सत्ते पे सत्ता
Dir. Raj N. Sippy
As I mentioned in my recent review of Sridevi's superb English Vinglish, as a non-Indian, an outsider and relative newcomer to Hindi movies, I lack the nostalgic perspective that infuses and informs the desi experience of certain movies. It is a great pleasure and fascination for me to learn about the movies that give my desi friends and acquaintances that magnificent nostalgic thrill. And so I love to watch the old favorites that would have been a part of my childhood had I grown up with Hindi movies. When I tweeted about watching Satte pe satta ("seven for seven"), I learned that this outrageously silly movie was one of those favorites so cherished by Indians roughly my age, and their delight in remembering it made watching this movie even more fun than it already is on its own.
Amaluu's thorough and loving tribute to this movie handily provides a detailed summary of its story along with many screencaptures. In short, the movie starts as a quotation of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and then takes a decidedly filmi turn. Ravi (Amitabh Bachchan) is the eldest and closest to civilized of a pack of seven brothers who literally live in a barn. Ravi's six brothers are poorly socialized squabblers who are pathologically afraid of bathing. Ravi meets Indu (Hema Malini), and woos and weds her. Indu is horrified by the pigsty of a homestead and its denizens, but she gamely sets about civilizing them. Meanwhile the boys meet a group of girls they take a shining to, who are caretakers to a paraplegic heiress named Seema (Ranjeeta Kaur). Seema's uncle, Ranjit Singh (Amjad Khan), wants her dead, hoping to get his hands on her fortune. Singh hires a vicious mercenary, Babu (also Amitabh), who just happens to be a dead ringer for Ravi. Singh's men kidnap Ravi, and Babu infiltrates the family hoping to get his chance to off Seema. But the warmth of the family's love for each other gets under Babu's skin, and his second thoughts lead him on the road to redemption.
There is so much to love in this hilarious, delightful movie. The antics of the six brothers are a riot, from prancing about in their chaddees to wrecking the house in sprawling melees in which they hurl food, flour, and even livestock at one another. These scenes are marvelously choreographed and a pure belly laugh to watch. All six of the brothers are terrific, but Shakti Kapoor especially stands out in a rare nonvillanous appearance. Amitabh is a treat, too, showcasing his talent for comedy instead of his angry young man avatar. The scene in which Singh gets Ravi drunk is an absolute scream, one of the funniest drunk scenes I've ever seen in any language. And Amitabh delivers as expected the film's many songs - his arms really do go on for ever and ever.
Hema Malini is a perennial favorite in Filmi Geek's house, and she delivers amply here, funny, charming, gorgeous, and sweet.
(I want to be that rose.) Indu's arc, of course, is problematic if one thinks too hard about it. Ravi marries her under rather false pretenses - she believes that she is joining a quiet, idyllic household of just Ravi and his sweet youngest brother Sunny (Sachin Pilgaonkar). Ravi's nervousness as she is about to learn the truth about the chaos that awaits her is quite hilarious, but one can't help but bristle a bit at the deception. And naturally, Indu's role in the household is somewhere between housekeeper, babysitter, and den mother. She takes over the kitchen duties the moment she arrives, almost without changing out of her wedding sari. She forces the boys to wash and shave, and teaches them some manners. The movie tempers the nauseating sexism of these tropes by couching them in so much humor and charm that one just has to laugh along and forgive. The sequence in which she marches the brothers off to the bath with military precision is riotous. And the song in which she teaches them how to woo a woman, "Jhuka ke sar ko puchho," offers a generous helping of the heart-melting charm that makes Hema such a pleasure to watch.
The movie's second half offers up much of what one expects from a rollicking masala ride. The very notion of a villain who just happens to look exactly like the hero is, on its own, satisfyingly filmi. And Babu's villainy is hilariously over-the-top, until the power of love melts his cold assassin's heart. In one of the most egregious morsels of Masala Logic one will ever see, after Babu's deception is revealed, Indu decides to forgive him because he never took sexual advantage of her even when she believed he was her husband. That's right, folks - he lied to us, infiltrated our home, and tried to stab Seema - but at least he didn't rape me! It's hard to imagine setting one's standards much lower. The film also teaches us, in time-honored masala-medicine ishtyle, that all one needs to overcome paralysis is a good solid scare.
There are even a few nudge-nudge, wink-wink moments - look for something weirdly suggestive involving a lollipop, as the movie heads into its climax. And then there is this, which caused me quite a double-take. Did someone really just hand Amitabh a condom?
All in all, Satte pe satta is just too much fun to miss. It's not hard to see why so many people my age grew up loving this movie. Its slapstick and broadness is perfectly silly for kids, and at the same time it offers winking laughs for the grownups too. I'm thoroughly glad I got to know it, even if in my case that knowledge comes 30 years after the fact. I'll be nostalgic for it from now on.