Saturday, December 3, 2016

Sangam—Of The Confluence Of Three Rivers

Sangam, directed by Raj Kapoor, is the classic tale of love and friendship. The film is the story of Sundar (Raj Kapoor), Radha (Vyjayanthimala), and Gopal (Rajendra Kumar). Sundar is an orphan, and is friends from childhood with Gopal and Radha. They grow up, and Sundar falls in love with Radha. Gopal is also in love with Radha, who loves him back. But for the sake of his friendship, Gopal sacrifices his love. Radha gets married to Sundar, who is unaware that his friend also loves Radha, and eventually he finds that out. Sangam is considered one of the finest Hindi films, and it was only a few days ago that I watched it. 
In Hindu mythology, Krishna and Radha have been depicted as the greatest of lovers. Their story is legendary, and has continued to inspire filmmakers generation after generation. As recently as last year, Sanjay Leela Bhansali's gorgeous Bajirao Mastani portrayed Bajirao and Mastani as Krishna and Radha, respectively. In Sangam, too, there is the subtext of Krishna and Radha's story. The film's two male protagonists are named named Sundar and Gopal. Both Sundar and Gopal are alternative names of Krishna, and the two of them are in love with Radha, who was also Krishna's lover. Thus, all the lead characters of the film are related to Krishna and Radha. Early in the film, there is the song Bol Radha Bol during which Sundar perches himself on a tree, and steals Radha's clothes who is swimming in the river. This is similar to what Krishna also used to do. It is a well-known story that Krishna used to steal the clothes of Gopis when they performed ablutions in the river. Krishna watched them taking a bath from a tree. In the song, Sundar wears a feather on his head, and starts playing his bagpipe. Krishna wore a peacock feather on his head, and used to play his flute. Raj Kapoor has made a contemporary version of Krishna where instead of a flute, Sundar plays a bagpipe. The similarities between Sundar and Krishna are clearly underscored in Bol Radha Bol. The song's lyrics are about Radha, too. In The Goddess as Role Model: Sita and Radha in Scripture and on Screen, Heidi R.M. Pauwels observes a similar point, but she calls this vastraharan contrary to the depiction in mythology where it was Radha who was pleading to Krishna. She says, "Sundar may be stealing her clothes, but he is the one who is praying to the goddess, that is Radha, to fulfill his dream of love. The irony of this reversal is brought out explicitly in the song. In the last verse, Sundar refers to the chant of his breath, Radha Radha, which the audience recognizes instantly as a mantra to the goddess. Thus, the male lover is the devotee, and the woman is adored like a goddess. This is also underscored by the second verse, where Sundar describes himself as a patient lover."
There is another leitmotif that is present in Sangam. It is of Radha dressed in white. Throughout the entire film, Radha is dressed in white. There are only three scene in the film when she is not dressed in white. One is her wedding day, when she is, as per tradition, dressed in red. The other is Buddha Mil Gaya sequence. The last is Bol Radha Bol in which she is technically wearing a white dress, but her swimming suit is red. Except these, there is nary a scene in the film, more than three hours long, where Radha is shown in a color other than white. Like flowers in Zoya Akhtar's Luck By Chance, and peacocks in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, it is always fascinating to see that this much attention to detail is given to a film. There is a special signficance of the white color, which we learn in the climax of the film. Gopal tells Sundar that the day Radha wed him, and entered his house, she was as pure as the river Ganges. The holy Ganges is considered as the purest of the pure rivers in India, and Radha is as pure as the Ganges. White color is a symbol of her purity, and her pavitrata. Hence, she is dressed in white in the entire film. 
Radha in White 

The film takes its title from the confluence of three rivers—Ganga, Yamuna, and Sarawati—in Allahabad. It is a holy site where it is said that if one takes a bath, it washes off all their sins. Ganga and Yamuna are actual rivers, while Saraswati remains hidden, but people believe that it makes its presence felt underwater. The title scene of the film shows the place of Sangam in the background. The story of the three characters is, in some ways, like the union of the three rivers. Ganga was Radha, Yamuna was Sundar, and Saraswati was Gopal. Like Saraswati remains hidden, Gopal shoots himself in the end, and becomes hidden. At some point, Gopal says in the union of Ganga and Yamuna, Saraswati must be sacrificed, thus, he disappears from their life, but his presence is felt deep in their hearts. Later, Radha and Sundar immerse Gopal's ashes in the Sangam—a depiction of their own Sangam

Sangam is a classic love triangle, and many times, we literally see a triangle. The film's title credits show the names of actors in hearts arranged in a triangular fashion with the woman's character in between. At some point in the film, the photographs of the three of them are arranged in a triangular fashion. In the climax in the film, the three of them are standing in a perfect triangular position with Radha in between Sundar and Gopal. The ending moments provide some of the most thoughtful dialogues from the film. Though, personally, Gopal's killing was not really required; he could have gone somewhere faraway. But as soon as the gun came, it was quite clear that someone will die. This is quite similar to the trope of Chekhov's Gun. Anton Chekhov said, "If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act." Someone has to die, if a guns appears in a film. 


At many times, the film felt ahead of its times for a film released in 1964. Sundar and Radha go on a honeymoon to Europe. While Yash Chopra is famous for depicting snow-clad Swiss mountains in his films in the eighties and the nineties, it happened in Sangam in the sixties. They also go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and I don't recall any other film that has done that (and, it was the first time, I saw the elevator that takes the people to the top of the tower). Films are still being made with Eiffel Tower (link). Buddha Mil Gaya is also a pathbreaking song where a wife dances quite seductively in front of her husband who wants to go to a cabaret. At an earlier point, Radha also wore a swimsuit in Sangam, one of the earliest films to have such a scene, even though Sharmila Tagore in An Evening In Paris, released in 1966, is often called the pioneer for embracing modernity. 

Sangam is a beautiful film overall, though at some points, it made me want to tell Gopal to fight for his love. In the last few moments of the film, Radha, finally, says that the two friends make their own decisions without asking what she wants. Even though Radha loves Gopal back, he still chooses friendship over love. All the three show a character of duty, purity, and sacrifice. This was a time fifty years ago. A lot of water has flown under the bridge since then. Unlike the earlier period, the two purest of the rivers, Ganga and Yamuna, have become some of the most polluted rivers on the planet. The existence of Saraswati is only a myth and is questioned by historians alike. In some ways, this change is also a symbolic representation of the characters in the contemporary world. It represents not only pollution, but also it points to development. We live in fascinatingly complex times. 

Dialogue of the Day:
"Dharam vo chattan hai jo mom nahi hoti. Main bhi vo mom nahi hun, Sundar."
—Radha, Sangam