Satyakam is one of the most underrated classics of Hrishikesh Mukherjee. After the success of Anupama, Mukherjee went on to turn the light of truth inwards. The result was Satyakam. A huge part of Anupama’s cast and crew was repeated in Satyakam, which included Dharmendra, Sharmila Tagore, David, dialogue writer Rajinder Singh Bedi, lyricist Kaifi Azmi and cameraman Jaywant Pathare.
Satyakam begins with Sanjeev Kumar’s voice over, which tells the mythological tale of Satyakamjabala, a boy who inherits his mother’s lineage as she isn’t sure who his father is. The movie shifts to the year 1946. Satyapriya (Dharmendra) along with his friend Naren (Sanjeev Kumar) builds a bright dream of the independent India. Satyapriya, during the course of one of his projects chances upon Ranjini (Sharmila), who is being lusted after by Kunwar Bikram Singh (Manmohan). Ranjini’s mother eloped with her driver and ever since, Ranjini has been forced to lead a harlot-like existence at Bikram Singh’s palace. Satyapriya develops a soft corner for her but doesn’t intend to marry her. One night, Ranjini is raped by Bikram Singh and the next morning, Satyapriya, extends his hand of support in the form of marriage. Satyapriya’s orthodox grandfather (Ashok Kumar), who runs an ashram, is shocked terribly to see his son bring a lowly woman to his household, who has given birth to a child outside marriage.
Thus begins Satyapriya’s battles with the world. Satyapriya moves from one job to another, unable to compromise with the situations there. His war with falsehood makes him pay a heavy price at every step. Things come to a crisis when Satyapriya is diaganosed with cancer. Ranjini and her son Kabul’s fate is undecided as Satyapriya passes away. Satya’s grandfather arrives to perform the last rites but is shocked again to hear Kabul protest against the decision of him not being allowed to perform the rites of his father. Sharmila reveals to Kabul that he is an illegitimate child and that he is not born from Satyapriya. Dadaji’s wisdom takes a jolt on seeing the effortlessness with which the mother and son are practising the tradition of truth which he has been proud to uphold. He sees the future of his clan in Kabul and his mother Ranjini, who like Jabala has trained her son to traverse the righteous path.
Satyakam has been described by Hrishikesh Mukherjee as his favourite movie among all the gems he has made like Anand, Abhimaan and Golmaal. The same opinion is shared by Dharmendra and Sharmila as well. Dharmendra was so enamoured by the script that he agreed to produce it himself. After the soaring success of Anupama, Hrishikesh Mukherjee went on to repeat the same team for Satyakam as well. However, the music handled by Laxmikant Pyarelal failed to give chartbusters.
But the hallmark of this movie is the story by Narayan Sanyal. Satyakam should be viewed in the milieu it is placed in. The Nehruvian idealism was crumbling under the ambitions of Indira. Decadence had set in and had been acknowledged even by the incumbent forces as absolutely normal. Hence, the protagonist of Satyakam is one of the last specimens of the day to hold on to his beliefs of a better society, backed by better ideals and better human beings. As he passes by, a man remarks “Bada badmash aadmi hai. Rishvat vagera nahi leta” (This man is a fraud. He doesn’t take or give bribe). He sees man as not just a living being but as the biggest representative of God on earth. This conscious effort to keep himself afloat like a lotus separates him from the rest of the society, even his own wife.
When Naren praises Satyapriya before Ranjini saying “Satya toh khara sona hai...” (Satya is like pure Gold), Ranjini shoots back saying “Par pase ke sone ko zevar banane ke liye thoda sa toh khot milana padta hai” (You need some copper in gold to make jewellery out of it). This is the tragedy of Satyakam. The character of Satyapriya is a personification of the ideals on which our independence was built. Hence he bubbles with fresh energy when the nation is independent and gradually loses his sheen as the years roll on. As we reach the year 1969, he has become a memory, just to be adored and a matter of past.
Dharmendra excels in what is arguably the greatest performance of his career. He wasted his career in many a cheap action movie mouthing the choicest of expletives. Satyakam shows what he was capable of, if given a chance.
Sharmila’s Ranjini mirrors somewhere the emotions of a Kasturba Gandhi-like character, who was forced to follow many sets of ideals just for the sake of her husband and often expostulated against the ideals being imposed on her. Sharmila carries with élan the role of a fallen woman, who turns to an idealistic world overnight. Her face reflects suppressed dignity in the scenes where she tries to put on a cheerful face in the face of difficulty. She holds herself against the author backed role of Dharmendra. Sanjeev Kumar shows all signs of an actor on the rise. He plays the sutradhaar, whose voice-over carries the entire movie till the end. Ashok Kumar in a strong cameo, heightens the drama and brings justice to the irony of the climax.
Satyakam shows how far we have come from the ideal and shows a very displeasing image of ours in the mirror of the cinema screen. Perhaps that was why Satyakam was a box office failure. Like a torch bearer of truth in the darkness of the present age, Satyakam will live on as long as the validity of truth will exist.