By Mythily Nair
Image Source: Flickr
Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda or The Seventh Horse of the Sun is a 1992 Shyam Benegal film that follows a man telling his friends three stories of three women he had known at different points of time in his life. The three women, played by Rajeshwari Sachdev (Jamuna, a metaphor for the middle class); Pallavi Joshi (Lily, the intellectual and affluent); and Neena Gupta (Satti, the poor) are metaphors for their larger stations and places in society, and through their experiences, Benegal questions the position of women and how socioeconomic statuses are cause and reason for their different situations, and how men play a role in shaping their lives.
Having won the 1993 National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi, Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda is an interesting film known for its subversive take on the "Devdas" syndrome.
It has a stellar cast, with heavyweights Rajit Kapur, Neena Gupta and Amrish Puri, amongst others, and is now playing on MUBI.
Manek Mulla (played by Rajit Kapur) is a young man, and the film begins by setting us in the company of his friends. Regarded as a great storyteller, his friends sit in raptures, as they wait to hear what new story he has to share from his life today. Arguing that love stories in today’s society need to have some kind of larger political meaning or social message, he claims that love stories like that of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas, a copy of which his friend had in his hand, was a futile attempt at telling a story about love, since it didn’t make someone feel happy at the end, and happy love stories were what mattered.
He begins his long tale, interweaving between 3 different women that made and taught him about love and made some impact on his life. The first, Jamuna, his school time crush, whom he watched fall in love with someone but be unable to marry them. The second, Lily, whose story he narrates as he spends the evening before her wedding with her; and the third, Satti, the adopted niece of a paraplegic soldier, who helps him make a living by making soaps. Mulla here, about to go to college, helps Satti and her uncle with their account keeping.
As the story progresses, we get closer and closer to the Manek of today, with the story eventually ending on what led to the circumstances of where he is today. Familial pressure, sacrifice, social status and ambition are all large, overarching themes in the film, and we see that more as we dive deeper into the characters, to understand what mattered to them and what shaped their decision.
The Women of Benegal’s SKSG
Jamuna represents many things to Manek - his first love, his first aspiration, his first heartbreak. But Benegal does a good job of giving his female characters a life and a personality, a perception away from our male narrator and his self-centred storytelling. Instead, he portrays her as a woman with a precarious social standing, one that has to choose between love and what her family wants for her - to have a successful marriage, one that fits their social and caste standing.
Jamuna is asked to sacrifice her love for Tanna, her neighbour, the son of a brutal Maheshar Dalal (played by Amrish Puri), to marry someone of her family’s caste. When her parents take a proposal to Dalal, he refuses, since she offered no dowry (as her family’s monetary situation was strained) and since they wanted Tanna to be a ghar-jamai, or a son-in-law that moved into his wife’s home (a rare practice, since it was seen as emasculating, and suggested something wrong with the home). She instead marries an old Zamindar (landlord) and returns home happy, or so we think. She begets a son at some point, parentage left dubious, and the Zamindar passes, and we see Jamuna eventually raising the boy with the Zamindar’s former house help, who has then been promoted in wealth and rank, by becoming manager of the Zamindar’s estate.
Jamuna represents the middle-class anxieties of attaining a higher social status and rank, revelling in the fact that her success in it is ultimately Tanna’s failure, and she is now a Zamindari woman. However, she is unable to get her mind away from Tanna, and even as a married woman, continues to pursue him, to his horror. From her character, we are able to conclude that although society demands certain things of her, what she desires is the ability to exercise her autonomy of choice of partner, and that’s a chance she is not afforded. Or is she?
Lily only plays a brief role in Manek’s life, and we know her better as being the woman Tanna eventually marries. Sharp, intellectual, aloof and well-read, she is many things that Jamuna aspires to be, but cannot due to her monetary standing. She was briefly Manek’s romantic interest, sharing books and stories, and they shared a romantic moment on the eve of her wedding.
Lily, despite being born of a higher social and intellectual class, is still limited by the men (or the lack thereof) in her life. Her father in law, Dalal, assumes the position of the man in the house, since Lily’s mother is a widow, essentially uprooting Lily’s position within the family as the one that made decisions. Additionally, Lily’s mother not only agrees to this, but endorses it, suggesting the dependence of a male figure in a family as being central to its function, and this male figure being impossible to replace unless the position is actually taken up by a man.
Satti is the most vivacious female character in the film. The adopted niece of a paraplegic soldier, he found her while being posted in Balochistan, and raised her as his own. Due to their strained financial circumstances, she helps him make a living by making soaps and selling them at the bazaar. Always brandishing a knife, both to cut the soaps and protect herself, she embodies the perseverance of those of a lower social and monetary class, and her experiences with men epitomise the deplorable nature of how men (namely Dalal) view women of her social class - as mere options and goods, to be dealt with in a transactionary nature.
Manek’s fascination with her emerges through another opportunity; he sees her beauty and decides to capitalise on the chance to spend more time with her by helping her and her adopted uncle with the accounts for their business, in turn, getting time to get to know Satti. As viewers, we are unsure of whether or not he loves or cares about her (this is especially evident when he gives her away to Dalal and her adopted uncle when she comes to him for help), but it’s clear that he too, like other men of higher social class and caste status, found an opportunity to be with her in the way that he wanted, used her, and let her be taken by fate when it was no longer convenient to him.
Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda, or The Seventh Horse of the Sun is a film that follows a man telling his friends three stories of three women he had known at different points of time in his life.
These three women come from different social classes, yet share a thread of disappointing commonalities thrust upon them by social norms and expectations of women, proving that there truly are experiences that are universal to women.
The title here is indicative to the themes of the film - that the last horse of the mythical Sun God’s chariot ultimately sets the pace of the others - is a comment on how a society’s success is in itself dependent on the pace of the slowest (or least developed) factions of it. Benegal here paints a vivid picture, highlighting the struggles between autonomous choice, monetary status and class status for women, regardless of their background, making this film a must-watch for everyone, no matter where you come from.
About the author
Mythily Nair is a graduate student at USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. Her writing interests include an interest in South Asian media, culture and diaspora experiences. Find her on Instagram @singacutie and LinkedIn.