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Saudagar (1973), the Nutan-Amitabh-Padma Khanna starrer shows how women’s work is not just invisibilised, but also how it is used by men to uphold patriarchy to benefit themselves.
While I had watched the film Saudagar several times over the decades, I first heard of Nolen Gur only a few years ago, when Sweet Bengal opened an outlet near my house and I had my first Nolen Gur Rossogulla. My eyes popped out of my head at the unexpectedness of it. It’s not a taste as much as an experience.
As the molten, golden goodness flows down your throat, it tells you stories of the short winters of Bengal, warm days and chilly nights when the sap rises from the fertile earth of the Ganga Delta to the top of the date palms. Of long-limbed toddy tappers who expertly cleave into the heart of the palm and insert a bamboo spiel through which the sweet sap drips into an earthen pot. This sap is then cooked for hours over a smoky woodfire adding to its complex flavour profile.
Long story short, Nolen Gur tastes like Hemant Kumar sings Tum Pukar Lo.
Directed by Sudhendu Roy, Saudagar is based on a short story, Rus, written by Narendranath Mitra. Amitabh Bachchan plays the eponymous Saudagar, Motalib or Moti, a trader of Nolen/ Patali Gur/ Date Palm Jaggery in the film.
At dusk every day in the winters, Moti scurries up the trees to tie his pots under the dripping sap and at dawn, he collects the full pots and carries them to Majubi (the luminous Nutan at the peak of her craft) a sharp-tongued widow who is renowned for her skill in coaxing the sweetest, most fragrant gur out of the sap that Moti collects.
Right from the start, Moti has a complex relationship with Majubi, one where there is a deficit of trust on the part of Majubi and resentment on the part of Moti.
Moti, the village Casanova, is dashing, single and successful. The village women cast lovelorn glances at him as he saunters past singing, “Har haseen cheez ka main talabhgaar hoon…’ Or I am desirous/ lustful of every beautiful object. No one is immune to his charms except the austere and stern Majubi, even though Moti tries hard to flirt with her, “ Why couldn’t your tongue be as sweet as your gur”.
Majubi is very firm about her worth and in her struggle to eke out an existence, Majubi has no time/ interest in Moti’s fripperies.
Moti’s resentment peaks when he falls in love with the lissome young Phoolbano (Padma Khanna), but cannot afford princely Rs.500/- meher or bride price her father demands. And so, Moti the Saudagar hatches a nefarious plan.
On a cold winter’s night, Moti knocks on Majubi’s door to propose marriage to her. At first Majubi is dismissive, but when Moti compares young girls to raw sap and Majubi to the earthy toddy of fermented sap or the complex sweetness of Nolen Gur, Majubi is entranced.
She falls for the same trap that many of us have at one time or another, when we are told we are not like other girls- They are so silly, you are so smart, you are so cool, no other girls likes football or cricket or whatever else the man wishes to groom us for. And so we learn to drink beer and scream at the TV screen and delude ourselves into believing that we are this cool girl, superior to other girls.
Loneliness and a hard life have prematurely aged Majubi. She, who is so sharp and savvy when it comes to money, finds herself weak in the face of praise and hope that here is one person who perhaps sees her true worth and her instinct and resistance crumble in the face of it .
And just like that Moti the expert tapper cleaves away at the hard exterior of Majubi and drives his spiel into her vulnerable, tender heart to drain her of her life blood.
Moti rents more and more trees to tap and drives Majubi to work harder than ever into producing even more Gur. Unlike slaves who were incentivised by fear of violence, Majubi does it for the most powerful driver, love. She cooks and cleans and turns the pigsty of a bachelor’s quarters into a home. Their home, or so she thinks.
She sleeps with him at night and by day, all day, she slaves over the Gur cooking on open fires. She never once complains over the ever increasing pots of sap that Moti brings in. She becomes his chief ally and cheerleader even suggesting ways in which to make the Gur tastier. She voluntarily diminishes her role in his success, calling it her ‘Miyan’s Gur’.
When Phoolbano’s father tries to break the ‘engagement’, refusing to send his daughter as Moti’s second wife, Moti makes a chillingly unabashed confession, “In the winter as long as there is sap in the trees and my body needs warming, Majubi will stay with me. As soon as the season changes and the sap runs dry, I will divorce Majubi.”
One would imagine that any normal father would chase such a suitor off with a stout stick. Instead Phoolbano’s father has great admiration for Moti’s ‘straight talk’ and agrees that he’s the right man for Phoolbano because he’d be able to ‘control’ her.
That in a nutshell is the bro code. On one hand wanting to do good by his daughter, getting a high bride price so he can start a savings account for her and on the other hand complicit in the exploitation of another woman’s emotional and physical labour, while reducing his own daughter to a beast that requires control.
As winter draws to a close signalling the end of the Gur season, Moti accuses Majubi of infidelity in the presence of a Qazi, seeking to divorce her. This is Nutan’s shining moment, her righteous rage spills out at the accusation, “All you had to do was tell me that the Gur season is over and my services were no longer required. I would have left the way I had come here, unblemished.”
In a country, at a time when young widows were subjected to so much scrutiny, their pristine character was often the only thing they had to protect themselves from society and the ubiquitous male gaze. And therefore more than the divorce it is the besmirching of her good name that pains Majubi.
But she leaves, signalling the end of winter and Phoolbano enters. Her lush youthful beauty is an analogy of the spring that the lovestruck young couple fritter away in an oxytocin haze.
Winter arrives, as it must, with the Gur season and a test of Moti and Phoolbano’s marriage.
Phoolbano is no Majubi. She doesn’t get her husband’s obsession with Gur. She wishes he’d do something else just so she’d be free from being forced to do something she’s not interested in. As she burns up pot after pot of sap, sometimes producing nothing and at times rancid Gur that won’t even sell for half the price, Moti begins to lose all the accumulated respect at the market.
It gets so bad that days go by without him selling even a single disc of Gur. Enraged, Moti takes a stick to Phoolbano, mercilessly beating her for her incompetence.
We begin to pity Moti and we want to dismiss Phoolbano as a ‘bimbo’, the exact kind that Moti assured Majubi that she wasn’t. We think of this as karmic punishment for betraying a good woman. Moti deserves the stupid Phoolbano who wastes time sleeping in and prettying herself, we are made to feel.
But Phoolbano didn’t sign up for any of this, she too is a victim of Moti’s machinations. She never claimed to be a great Gur maker, in fact right at the beginning she tells Moti that she has never made Gur in the quantities that he wants. But there it is, the unwritten contract: it was all very nice that he wanted you for your looks, but now you have to become what he needs.
The penury that the couple is reduced to drives their marriage to breaking point, forcing Moti to seek forgiveness and the help of the now remarried Majubi.
Majubi who rejects all his overtures is unable to harden her heart at the sight of young Phoolbano, standing there silently, helplessly.
The coldly calculating look in Moti’s eyes as he watches Majubi embrace Phoolbano tells us just how accomplished a Saudagar he is. He knew that the heart of the palm still held some more sap for him to squeeze out.
It would have been just desserts of the Nolen Gur variety to let Moti rot in the mess of his own making. But women are always expected to be the better halves while politely agreeing to behave as lesser halves. The minute Moti figured out a way to turn paid labour into unpaid labour, he became extremely successful. While marriage made perfect economic sense for Moti, Majubi too walked willingly into the trap because patriarchy ensures that women outside of marriage are vulnerable, unsafe.
Majubi never gets the credit for the Gur that she produces whether before marriage or after. It is Moti’s Gur that people come from far and near to buy. The invisibilisation of women’s work has robbed women not only of valuable remuneration, it has also rendered the work they do while being called ‘mere housewives’, both unrecognised and undervalued. As is the case with women’s work everywhere be it farming or handloom or handicrafts, it is considered merely allied work.
Saudagar is at once a eulogy to the Nolen Gur and the craftspeople who make it, as it is an analogy of the deep gender schism of the work and lives of men and women.
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