What in us really wants ‘truth’? … We ask the value of this… Why not rather untruth? And uncertainty? Even ignorance? The falseness of a judgement is not necessarily an objection to it… the question is to what extent is it life advancing; and our fundamental tendency is to assert that the falsest judgements… are the most indispensable to us… that to renounce false judgements would be to renounce life, to deny life.
– Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche
“Let them come to see Zeenat’s tits, they will go out forgetting her body and remember the film.”
– Raj Kapoor, director, Satyam Shivam Sundaram
If a film were to be judged by the diversity of reactions it elicits, Satyam Shivam Sundaram is indeed quite successful. While for many viewers, the sole takeaway might be Zeenat Aman’s bare-bodied gorgeousness, some consider it “a rare experiment within the commercial cinema circuit” and even “sublime and subtle”. Though there is nothing subtle about Aman prancing about in diaphanous rags wrapped around her voluptuous figure (throughout the film!), the movie does attempt to grapple with age-old philosophical themes of representation and reality, duality of body and soul, and the nature of beauty within the conventions of mainstream Bollywood cinema.
Satyam Shivam Sundaram (Truth, God, Beauty) is the story of Rupa (Zeenat Aman), an archetypical abhagan (wretched girl), whose misery begins at her birth when her mother dies. She is immediately declared an accursed child and is shunned by others. Later, a freak accident results in scalding oil splashing across one side of her face, leaving her permanently scarred. Nevertheless, she goes about her daily life – alone, yet content.
One day, Rajeev (Shashi Kapoor), an engineer working on a nearby dam, moves to the village. He wakes up at dawn to hear Rupa singing and is instantly mesmerised. He goes about the village looking for her and over the next few days, they get talking. However, she is always veiled, revealing only her body and the unscarred part of her face to him. They regularly meet at a waterfall near the village and eventually fall in love. He asks her to remove her veil, but she says she will do so only after marriage.
After their wedding, when Rajeev unveils her, he is aghast at her disfigurement and refuses to recognise the woman in front of him as Rupa, claiming that the village folk tricked him into getting married to another woman. He goes searching for his lover, Rupa, and meets his wife, who has slipped back into the same veil and state of undress of their courtship days to keep up the earlier pretence. He again tries to unveil her and Rupa expressly forbids him from doing so, saying that the day he returns to his wife, her veil will fall off on its own. They continue their furtive rendezvous by the waterfall, and make love one night.
Rajeev leaves town for work for a few days. On his return, his neighbour informs him that his wife is pregnant. An outraged Rajeev accuses her of adultery, even though others vouch for the fact that Rupa and his wife are the same person. He drags her to the village temple, asking her to swear by god that the child is his. She does, but as always, Rajiv refuses to believe her. Rupa, in what is the first glimmer of female agency in the film, curses her husband and leaves him, telling him that from now onwards, he will see neither his wife, nor his love.
(Skip the following paragraph to avoid (predictable) spoilers!)
Rupa’s broken heart stirs up the heavens and causes relentless downpours that threaten to submerge the village (!) Rajiv then goes to the waterfall looking for Rupa, but is unable to find her. As the residents rush to higher ground, Rupa sings the title song of the film – a plaintive paean to love, truth and beauty. On hearing her voice, Rajeev rushes to the convoy to find her, and yet again does not recognise her! The deluge sweeps them all away and as Rupa is about to drown, in a very expected, Bollywood ex machina denouement, Rajeev suddenly realises that the Rupa of his fantasies and the woman he is married to are actually the same person. He catches hold of her and they swim to the spire of the temple where Rupa had vouched for her fidelity.
While the plot certainly stretches the limits of incredulity, that has never been a concern for Bollywood where the pressing need for a happy ending overrides every other concern. Regarding the film, Raj Kapoor said, “The theme came first. I had to build a story around it. But the story is only important to communicate the theme.”
However, the theme of the dissonance between perception and reality itself is not very consistent. Rajiv’s sudden unprovoked change of heart at the end is completely unexplained. In the beginning of the film, he says that he is all alone in the world. He likes it that way because he can be lost in the world of his dreams, which he considers better than reality. Later, he is presented as an aesthete with an uncharacteristic repulsion for ugliness in all its forms; even a distorted reflection in a house of mirrors at the village fair deeply disturbs him. Like a Grecian philosopher, he searches for the essence of beauty – and finds it in the Rupa of his fantasy. The real Rupa, however, can never come close to the Platonic ideal of his imagination.
Wendy Doniger, in an entertainingly insightful essay on the film, points out, “Rajeev says, ‘I have sinned terribly; I looked for physical beauty and failed to perceive the beauty of your mind.’ But he has not in fact experienced the physical beauty of the veiled Rupa he loves; he has merely imagined it, as she herself insists: ‘You imagine that I am beautiful, but I am ugly.’”
The only time we see the Rupa of Rajeev’s imagination devoid of the duality that she otherwise grapples with is in the song Chanchal Sheetal Nirmal Komal. The mis-en-scene starkly demarcates the real and fantasy worlds: the former is shot on location and Rupa is seen mostly veiled or scarred, while Rajeev’s hallucinations are shot on garish sets with his lover decked in elaborate costumes and the scar noticeably absent.
However, it must be conceded that Rajeev’s fantasies are not merely the solipsist ravings of a mad man. Rupa colludes with him for most of the film, and even after their marriage helps in preserving the idea of his make-believe lover, rather than puncturing it. For it is always Rajeev’s wife who claims that she is Rupa, never the other way round. Towards the end, Rupa does completely abandon him, both as wife and lover. He searches for his lover, but only finds his wife. It is the desertion of the lover that haunts him and forces him to accept his wife so that he can vicariously be with the former through the latter.
In his review of the film, Vir Sanghvi claims, “The film ends on a positive note: perception and reality merging into one.” However, on a closer look, that seems far from the case, as it is reality that ultimately becomes subservient to Rajeev’s imagination. Considering the precedent he has set, if there were a sequel to the film, it would probably have a dreamy Rajeev insisting on Rupa being veiled so that she can be a vehicle for his fantasies. It is for a reason that Rajeev has the last word in the screenplay: “Meri Rupa to bahut sundar hai. Use meri aankhon se dekho.” (My Rupa is very beautiful. Look at her from my eyes.)