmly sketched minor characters do not go unnoticed. A homeless weaver Gundayya (Pankaj Kapur in an outstanding cameo) knows his wife is cheating on him but would rather quit his job than endure his wife even rightly being accused of theft. Parvatamma has given her word that her son will marry Chinna and that has nothing to do with whether or not Chinna’s family can pay dowry. Bhima is ready to fight corruption in his village rather than be swallowed by the city like his brother Nageshwar.

And there is Yellamma, Gundayya’s wife, whose worldly possessions are little more than a crumpled collection of magazine pages – her escape from soul killing reality.

Struggling in a thankless, precarious web, Ramulu weaves tirelessly and Kabir’s poetry, movingly sung by Pandit Jasraj, conveys his commitment:

“Very delicate is this cloth; woven of the finest threads; what makes the warp; and of what is the weft

And where are the fine threads the cloth was woven with? The nerves of this body; are the warp and the weft; The thread has been spun; from the essence of the soul.” 

Ramulu is a man of integrity. When he is accused of stealing yarn and designing a saree by Mandira and her agent Narasimha (Kulbhusan Kharbanda), Ramulu’s silence is less to do with guilt than humiliation. He had known of the theft committed by his wife and warned her of consequences, but Gauramma had not heeded. Ramulu does not resist Mandira as she holds forth but after she leaves and Narsimha lashes out at him, Ramulu says he has had enough and refuses to function anymore.

Shama Zaidi’s excellent script now empowers Shabana Azmi’s fiery Gauramma to tell Narsimha – and the audience – of what it is to be the mercy of an entire system. After Narsimha leaves, Gauramma moves towards her husband, but Ramulu flinches from her touch and turns away. She suffers this moment, but her husband’s continued silence and complete withdrawal from work alarm her. An engrossed audience now watches two fine actors perfectly offset each other in the best scene of the film.

Contrite and almost submissive, Gauramma sits close to Ramulu. He avoids Gauramma’s eyes as she tries to justify her actions. It was, after all, only one saree, not taken for profit bur for their daughter’s wedding, and after all it was she, not he who had committed the theft. As Ramulu sits rigid and mute, Gauramma bursts into rhetoric. She demands to know whether Ramulu has registered a single word she has said. Ramulu gets to his feet, leaves for the kitchen and returns with a flaming piece of wood. He is about to set his loom alight. Gauramma rushes to him, saves the loom and in a moment of utter defeat, he collapses in her arms. The couple weep together for the ignominy he has had to endure and for the life they will always be fettered to.

Om Puri in Susman (1987).

A remarkable actor, Om Puri has always been able to speak through silence. No viewer could possibly forget the naked mistrust and terror in the eyes of Lahaniya Bhiku ( Aakrosh, 1980) or the knowing but helpless glances of Dukhi in Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati (1981). In Susman, Puri’s character has been given enough words to speak – as the master of his house, an angry, disappointed father and an outraged older brother. But his silences, whether deferential to Mandira or resistant to Narasimha or unyielding to his wife, all carry his unforgettable signature of sobriety.

From yarn to loom to final product, Susman captures the backlash of irregular and inadequate state support for the handloom industry in the 1980s. The village has a co-operative, but it is rife with dishonest officials. Some weavers have ventured out of their home-based, own-paced family looms to seek employment at deafening power looms in the city. They have returned, defeated by the manic pace at which machines work humans. Middle men such as Narasimha serve as unscrupulous agents for the likes of Mandira who in her own way exploits the weavers and eyes a foreign market.

Like all Benegal films, Susman engages, informs and educates.

Approximately 30 years after Susman, when the General Sales Tax seems to be breaking the backbone of Indian handloom weavers, images of Ramulu at his loom return like a spectre and Mandira’s words to a foreign journalist resonate:

“We must make space for creative persons … so they can function even in an industrialised society... (along with) a method by which markets should be made available to craftsmen who work with their own hands. Do you think we should allow our remaining skilled craftsmen to die out or become historical anachronisms?”

Susman (1987).