We live in the era of dating apps where swiping left or right on someone is largely determined by their looks. Even before technology became an essential part of our love stories, an inordinate amount of attention was often paid to what one looks like, as if it is some form of currency one must possess in order to find love. But beauty is only skin deep, so what happens when one might not fit someone else’s idea of what constitutes as beautiful but is a great person otherwise? It was this dichotomy between the idea of physical beauty and a beautiful soul that was probably the seed of Raj Kapoor’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram. However, the way he interpreted it was shocking for a filmmaker who is considered one of the pioneers of Indian cinema.
Satyam Shivam Sundaram tries to pretend that it is the story of a woman, played by Zeenat Aman, who is perceived as ‘not-so-beautiful’ by the society due to an accident that scarred her face, while it constantly sexualises the same woman. It seems like the intention here is to titillate the audience and the gaze of the filmmaker comes across as extremely disingenuous as the camera uncomfortably lingers on Zeenat’s body. For the unversed, the plot of the film revolves around a woman named Rupa who is seen as unlucky by her town folk as her mother died during childbirth. When her face gets scarred in an accident, she is made to feel even worse. The film tells us that Rupa’s biggest talent is her mellifluous voice, which apparently is in complete contrast with her ‘not-so-good looking’ face. The film is a complete misreading of the idea that ‘beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’.
Raj Kapoor explained this in his own words to Vir Sanghvi and the anecdote has been quoted in the latter’s autobiography A Rude Life. “Take a stone. It is just a stone. But you put some religious marking on it and it becomes God. It is how you see things that matters. You hear a beautiful voice. But only later do you discover that it comes from an ugly girl…,” Kapoor said. For a filmmaker who was trying to make a story about how beauty goes beyond what one looks like, he was very rigid with the idea of what qualified as beautiful. And while Kapoor might have pretended that he was trying to portray his leading lady Zeenat Aman as the ‘ugly duckling’ of some kind, his camera suggested otherwise. Right from the start, the film focuses on Zeenat’s exposed back and the translucent garment that she is given to wrap herself. It feels like RK knew that the sexualisation of his leading woman would attract many nay-sayers, so he made her an extremely religious person – just to make the viewer feel like their mind was in the gutter while he was casually being a sage.
Shashi Kapoor, who plays Rupa’s love interest in the film, is shown to be the kind of man who appreciates a woman only for her looks and thus falls in love with the singer who walks around the village with her face half-covered. When he gets married to her and sees her face, he refuses to believe that it is the same Rupa. Thus starts the most bizarre stretch of this film where Shashi Kapoor believes that he is having an affair with the singer Rupa who always meets him with her face half-covered, while his wife at home is a different woman altogether. He refuses to believe that these two are the same woman even when Rupa gets pregnant. His prejudice against his wife arises only because of her scarred face and that bias casually goes out of the window towards the end of the film. In no way does Raj Kapoor’s story actually achieve what it intended to from the start of the film.
At the time, Raj Kapoor had casually confessed that his film was “for the masses” and he has had to make some “compromises.” Satyam Shivam Sundaram was one of the most expensive films of its time. “I have never been able to cut corners and so the expenses kept mounting,” he told Vir Sanghvi in a 1977 interview. Such was the kind of budget of this film that one temple set where Zeenat’s character is often picturised was made for over Rs 7 lakh. So what compromise was he exactly referring to?
Kapoor had spoken about the nudity in the film, especially with respect to how Zeenat’s character was picturised and the tiny blouses she was given to wear in the film. He told Sanghvi in the same 1977 chat, “But you don’t notice the nudity, it’s so tasteful. Some very conservative ladies told me that while they felt shaken to begin with, after a while, it seemed to recede and the theme became the important focus of the film.” He might have said that one doesn’t notice the nudity, he very well knows what the film was banking. “Let them come to see Zeenat’s t*ts, they will go out forgetting her body and remember the film,” he said.
Actor-filmmaker Dev Anand, who was one of RK’s contemporaries, and the man who gave Zeenat Aman her break in Hare Rama Hare Krishna, called this a “dirty film”. As he commented to Sanghvi, “It’s a dirty film. Did you notice how the camera kept focusing on Zeenat’s body? Dirty!” Not just Dev, many other contemporary female actors found Rupa’s costumes a little objectionable. Vidya Sinha told Rediff.com in 2015 that she refused the film because she “was not comfortable wearing the clothes that Zeenat Aman wore.” Hema Malini, too, refused the film. In fact, RK’s daughter Ritu Nanda’s book ‘Raj Kapoor Speaks’ has the thespian saying that he wanted to cast Lata Mangeshkar in the role of Rupa and it is no surprise that Lata didi did not star in this film.
The film is constantly trying to portray Zeenat as an object of desire and none of it feels as aesthetic as one would have hoped. It is rather clumsy when she is suddenly shown in costumes that are completely covered up because the character is now pregnant and sexualising a mother-like figure is apparently dangerous territory.
Satyam Shivam Sundaram released in 1978 and was projected as an ambitious project for Raj Kapoor. The film, of course, drew some strong reactions from the not-so-liberal audience at the time but even after 44 years, the film feels like it was trying to sexualise a woman in a ‘we are peeping through the windows’ way that will always be uncomfortable.