I choose to write about the Marathi film Sant Tukaram (1936) made by Damle & Fattelal. I have seen it over thirty or more times; I like very much to watch it; and continuously teach and write on it. But even so, such a choice is not a simple spontaneous gesture; it is difficult to choose any one film as the best or the greatest Indian film. To say, ‘I choose to talk about the Marathi film Sant Tukaram’ is also to say what guided me to this choice. For sure there are some other film one could have chosen.
So, this piece is about a film called Sant Tukaram and about a choice; about strong and close relationships a viewer forms with a film through repeated viewing, continuous study, and efforts to understand and analyze it. While teaching cinema, one does not choose only those films one is fond of; one uses in the classroom all kinds of films, with different level and quotient of excellence and appeal, with different histories of critical and audience response. Film courses come with specific requirements and the teacher designs her course-material accordingly. The choice of talking or writing about a specific film, too, is invariably guided and shaped by specific factors and needs, linked to various discourse and discussion.
And then again, there are times someone in the classroom or someone outside feels sheer love or fondness for a particular film—and then there is the need and the business of verbalizing that. ‘What is this I am feeling after seeing this film’ is also something one must address while analyzing or understating a film.
Sant Tukaram seems to generate very interesting effects on viewers of all age, coming from all sections of society, or from all parts of the world. Anecdotal modes are not usually expected in a serious article, but a very recent experience made me think on this film yet again and hence this piece. A girl attending a foreign India Study Program had opted for a (credited) course on Indian Cinema. Initially, her heart was not fully in her class and studies, till she saw Sant Tukaram. The film, she told me, was the gift she was taking back from India to her family—in the form of a VCD. A devout Muslim family in Canada, they would appreciate seeing a ‘rare’ (she had never heard of the film before) and wonderful film like this. While talking about her own experience of the film, she wanted to know if I would understand if she described it as a spiritual experience. For a teacher, to speak about the film now was also to fully engage with this appeal and challenge; it meant probing why and how such a response is connected with the film. This happens often enough—students see films from all over the world and when Sant Tukaram is shown, they ask what is this special feeling they have just had—something quite different from other viewing experiences.
One usual oft-repeated response to such observation and comments people have is: Sant Tukaram uses the ‘universal language of Bhakti’ and viewers, immaterial of race caste creed etc, respond to that. But then, Dharmatma (made a year ago in 1935) and Gopal-Krishna (made a year later)—both by the Prabhat Film Company—are also based on the tradition of Bhakti. But we do not respond to these films the same way. So, another question follows: over the past eight and nine decades, many films have been made on this very popular Maharashtra-sant; but we cannot say all those films are equally good or equally appreciated. For example when this particular film was made contemporary reviewers and writers wrote about how just a few years ago, Sant Tukaram aani Jai Hari Vitthala (1932) by Babajirao Rane had failed to impress the viewers. This information is of extreme importance, as that film was an adaptation of a phenomenally successful play by Rajapurkar Natya
Company. Unfortunately that early film does not exist or
else we would have understood in what ways the audience and
the intelligentsia then had exercised discrimination and
judgment over these two films.
Some others explain: Sant Tukaram uses the ‘universal language of cinema’; it is a simple and naïve film and so we take to it easily. Are those other films complex, then? Do they use a language other than that particular ‘universal language of cinema’ that is used in Sant Tukaram? Evidently, the above two explanations are flawed; but explain, we must. And the explanations and answers belong both to the world of Bhakti and Films Studies. The question remains though: what is so special about this Sant Tukaram? Dilip Chitre had once said, partly questioning me and partly himself: ‘we say “it is a good film;” but what do we mean by good—what does it mean in this case, this good!’