Sargam (1979) is a Hindi remake of the 1976 Telugu film Siri Siri Muvva. It was part of an influx of talent from the South in Hindi films in the late 1970s. Director K Vishwanath and star Jaya Prada were retained from the Telugu original. It was Jaya Prada’s first Hindi film, and perhaps for the best that she had no dialogue as she famously spoke no Hindi at the time.

Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s songs are easy on the ear, frequently incorporating the dafli and ghungroos that signify the central characters, and shot in locations that range from Ooty (Parbat ke Us Paar) to Kashmir (Dafliwale). The dances, by veteran choreographer PL Raj, are both sweet and energetic, and make generous use of Jaya Prada’s butter-wouldn’t-melt demeanour as well as her signature move, as sort of one-footed running step.

Sargam is a well-intentioned but dated curiosity. The plot is pure masala but, like many films of the era, it seems to want to be socially progressive, introducing serious societal problems and presenting them earnestly and sympathetically. Unfortunately, instead of challenging the status quo, the movie ignores it entirely. Poverty, disability, human trafficking: all of these are easily transcended and resolved with a wave of the hand. Nevertheless, 40 years after its release, and post MeToo, Sargam emerges almost in spite of itself as a story of female agency.

Hema (Jaya Prada) is an unconventional heroine. In the movie’s opening moments, we see her communing with nature, calling silently to the birds (they answer) before breaking into a joyful dance. Moments later, she sways gracefully and practises her footwork ankle deep in muck as she does chores at home. Hema is dumb, but in spite of this, the film positions her as ideal marriage material, beautiful and domestic.

Dafaliwale Dafali Baja, Sargam (1979).

There is no mention of trying to cure her; rather, anyone who fails to see past her disability to appreciate her many qualities, is at fault. This stance is somewhat undermined by the fact that Hema is thoroughly infantilised by the people who care about her most. Her gentleness, idealism, and love of nature are all equated with childishness. When she finally takes matters into her own hands and determines to earn a living, her efforts are met with consternation: her talent is far too pure and precious to be wasted on something so prosaic.

Hema’s household includes her father, Master Pradhan (Shreeram Lagoo, whose craggy features and flared nostrils convey much), a renowned former dancer-turned-schoolmaster leaning heavily on his cane and suffering from heart palpitations, and her wicked stepmother Savitri (Shashikala) who is bent on turning her own daughter, Champa (Rajni Sharma) into a film heroine, and resents Hema’s superior dancing talent.

Completing the picture are Gopi (Asrani), Hema and Champa’s ever-present dance master, and Raju (Rishi Kapoor), a wandering musician, who has no family of his own (“Insaaniyat tere gharana hai,” a character tells him). Raju is boisterous but observant, and is regarded as a son by both Master Pradhan and the village priest (Om Shivpuri). Raju is clearly besotted with Hema, but also genuine in his wish to see her happily married to someone else.

Ghungroos, in the language of Bollywood, are the preserve of devdasis and tawaifs, used as symbolic shackles tying a woman to her fate. Sargam is the rare movie that inverts this trope (the other notable exception is Waheeda Rehman in Guide). For Hema, ghungroos are an instrument of liberation: the bells literally give her a voice.

And she comes to life when she begins to dance. Flowers bloom, celestial voices sing, and she is transported to a higher plane. Making it doubly cruel when her wicked stepmother (Shashikala) routinely confiscates her ghungroos as punishment.

In Parbat ke Us Paar, Hema sneaks away from her house and seizes the opportunity to dance is transformed from downtrodden girl into a whirlwind of energy, her long limbs cutting the air, her surroundings changed to a flower bedecked and candy-coloured landscape. As an act of defiance, it is remarkably gentle, but nevertheless gets her point across.

Parbat Ke Is Paar Parbat, Sargam (1979).

Hema’s stepmother hatches a scheme to raise money by marrying her off for a high price. Meanwhile, on a foray into the city, Raju befriends Kusum (Aruna Irani), whose husband has sold her into prostitution. He helps to rescue her, beating her assailant to a pulp, then striding home to confront her husband. Raju returns to the village just in time for Hema’s wedding, and promptly recognises the groom as none other than Kusum’s husband-pimp, Prakash (Shakti Kapoor).

He attempts to stop the marriage, but his objections are squelched until he raises a ruckus with his dafli, using music where words failed, and giving a virtuoso performance that doesn’t end until his hands bleed. Kusum arrives with the police in tow, in the nick of time. But the stress is too much for Master Pradhan’s heart, and he collapses. Raju vows to take responsibility for Hema and get her safely married to someone deserving of the honour. And they strike off, leaving the village behind them.

In the world of Sargam, music and dance are venerated. Several songs have a spiritual flavor. This effect is amplified by the fact that much of the action unfolds in religious spaces. After Hema and Raju leave the village, they set up house in an abandoned temple by the sea, and communicate via percussion. In Koyal Bole Duniya Dole, Hema reaffirms her connection with nature, bobbing and strutting in imitation of her beloved birds. But the idyll cannot last for long.

Koyal Bole, Duniya Dole, Sargam (1979).

Raju, who has been coughing since the beginning of the movie, is diagnosed with tuberculosis. In a montage worthy of the nation-building films of an earlier era, we see him toiling by day in a factory bottling Duke’s Mangola, and by night making sugarcane juice on an industrial press shot to look like a steam engine. Kusum now has a job producing stage shows, and both Hema and Raju go to work in her theatre, keeping it a secret from each other. They come face to face in the wings.

Mujhe Mat Roko, Mujhe Gaane Do is one of the few songs in the movie that takes place in real time, rather than within Hema’s daydreams. They face off on a stage set designed to evoke the classical arts. Jaya Prada is statuesque, showing off her wingspan as her character visibly gains confidence.

Mujhe Mat Roko, Mujhe Gaane Do, Sargam (1979).

Following this showdown, the ghungroos speak again. In fact, they fall to the ground to get Hema’s attention, and she knows what she must do. She makes Raju a none-too-subtle marriage proposal – she garlands his dafli together with her bells – as she imagines a happy future on a hillside abloom with roses and dahlias in Dafliwale.

Conveniently, since the end of the running time is drawing near and there are still many loose ends to tie up, Prakash reappears, seeking vengeance. His goons kidnap Raju, and leave him bound and gagged in another, more desolate abandoned mandir. Hema takes up the dafli like a soldier going into battle, and marches through the trees, raising the alarm. He manages to summon help by ringing the temple bell with his head, making neat use of the recurring symbolism. Upon learning that it was Hema who saved him, Raju sees her in a new light, as a fully-fledged, capable grown-up, and all is resolved.