SADMA (1983, d. Balu Mahendra)
Hindi cinema’s finest era was most definitely not the Eighties. With the industry’s stars of the 70s ageing just as rapidly as the increasingly tired masala plots were, Bollywood looked to the south of India for new blood and inspiration, leading to the arrival of many of the top directors, singers and stars of Tamil cinema making the trip north to Bombay. While this did often result in South Indian cinema’s characteristically violent, crass and low budget styles tainting the already struggling Hindi film world, occasionally the best of Tamil movie-making did inject some life and innovation to Bollywood’s silver screens. One such fine example is this Hindi remake of the 1982 Tamil drama Moondram Pirai that sees much of the cast and crew from the original reprise their roles. The picture tells the story of Nehalata (Sridevi), a young woman who regresses to childhood after suffering a head injury in a car crash. Lost, she ends up trapped at a brothel before being rescued by Somu (Kamal Haasan), a lonely school teacher who falls in love with her.
Released to great critical acclaim but little box office success in 1983, Sadma (’The Trauma’) is an unusual mix of dark comedy, bleak drama and offbeat romance. It is certainly unlike many of mainstream Indian cinema’s output either of its time or of today with a very low-key pace and stripped-down narrative that is centralised almost entirely on its two leading stars, both of whom turn in outstandingly emotive and sympathetic performances.
Having only appeared in a handful of Hindi pictures in supporting roles, the Sridevi of 1983 was not yet the Bollywood megastar she would inevitably become in the late 80s and early 90s. Though a popular leading actress in the South (and having already starred in over 150 films), Hindi cinema was nonetheless mostly uncharted territory for the 20 year-old actress. Her stunning turn as child-woman Nehalata in Sadma was more than enough to leave her mark in the industry however, and stardom in Bombay immediately flourished. While admittedly exaggerated, her take on the character is truly heartfelt and convincingly brings forth both the giddy joy and confused anguish of the little girl trapped inside an adult’s body, thrown from one calamity to another. It is these same innocent, child-like traits that Sridevi would utilise to perfection in shaping her comedic screen persona in the years to come.
In playing the role of Somu, any other actor may have found himself feeling upstaged by the amazing Sridevi - not so if your name just happens to be Mr. Kamal Haasan though. The veteran Tamil actor/writer/director extraordinaire gives one of his most touching and subtlest performances as the withdrawn school teacher, every bit as adrift and damaged emotionally as Nehalata is physically. In her, he finds a soul-mate and a chance at happiness, although fate’s cruel hand has tragically different plans. This happened to be the norm at this stage in the career of Kamal Haasan, whose characters seemed to find more love from cinema audiences the more misery they were put through on screen. The 80s were indeed gloomy times for Bollywood.
Kidding around: Sridevi and Kamal Haasan in Sadma
Sadma is widely available on DVD in the U.S. from Bollywood Entertainment - formerly DEI - which regrettably only offers average quality picture and sound. The transfer is marred by substantial print damage (several seconds are missing at key plot points), weak colours and DNR after effects. Audio is likewise displeasing with treble levels set far too high, leaving the soundtrack sounding screechy as though it were being played over a telephone. A better quality disc is out to buy on India’s Shemaroo label, however this release is marred by a huge subtitle goof-up whereby the top and bottom lines have been reversed. Balu Mahendra’s important and much admired film deserves better, not unlike a large majority of neglected evergreen Indian movies.