books to film

Book versus movie: ‘Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda’ is a masterly adaptation of a brilliant novel

The themes of Dharamvir Bharti’s novel are beautifully explored in Shyam Benegal’s adaptation.

Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (1992) is a rare instance of two great minds from Indian cinema and literature coming together to create something extraordinary, with no hint of rancour or regret on either side.

Shyam Benegal’s complex and multi-layered film is based on a 1952 novel by renowned Hindi writer and playwright Dharamvir Bharati. After seeking Bharati’s permission to adapt the novel, Benegal kept asking the writer to have a look at Shama Zaidi’s screenplay. Such was Bharati’s confidence in Benegal’s craft that he refused to look at the screenplay or offer any suggestions.

This is a tough book to translate on screen, and only a director of the calibre and sensibilities of Benegal could have pulled it off. A lesser director would have left us bored, cold and unmoved by the events on the screen.

Writer and critic Sachchidananda Vatsyayan Agneya writes in the preface that to call Bharati a “genius” is unfair – it is akin to weighing someone down with a huge adjective and then dismissing them lightly. Genius is not understood, he says, we only recognise its symptoms.

One couldn’t agree more. To appreciate a work of the depth of Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda with all its abstract ideas is beyond the pale of the lay reader and yet, everyone can relate to the work. The reason is Bharati’s technique, which Agneya terms Alif Laila, Panchatantra or Kissagoyi – the age-old technique of storytelling.

Play
Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (1992).

The novel was Bharati’s second after Gunahon Ka Devta (1949). In his debut, Bharati dealt with love, family bonds, idealism, and the socio-economic divide. Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda begins by critiquing tragic love stories such as Devdas, but by the end of the novel, the reader has travelled far beyond simple love stories into Bharati’s complex universe, where these romances need to be placed against the socio-economic realities of the times in which they are set. The novel challenges readers at every twist in every story to question what they have just read.

The protagonist is Manik Mulla, a raconteur who can be relied upon for an entertaining yarn or two. This may seem incongruous to a millennial, but it was not uncommon for Indians in the early decades after independence to sit around in the evenings, gossip, play cards, drink, sing and generally pass their time in the company of friends. This is what happens on most afternoons, when Manik regales his friends with a new story.

The name of the protagonist has befuddled many readers and viewers. Is Manik Mulla a Hindu or a Muslim? This is undoubtedly a deliberate device used by Bharati to pique the reader’s interest. The mystery is solved by Bharati in the preface. Manik is a Kashmiri, which explains the Hindu-sounding first name, and Mulla is a Kashmiri Pandit surname.

Full credit goes to Shama Zaidi, Shyam Bengal’s regular collaborator, for writing a screenplay so powerful that at no stage does the film let down the novel.

Over several afternoons, Manik (Rajit Kapur) tells his friends about the three women he met at various stages of his life. These women not only represent different human qualities but also different economic sections. Jamuna (Rajeshwari Sachdev) is a romantic-turned-realist from the lower-middle class who transforms from a pulp fiction-reading young adult into a worldly-wise woman who marries a wealthy but aged man for a better life. Lily (Pallavi Joshi) is a wealthy idealist who agrees to marry Tanna, a man she doesn’t love, only to constantly taunt him for failing to meet her expectations. The third woman is Satti (Neena Gupta), a woman of unknown parentage who manufactures and sells soap for a living. Each of these women influence Mulla’s thinking and mould his personality.

Pallavi Joshi and Rajeshwari Sachdev in Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda. Courtesy Sahyadri Films.
Pallavi Joshi and Rajeshwari Sachdev in Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda. Courtesy Sahyadri Films.

Jamuna is older than Manik and very affectionate, but the teenaged Manik has no love lost for her. She is selfish and craves worldly comforts, and yet unhesitatingly helps Manik. Lily, the love of Manik’s life, is cold to her husband’s plight, leading him to ruin. Satti is the one who teaches Manik about humanity, and yet, he betrays her when she needs him the most. His past comes back to haunt Manik in the end.

Superbly nuanced performances by a stellar ensemble cast, which includes Amrish Puri, Raghubir Yadav and KK Raina, make the film a treat.

Bharati hints in the preface that Marxist thought was a huge influence on his life. What he perhaps meant to convey was that like Karl Marx, he viewed history through the prism of class struggle. Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda is a scathing commentary on values and attitudes that have been conditioned by class struggle. The book and film force you to think about abstract concepts such as love juxtaposed against the realities of poverty and class distinctions. Would the course of true love have run smooth had the characters been wealthy? How many more Devdases and Tannas will it take before young men stand up to their fathers and honour their love? Will human beings stand by each other if they are not bogged down by social expectations? Is moral corruption irreversible?

Contrary to Manik’s protestations in the beginning, the novel does not denounce love or love stories. It reaffirms our faith in humanity and proclaims love and kindness to be the highest of human qualities.

The title is a reference to the chariot of the sun god in Hindu mythology, which is pulled by seven white horses. Towards the end of the film and the book, Manik explains to his friend that when all other six horses have become tired and weak, it is the seventh horse, the one that represents dreams, that gives us hope for a better future. Manik Mulla says it best:

  “And yet there is something; something that has inspired and strengthened our resolve to pierce the darkness, to challenge and change the social order, and to re-establish the simple values and ideals of humanity. Whether you call it our conscience, our soul, or something else. And faith, courage and belief in the truth, push forth this luminous soul, just as the seven horses take forward the chariot of the Sun-god.”

The central idea of Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda – an unshakable belief in humanity is universal and timeless. This makes Dharamvir Bharati’s book relevant 65 years after it was published. Benegal’s gem from 1992 hasn’t lost its lustre either.

Amrish Puri, Neena Gupta and Lalit Mohan Tiwari in Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda. Courtesy Sahyadri Films.
Amrish Puri, Neena Gupta and Lalit Mohan Tiwari in Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda. Courtesy Sahyadri Films.

(Nirupama Kotru is a civil servant; 1992 was also the year she joined service. Views, and the translation from the original Hindi text, are her own.)

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

It’s the new year and it’s already time to plan your next holiday

Here are some great destinations for you to consider.

Vacation planning can get serious and strategic. Some people swear by the save and splurge approach that allows for one mini getaway and one dream holiday in a year. Others use the solo to family tactic and distribute their budget across solo trips, couple getaways and family holidays. Regardless of what strategy you implement to plan your trip, the holiday list is a handy tool for eager travellers. After having extensively studied the 2018 holiday list, here’s what we recommend:

March: 10 days of literature, art and culture in Toronto

For those you have pledged to read more or have more artistic experiences in 2018, Toronto offers the Biblio-Mat, the world’s first randomising vending machine for old books. You can find the Biblio-Mat, paper artefacts, rare books and more at The Monkey’s Paw, an antiquarian bookseller. If you can tear yourself away from this eclectic bookstore, head over to The Public Library in Toronto for the Merril Collection of over 72000 items of science fiction, fantasy magic realism and graphic novels. With your bag full of books, grab a coffee at Room 2046 – a café cum store cum studio that celebrates all things whimsical and creative. Next, experience art while cycling across the 80km Pan Am Path. Built for walking, running, cycling and wheeling, the Pan Am Path is a recreational pathway that offers a green, scenic and river views along with art projects sprinkled throughout the route. You can opt for a guided tour of the path or wander aimlessly for serendipitous discoveries.

Nothing beats camping to ruminate over all those new ideas collected over the past few days. Make way to Killarney Provincial Park for 2-3 days for some quiet time amongst lakes and hills. You can grab a canoe, go hiking or get back to nature, but don’t forget to bring a tent.

If you use the long-weekend of 2nd March to extend your trip, you get to experience the Toronto Light Festival as a dazzling bonus.

June: 10 days of culinary treats, happy feet and a million laughs in Chicago

Famous for creating the deep-dish pizza and improv comedy, Chicago promises to banish that mid-year lull. Get tickets for The Second City’s Legendary Laughs at The UP-Comedy Club - the company that gave us the legendary Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Key & Peele. All that laughter can sure work up an appetite, one that can be satiated with Lou Malnati’s classic deep-dish pizza. For dessert, head over to the Ferrara Original Bakery for mouth-watering treats.

Chicago in June is pleasant and warm enough to explore the outdoors and what better way to soak in the sunshine, than by having a picnic at the Maggie Daley Park. Picnic groves, wall climbing, mini golf, roller blading – the park offers a plethora of activities for individuals as well as families.

If you use the long weekend of 15th June, you can extend your trip to go for Country LakeShake – Chicago’s country music festival featuring Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley.

August: 7 days in London for Europe’s biggest street festival

Since 1964, the Notting Hill Carnival has been celebrating London’s Caribbean communities with dancing, masquerade and music ranging from reggae to salsa. Watch London burst into colours and sparkle at the Notting Hill Carnival. Home to Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens Museum, London is best experienced by wandering through its tiny streets. Chance encounters with bookstores such as Foyles and Housemans, soaking in historic sights while enjoying breakfast at Arthur’s Café or Blackbird Bakery, rummaging the stalls at Broadway market or Camden Market – you can do so much in London while doing nothing at all.

The Museum of Brand, Packaging and Advertising can send you reminiscing about those old ads, while the Clowns Gallery Museum can give you an insight in clown-culture. If you’d rather not roam aimlessly, book a street-art tour run by Alternative London or a Jack the Ripper Tour.

October: 10 days of an out-of-body experience in Vegas

About 16 km south of the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and St. Rose Parkway in Henderson, lies a visual spectacle. Seven Magic Mountains, an art installation by Ugo Rondinone, stands far away from the wild vibe that people expect in Las Vegas and instead offers a sense of wonder. Imagine seven pillars of huge, neon boulders, stacked up against one another stretched towards the sky. There’s a lot more where that came from, in Las Vegas. Captivating colour at the permanent James Turrell exhibit in Louis Vuitton, outdoor adventures at the Bootleg Canyon and vintage shopping at Patina Décor offer experiences that are not usually associated with Vegas. For that quintessential Vegas show, go for Shannon McBeath: Absinthe for some circus-style entertainment. If you put the holiday list to use, you can make it for the risefestival – think thousands of lanterns floating in the sky, right above you.

It’s time to get on with the vacation planning for the new year. So, pin up the holiday list, look up deals on hotels and flights and start booking. Save money by taking advantage of the British Airways Holiday Sale. With up to 25% off on flight, the offer is available to book until 31st January 2018 for travel up to 31st December in economy and premium economy and up to 31st August for business class. For great fares to great destinations, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.