You may fall from your chair to read it in 2015 but the fact remains that in 1960 Bengal was the most industrially advanced state of India.It’s industrial output was much higher than Gujarat,Karnataka,Hariyana & Tamilnadu. Except Maharashtra there was no state which was close to Bengal to compete as most preferred industrial location in India. Calcutta was home of maximum number of MNCs doing business in India & there was hardly any world famous airlines that has no stop over at it’s airport in Dumdum. Almost all financial institutions & big banks had their head office in Calcutta except few like HSBC. India’s only automobile & only record factory were also in Bengal & needless to say tea, small engineering & jute industries were at it’s zenith.
Calcutta based newspapers like The Statesman & Amrita Bazar Patrika were counted with maximum intellectual respect. Till his death the first newspaper Jawaharlal Neheru used to pick in morning was The Statesman & not The Hindustan Times ( funded by his patron G D Birla ) or not even The National Herald ( a newspaper founded & once edited by Neheru himself ). Thus was the power of Bengali intelegentia that theatre groups across India used to watch what Shambhu Mitra or Badal Sarkar is doing in Calcutta stage. Cinema was no exception.Forget titans like Ray or Ghatak the mainstram commercial directors like Tarun Majumdar, Tapan Sinha,Ajoy Kar etc were under constant watch of Bollyhood movie mughals like V Shantaram, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor & Bimal Roy.Bombay cinema world used to follow Bengali commercial movies with utter importance for it’s exceptional literature based stories, lights, camera, music & acting performance. In such an era a Bengali movie was relased in Calcutta on 20th October 1961.”Saptapadi” ( meaning the seven steps of togetherness ) the movie was loaded with all that a romantic Bengali of 1960 can dream of. It had Bengali heart throbs like Uttam Kumar & Suchitra Sen in leads & music scored by Hemant Kumar. Directed by Ajoy Kar a man with ample repute of telling good story on screen the movie rocked Bengal & East Pakistan ( a province of Pakistan till 1971 – now an independent country named Bangladesh ) like a cyclone. It will be worth mentioning that in those days India made Bengali movies were allowed to release in East Pakistan which was much bigger a cinema market than West Bengal.
The excellent camera work,outstanding script,unforgettable songs & above all the giant named Uttam Kumar’s one of the career best performance made Saptapadi almost near perfect movie expericne for cinegoers. Suchitra Sen with her divine look & average acting talent did her best.Almost everything gone correct with the movie. It became a topic of discussion across India & Pakistan.
There are 2 sequences that indeed became iconic in Bengali middle class life. One was that song where hero Krishnendu & heroine Reena Brown are riding a motor cycle & criss-crossing rural Bengal giving lips to Hemant Kumar – Sandhya Mukherjee duets.It was too brave a dream for any young couple of that era & it indeed set fire of passion in many young hearts.Till now this song sequence is counted as one of the best romantic moments of Bengali cinema.It was mostly taken inside studio & few long shots from back ( from back becasue the hero Uttam Kumar was not able to ride a motor cycle ) were taken in Aamtala near Calcutta ( then a village – now a concrete jungle ).
The cinema had a midus touch in a sequence where Uttam & Suchitra as student of Calcutta Medical College enacted in an English play & that was none other than Shakespeare’s Othello. Never before or even till today a Bengali movie was packed with such a long scene of a Shakespeare play.It was a magical rendering of voice from Utpal Dutta & Jennifer Kapoor that gave a ” movie inside of a movie” experience to spectators. I know there were many young people of that era who used to watch only that 20 minutes of that movie to learn out how to render perfect English in a Shakespeare play.For those serious learners of theatre rest of the movie was meaningless. Above all plus points of Saptapadi the best was no doubt it’s story line. It was slim, candid, exceptional & shocking. It was pregnant with pain & a message. More to that it was a real life story of a man & woman who loved each other so much that they tested their lives with truth. Now very few people know how this real life story shaped into a classic novel from the pen of legendary Bengali writer Tarashankar Banerjee.
Tarashankar wrote the novel Saptapadi in 1958 & it was published in a magazine with very little circulation. As that was not the time like this when a sub standard novel also gets national coverage with huge promotional activity the novel named Saptapadi was soon forgotten. The author himself also got busy with many of his new projects. A year after it’s publication in a magazine the novel came as a book in 1959 ( with very little modification ) by a publication house named Bengal Publishers.It soon took the Bengali intelectual world by storm & it had eight editions within 2 years.In 1960 the 9th edition came with a special preface from the author himself. The preface first confessed that this is a real life story & the author experienced it in a gap of 40 years.Soon it was taken to picturised & in 1961 a classic novel was filmed.
In that preface Tarashankar babu gone back to 1916 when he came to Calcutta from the remote village of Birbhum. He got admitted in St Xavier’s college & it was a huge cultural shock to a man grown up in middle class Bengal village of 1910s. He was shy & introvert in campus. He wrote about his days in St Xavier’s & it’s pupils. He recollected that on south side of the college there was senior & junior Cambridge school.The school was full of Europeans & Anglo Indian students.Few indian students were there but all of them are from rich families of Calcutta & that made a gulf for him to mix with them.
A tall, dark, hamndsome Indian boy was in 4th year in college. As he was senior to him by age author never had the chance to interact with him but the boy was an eye catcher. He was robust & zing-full. Smart & flamboyant the boy used puff cigerete in campus & only used to mix with Anglo Indian & Europeans. He was an outstanding footballer & often took the playground with storm by his soccer skill.As per author he was a whirlpool in St Xavier’s college. Soon he set the buzz once more in campus with a news.The news was big enough to rock a time like 1916.It was that he the Indian boy had converted himslef into Christianity for the sake of his love interest who was an Anglo Indian girl.This was becasue her father has given this condition to him & he at any cost wanted to win his love.Thus this move.Tarashankar wrote this very candidly that it was not taken kindly by hindu students of the college.In those days Christianity was almost synonimus to British community & common Bengali hindu had an apathy to it. More to that conversion for the sake of a girl !
For the sake of a lady love ! This was just an unacceptable cause.So certain amount of hate & anger was generated against that boy among the hindu students in the college . Soon the boy vanished from the campus & it was concluded without enough evidence that he has married that Anglo Indian girl & must be enjoying several benefits of that.The incident was soon forgotten & Tarashankar also left St Xavier’s before finishing his degree thanks to his active participation in freedom struggle. Life took the author in the arena of literature from 1930 & this closed chapter of life never rang any bell to him in next 40 long years.In 1956 when Tarashankar was already a noted name in Bengali literature he was once invited in Chottogong town of East Pakistan to participate in a literature festival.There he was taken to the hospitality of a highly placed Government official who eventually turned out to be an ex-Xaverian who was with him the same class of 1916.It was a reunion time for frineds & many old memories of college days were recollected.In that recollection one day that Government official frined took him in his jeep & drove to a tribal village in a hilly region.There for the sake of giving him an unique surprise the man took Tarashankar babu to a small church made of logs.As soon as the tall & handsome priest of the church appeared to meet them Tarshankar had surprise of his life.It was he the 4th year student of St Xavier’s who 40 years ago discarded his religion for the sake of a mere Anglo Indian girl ! It was he whom they all loved to hate for this obnoxious move.
The tall man still as handsome as his heydays had a peaceful smile on his face.He was offering free class to local poor students.Tarashankar was not able to believe what he was seeing there.How come a man full of lust for a girl can land up here in this form ? What gone wrong ? Where that Anglo Indian girl has gone ? Is she dead or she is separated from this fallen man ? The local friend answered all to him.He explained that finally after changing his religion when the hindu boy gone to claim the girl she instantly refused him. She was not able to accept it how come for a sake of a girl a man can discard his religious entity ? Is he that weak from inside ? Is he that flexible ? If a man can discard religion for the sake of a girl then he can also discard his wife for another beautiful girl – this was what she reacted & broke the relationship there for good.This took the man to the hadest reality of life.He lost the girl there but he was not ready to loose the chance of becoming a good human being.He realsied if God is so great to his girl friend then by loving God he can reach her closer.He left Calcutta to join the church in Garo hills & after partition he settled here in East Pakistan.Here for last 40 years he is serving mankind in his purest form & he never tried to contact that girl after he left Calcutta.
This made Tarashankar moved to tears.He was finding a hero in a man whom he once thought a fallen soul.He took the plot in his mind & blend it with some additional touch.Soon in 1958 the novel Saptapadi was born.
The film was released in 1961 with some modification considering it’s commercial aspect.The most part of the novel & the movie followed the actual story.Specially the football match where the hero Krishnendu displays his skill or the climax where Reena Brown the Anglo Indian girl refuses Krishnendu on his face.
However for the sake of building romance between boy & girl a college campus was needed & that was not possible in St Xavier’s which was boy only college.So it was reshaped to Calcutta Medical College where both the lovers were shown as medical students.The Shakespeare play was a creative culmination as it never happned in real like what Tarashankar experinced.The fight between Bengali hindu students & Anglio Indians are also added element which may have a touch from Tarashankar’s student life in St Xavier’s.
The movie ends far differently from the real life.In real life the man never ever met his lost love.In movie we see on the backdrop of 2nd world war Krishnendu the priest while offering his service as a doctor in a red cross war camp meets an alchoholic mentally depressed girl who was none other than ” she ” whom he left many years ago.The film took us to a climax in that part when both of them support their own stand of life.
Here comes the best word & best sequence of the movie.When the man says her to keep faith in God the girl screems & says God is dead becasue man has killed him.With this she fires her gun in agony that breaks the glass of the lamp shade hanging above them & it’s flame falls on floor.In that flickering flame we see a wall where a photo of Jesus smiles.Unlike the novel the movie ends with an exhasuted Reena resting on the hands of Krisnendu.In novel they parted with full trust of their faith.
In the history of cinema three great things at a time like a discovering a noble life followed by a great novel & again followed by an unforgettable movie is indeed rare.It was author’s magical touch & Ajoy Kar’s directoral crafting that made it possible but above all there was a man who kissed life when life gave him the cruelest punishment.No wonder that while meeting the man in 1956 in East Pakistan Tarashankar expressed his feeling with an amazing comparison. In his preface publishede in 1960 he wrote by crossing all layers of his soul a man was coming up who not with his robustness but with his silent smile and not by his flamboyance but by his soft & calm expression forced him to remember the part of “Quo Vadis” where god was asked ” where goest Thou Lord ! & God replied ” To Rome , to be Gricified again “.
The last word :
I was aware that the film Saptapadi was based on a real life man but never had enough material to know more. Recently I read an article in Bengali literary collection ” Sharodio Dainik Statesman ” where the preface written by Tarashankar in 1960 was reprinted & it gave me enough to shape this article. Saptapadi both as a novel & as a film was close to my heart & with this real events as back ground it is now more atractive to me .It’s link with conflict of religion, St Xavier’s college, 2nd world war, football match, Shakespare play & Chittagong the place were my parents were born made me encouraged to write this article.
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