The late Sridevi once said that her daughter Janhvi, now herself an actor, refused to talk to her for three days after she watched Sadma for the first time, as a child. “You were so mean to him,” she said.
It sounds like a cute, slightly silly story, but a rewatch of the 1983 movie, even today, can move one to tears of desperation, frustration and sadness — especially during the closing scenes, which are probably among the saddest in Hindi cinema.
The movie, directed, shot and written by Balu Mahendra, is a Hindi version of his own 1982 Tamil movie, Moondram Pirai, which had already picked up a slew of awards, including two National Awards (Best Actor for Kamal Haasan, Best Cinematography for Balu Mahendra) and five Tamil Nadu State Film Awards, including a Best Actress win for Sridevi.
Sadma, which saw Haasan and Sridevi reprise their roles, also garnered critical acclaim and awards. And it established Sridevi as a force to reckon with in Hindi cinema.
In fact, the film is a coming together of not just these three legends, but many more. The soundtrack is another star, with tunes by Ilaiyaraja (ably assisted by none other than A.R. Rahman), lyrics by Gulzar and the voices of Asha Bhosle, Suresh Wadkar and K.J. Yesudas.
Today, the movie finds a place on every best movie and must-watch list, and for good reason. Balu Mahendra was a complete filmmaker, who understood and actively worked on every aspect of all his movies, but Sadma, his first and finest foray into Hindi cinema will always be special. In the week of his birth anniversary, there could be no better film with which to celebrate him.
Not all loves can be labelled
Sadma tells the story of Nehalata (Sridevi), who has a car accident while driving back from the beach with her friends. When she regains consciousness, she doesn’t recognise her parents. The doctor explains that a shock or trauma (sadma) can cause this kind of amnesia, in which the patient only remembers things up to a certain age. Nehalata, a grown woman, has regressed to the mental age and memories of her six- or seven-year-old self.
While she is undergoing treatment, she is kidnapped and sold into a brothel, where she is assigned to Somu (Haasan), whose friend has dragged him there to get him to relax and have some fun. Somu is distinctly uncomfortable in the brothel, and more so when he realises that Nehalata, now called Reshmi, has the mind of a child and is clearly mentally unwell. He gleans from her that she was brought to the brothel by force, and wants to get her away from there. He requests permission to take her out for the day and instead boards a train and takes her to his home in the hills of Ramnagar, where he is a school teacher.
Here, in this idyll, Reshmi and Somu’s relationship deepens into something that is complicated and potentially problematic, given the circumstances, but also, extremely simple, given that it is built on nothing but pure love.
The heartbreak of a love that left as quickly as it came
Eventually, Somu takes Reshmi to a doctor who has a good reputation for treating cases such as this. While she is being treated, her parents, having filed a missing persons complaint, arrive in Ramnagar and find their daughter. She’s now cured, except that now, it’s the opposite. She cannot remember anything after the accident, not even Somu, whom she adored and who loved and took care of her.
The movie ends with Somu trying to catch her attention while she’s on a train bound for Bombay with her parents. He screams her name, except she doesn’t know she was ever called Reshmi. He acts like the dancing, jumping monkey she had once found so hilarious and made him imitate, but she just thinks he is a mad beggar on the railway platform and gives him some food before her train pulls out of the station. Somu, drenched and muddy from the rain, and with a broken leg from his race to the station, is left alone and heartbroken.
This film was a difficult tightrope to walk — for Sridevi, to be childlike without grating, and for Haasan to manage the delicate balance between his caregiving, father-figure role and his romantic feelings for her.
The idea of someone suddenly coming into one’s life and filling it with joy before leaving just as quickly was inspired by Balu Mahendra’s own life — he was in love with a much younger woman, actor Shoba, and they did get married, but it was short-lived as she committed suicide just two years later, at the age of 17.