Film: Sapno Ka Saudagar
Year of release: 1968
Director: Mahesh Kaul
Writer: M Natesan
Producer: B Ananthaswami
In Bollywood, bad things happen during Hindu festivals, and good things happen when the light of Abrahamic faiths shines bright. This film, which marked Hema Malini’s debut in the Mumbai film industry, is a case in point.
The film opens with a scene where Rai Bahadur Sahab recalls a fateful Diwali night when his wife died.
“That was a Diwali night. Today is also a Diwali night. The darkness that engulfed my life that day, continues to keep my heart in darkness. And perhaps it will be like that forever,” he says. And this is just one scene in a movie that repeatedly panders to the Bollywood narrative that Eid ka Chaand can brighten our lives, people can do good things during Christmas, but only traumatic events happen during the most important Hindu festival.
There are more stereotypes ahead – Hindu festivals only bring joy to those with the means. Rai Bahadur ill-treats women. The pandit is a bigot who practices untouchability. Hindu girls want to escape their families. The list doesn’t end quickly.
Interestingly, the writer is much kinder to Christianity. The protagonist Raju finds kindness and compassion in the house of an old Catholic woman who waits for her son to return from the war. When the villagers attack Raju and Mahi over a misunderstanding, the couple takes shelter under a cross. Sunlight seeps in brightly from behind a holy cross when all works out well in the end and long-lost relatives meet.
Producer B Ananthaswami carefully plugs in the message that the holy cross dispels the darkness spread by Diwali.
Raju repeatedly reminds us that Indian society should change its course in favour of Marxism. He was born into a wealthy family but has selflessly given away his wealth to the poor. He is an antithesis to the Rai Bahadur Sahab – a rich, land-grabbing capitalist with no sympathy for his poor tenants’ plight and treats the women in his family shabbily.
In Bollywood, how can you be a decent human if you are called Rai Bahadur Sahab? Khan Bahadur Sahabs can be honourable and secretly lovely, but Rai Bahadur Sahab hardly has any redeeming qualities.
Progressive ideas in the movie are limited to land ownership issues only. When it comes to women, it has only two kinds. One is the weepy victim, and the other is a brazen seductress. Mahi, played by Hema Malini, is the latter. She is quick to drop her clothes till Raju teaches her how good women must behave.
Raju patronizingly reminds her that she can achieve true joy and respect only when she is taken as a wife by a good man. He declares that family, country and humanity will fail if a woman forgets her rightful place beside her husband.
Mahi falls in love with him for sharing these ideas. Their banter is filled with double meanings. Even then, she asks him if he is a man or God.
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