When I got initiated and named Tukaram, I had not heard of Sant Tukaram. As I said before – I was not well versed in 17th century Indian poets. Some friends told me I had to find the movie Sant Tukaram and watch it. I was able to find numerous copies on YouTube.
I was a bit concerned at first. I am not a big fan of Bollywood, it’s in Hindi, and a devotional movie (it is not Hindi, but Marathi – I speak neither). Old and black & white are not a problem for me, as I know Hollywood peaked in the 1940s. The copy quality is a bit grainy, but on YouTube they are all the same from what I saw. Some of the sites add their obnoxious logo to the movie, so turn those channels off and find a clean copy. There are plenty. (Why tack your logo on something you did not make?)
I am so glad I watched it. There will be some spoilers, so if you have not watched it… be warned.
Sant Tukaram was filmed in India, in 1936. It broke box office records in India, and received international acclaim. As for “devotional” movies, this one sets a very high bar. Most churchy movies are way too preachy, poorly written, and cheap productions. This one is not.
The copies of the film are old, so a bit grainy and not hi-definition. Also the sound is a bit scratchy. That is just the reality of older movies. Other than that this was a top notch production.
The story shows a few examples of Sant Tukaram’s life, some of the miracles, and family troubles. It is a small snapshot, certainly skipping over many events. But what it shows flows together in a very good narrative. The cast is pretty much perfect for the roles. The production quality is very good, especially considering its age.
Sant Tukaram is from Maharashtra, a Warkari bhakti practitioner, and a devotee of Lord Pandurang. Pandurang is another name for Vitthal, who is a form of Krishna. The Warkari follow very similar regulative principles as the Vaisnava e.g. no intoxication, no illicit sex, and a strict vegetarian diet (that also includes no onion or garlic). The Warkari also use much lighter spices, as heavy spice is seen as sense gratification.
Avala played by Gauri
Unfortunately for his family’s sake Tukaram is so busy in his devotion to God that he cannot provide for his family. The wife in the movie is his 2nd wife. The credits list her as Jijai, but the subtitles call her Avala. There is no mention of his first wife, who died of starvation during a famine. She is wonderfully portrayed by Gauri. She was not an actress before this production, she was a street sweeper and worked for the production company in a menial status.
Avala is shown as a very frustrated householder. She just wants a decent home and food for her family. And Tukaram is not going provide that. Her character could easily have been shown as a shrew, luckily that was not the case. She cares for Tukaram, but wants him to provide for the family.
When their son is sick and they have no money for medicine Tuka says just to pray to Pandurang and all will be well. She drags the kid to the temple and yells at the deity – while shaking her shoe at him! While the Brahmin scolds her, Pandurang cures the child. Of course she credits her God, not his. A wonderful scene.
This scene was very well done and shows her genuine concern for her child. It could easily have come across as just angry or complaining (I am trying to avoid saying ‘just being bitchy’). The scene does a great job of showing how well the story allows for the characters emotions to shine, not just a dry recitation of a devotional movie.
She complains (it could be argued that it is rightly so) but is also a very devoted wife and mother. She really makes you empathize with her and root for her to turn Tukaram from his devotions – but you also know that is not going to happen.
Brahmin Salomalo portrayed by Sri Bhagwat
The main antagonist is the local Brahmin, Salomalo. He was there to show the corruption of the temples and the caste system. Salomalo is Brahmin by birth, but has no qualifications. He is highly educated but not much of a priest. He visits courtesans (high class prostitute), and steals Tukaram’s poetry to claim it as his own. He is jealous of Tukaram’s popularity and tries to destroy him.
He is almost a comic relief as he is so pathetically bad at trying to make Tukaram look bad. Salomalo has to read the poems while he “writes” them and almost says “Tuka says” since that is what was written on the page that he stole from Tuka. Yet he brings charges against Tukaram for stealing poetry from him.
Sri Bhagwat plays Salomalo and does a great job at being the bad guy. Somehow he plays an over the top bad guy, but makes it fun, and not cartoony. You can almost see him twisting his moustache like Snidely Whiplash (but Salomalo has no moustache). This portrayal could have gone into silliness and been tragically wrong, but instead he is a joy to watch and you will love to hate him.
Sant Tukaram portrayed by Vishnupant Pagnis
The star of course is Sant Tukaram. Pagnis was a kirtankar (a person who performs kirtans) that performed devotional songs before being cast as Tuka. He fits the role of a poet and singer very well. Tukaram always has his head in the clouds. All he can think of is his devotion to God. This causes much physical suffering for him and his family, but he cannot be bothered by material life.
The portrayal could have come off as a simpleton, but instead they show his great devotion, and skill as a poet, yet still showing his naivety of the “real” world. He just cannot be bothered by the needs of material life. Providing a nice house and enough food for his family… never occurs to him. Actually he knows he is a bad provider but also knows that devotion to god is more important. His wife might disagree that devotion is more important than groceries.
He helps on people’s farms and the harvests are miraculously large when he is there. He is given many carts full of grain as payment. When they show up at the house with it, his wife is ecstatic. But while she is grinding one tray of grain into flour, Tuka gives all the grain to the neighborhood beggars. He loves to share the bounties of God.
He would be a difficult man to be married to.
This movie is one of my favorite classics. It is written and filmed very well. the actors do a wonderful job of bringing the characters life, and the music does not even get in the way. The movie shows scenes of their daily life and the miracles just happen to be there. It is not preachy and does not beat you over the head with a message. There are a lot of good messages in the film, but they are not front and center.
It shows the faults of the caste system as well as the corruption of the church and the hereditary Brahmins. It is said to show nationalism and support for Gandhi’s non-violent revolt… but I guess I missed that part.
It is easily available on YouTube and I highly recommend you go watch it, next time you have 2 hours and 7 minutes.