Why Shabana Azmi’s 'Swami' is a timeless, classic must-watch film

Farhana Farook
·Contributor
·7-min read

SWAMI (1977)

Cast: Shabana Azmi, Girish Karnad and Vikram

Director: Basu Chatterjee

Story: Based on Saratchandra Chatterjee’s novel Swami

Producer: Jaya Chakravarty

Renowned writer, Saratchandra Chatterjee, was a staunch supporter of a woman’s individuality.

Basu Chatterjee’s Swami, based on his titular novel Swami, is a lyrical depiction of the author’s work. The National-Award winning film is a eulogy to the thinking woman. A woman who cannot be intimidated by diktats. A woman, who’s as vibrant in thought as vulnerable in emotion. A woman who can love whole-heartedly, fail wretchedly and yet is her own conscience-keeper. A woman who goes through churning to unfold her own legend…

Swami begins and ends with the same scene
Swami begins and ends with this scene of a pensive Shabana Azmi

The film begins and ends with the same scene. Shabana Azmi’s character sitting on the bed, reflecting on her tumultuous life… wondering why her parents named her Saudamini… andhere ko cheerne wali bijlee (the lightning that sears through the darkness), something which is wont to spell destruction… And thus, unfolds the flashback…

PLOT

Saudamini was a year old when her father passed away. Her widowed mother (Sudha Shivpuri) moves in with her brother (Utpal Dutt). But soon his wife passes away too. ‘Mamaji’ (Dutt) dotes on Mini (Saudamini’s pet name). His love for books and nonconformist views rub onto Mini. He encourages her to read, think and debunk age-old dictums. His agnostic attitude is in direct contrast with her mother’s diehard religiosity.

In comes Narain, the city-bred son of their zamindar neighbour. He woos Mini with books (Way Of All Flesh) and philosophical deliberations, much to the chagrin of her mother, who’s aware of the class divide between them.

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Soon, Narain professes his love for Mini, who’s equally besotted by him. But fate arbitrates and Mamaji succumbs to a heart-attack. For some reason, Narain is unable to return to the village as promised and Mini is married off to a wheat trader Ghanshyam (Girish Karnad).

Distracted by her heartbreak, Mini struggles to home in with her husband and his extended family. To make matters worse, Narain returns in her life only to stir her thwarted dreams…

POETRY ON FILM

Swami, the novel, is set in the 1900 Bengal. Director Basu Chatterjee captures the zeitgeist of the era in the rustic homes, in handloomed drapes, in smoke-smudged hearths as in individualism jostling tradition. Amit Khanna’s lyrics set to tune by Rajesh Roshan work like footnotes, surmising Mini’s mood and moments in the film.

Mini is a college student lost in books, which have shown a world way beyond her obscure hamlet. Idealistic yet rational, wistful yet wilful… she’s an equalist in an unequal world much like the protagonists of her favourite author Thomas Hardy. Literature buff Mini is as familiar with the poetry of John Milton as she’s with the philosophy of Victor Hugo and Samuel Smiles.

The dreamy girl soon finds herself on the threshold of love when she draws closer to Narain, her charming neighbour. The first flush of love is mirrored in the lush landscape around her, in the flowers she weaves into garlands, in the wind-kissed terrace, in her kohl-laden faraway look…

Pal bhar mein yeh kya hogaya sung by Lata Mangeshkar has Mini replay her close encounter with Narain on a rain-logged day. The rivulets leading to the swelling river, the countryside drenched in romance… Basuda creates a picturesque account of blossoming love.

The reverie is interrupted when Mini’s married off to Ghanshyam after her uncle’s death. Kishore Kumar’s forlorn Yaadon mein woh, sapnon mein hai, captures her torment. Seeped in memories and melancholy, it laments lost love, broken promises and her distancing from a once familiar world. Ghanshyam quietly accompanies Mini, who’s indifferent both to the occasion and him.

Consumed by grief, Mini’s a rebel of a bride. The image of her standing near the window in her room, the bars symbolising her incarceration, is a recurrent theme in the film. Strains of the thumri Ka karoon sajni (Sindh Bhairavi), sung by her brother-in-law Nikhil (Dheeraj Kumar), rent the air and her heart… underlining Mini’s anguish in all her bridal glory.

On the wedding night, a sulking Mini lays down the rules. She will not sleep with Ghanshyam. She pulls out a mat and sleeps on the ground… clearly demarcating the boundaries between Ghanshyam and her. Gentle Ghanshyam complies. Buzz of their unconsummated marriage spreads in the conservative household the next morning.

With each passing day, Mini grows aware of the discrimination and disparity shown towards Ghanshyam by the family. His needs are rudely side-lined by his stepmother (Shashikala), in contrast to her indulgence towards her own son Hiren. Even the helpers ignore Ghanshyam’s requests. Mini protests against this and frequently gets into altercations with her forbidding mother-in-law.

Shabana and Girish Karnad in Swami
Shabana and Girish Karnad in Swami

A thaw sets in between Mini and Ghanshyam as she begins to respect his integrity, patience and refusal to ‘trade’ his sister Charu (Preeti Ganguly) with dowry. His caring gestures – gifting Mini a saree, placing a table fan for her, the respect he accords to her (when he tells her, ‘Tum aayee toh tum sab se upar thi, ab kyon apne aapko neeche ghaseet rahi ho) – fill her with warmth.

She seems to draw towards him… until one day Narain arrives as Nikhil’s guest in a bid to cajole Mini. He urges Mini to elope with him and in the process is caught kissing her hand. Mini is disgraced by her mother-in-law. Ghanshyam asks her to seek forgiveness from his mother, which a headstrong Mini refuses to.

Raging with insult, weary with her woes, Mini packs her bag and leaves with Narain in her husband’s absence. But at the railway station, she reaches a moment of epiphany as she reflects on the man she has deserted.

She tells Narain that the virtues of 'daya (kindness), 'shama' (forgiveness) and 'sehansheelta' (patience), which books extolled, she witnessed them all in her husband. She regrets having walked away in her Swami’s absence. Mini becomes Saudamini in that ‘lightning’ of a second as she understands both the value and the price of commitment. As Saudamini, she’s finally a symbol of illumination and the destruction of darkness…

Just then she finds Ghanshyam standing near her. “Ghar chalo Mini,” he urges revealing that he knew all along of her relationship with Narain...

THE CHARACTERS

Shabana Azmi’s graph as a dreamy-eyed Mini to Saudamini, a woman who accepts some ‘home-truths’ is a hard-earned one. Her subtle performance, with shades of rage, regret and redemption, won her the Filmfare Award for Best Actress. Just as her ethnic avatar set trends.

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“A shop in Mumbai was famous for Kolkata sarees. Shabana took me along to pick them. Wearing sindoor is a Bengali tradition. But after Shabana wore it in the film, a lot of women here started wearing it too...Shabana felt conscious of her buck teeth and would avoid scenes that required her to laugh. I told her, ‘Laugh naturally, you can’t cheat the Maker’,” revealed the late Basuda to Filmfare.

The other actors, including Shashikala and Sudha Shivpuri, blended with the ethos of the film. Vikram, as Narain, brought out the tenderness of the character. City-bred and congenial, his intentions are honest but he’s cheated by destiny. He desperately seeks out Mini but her world has changed. He cuts a poignant picture as he boards the train alone… their journeys altered forever.

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Narain pyaar toh kar sakta hai, nibhayega Ghanshyam,” were Mamaji’s dying words to Mini (dialogue Manu Bhandari and Basu Chatterjee). They hinted at the dignity of Girish Karnad’s Ghanshyam. Winning over Mini and the audiences with his goodness rather than good-looks was a tough call. But the late actor captured the ‘sur’ of Ghanshyam laudably.

FOOTNOTE

Hema Malini (her mother Jaya Chakravarty was the producer) and Dharmendra make a cameo appearance in the film as a pair of wedding performers, whose duet, Bhag jaaongi, about a young woman eloping with her lover, hints at the denouement.

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