When I was in college, I participated in a group-authored comic-fantasy story. We would gather in the dorm lounge and scribble in our large notebook, sometimes collaborating, sometimes each of us writing a chapter on her own. Once, one of the authors wanted to change the sex of her character from male to female. To make this happen, she caused his horse to gallop through a "Plot Device" - that is what she called it in the story, a cloud of mist into which Lord Brandon rode, and from which Lady Brendan emerged.
Balu Mahendra's Sadma ("blow, shock, trauma") relies on an equally expedient plot device, a bit of filmi-medicine sleight of hand that turns Nehalata (Sridevi) from a vibrant young woman into a mental seven-year-old trapped in a grown-up's body. A similar device repairs her mind at the film's end, with a convenient amnesia for the time she spent mentally as a child. But if these absurd expediences are forgiven, if one gives oneself over to the conceit and goes with it, the reward is a touching, subtle, and moving story about love, and bonding, and the nature of nurture.
I went into Sadma with unfairly low expectations. Beth had seen the Tamil original, Moondram pirai, and had some serious problems with it. Meanwhile, I was fettered by the assumption that even Sridevi's best movies are dire and unrelatable to non-Indians like myself; my experience with Lamhe, another movie so often cited as a highlight of Sridevi's career, had confirmed this feeling. As I began watching the movie, I tweeted:
I was quite wrong; Sadma is not downhill from there. It is often disturbing and hard to watch; the ending is magnificently brutal. But it is marked by splendid performances and a surprisingly delicate touch. I have seen a few people comment that Kamal Haasan's character, Somu, is creepy and inappropriate in his care for the childlike Nehalata. But I do perceive no creepiness in Somu at all. To the contrary, he is consistently shown to be a good-hearted, straight-laced fellow - he eschews alcohol, is inexperienced with sex, and refuses the aggressive advances of his boss's wife Soni (Silk Smitha). His concern and caring for the fragile, damaged Nehalata is evident from the moment he encounters her in the brothel she was sold to after being kidnapped by some unnamed evildoer. And throughout the film, Somu's love is patently paternal, never lewd or inappropriate. In just one sequence does Somu view Nehalata as a lover, and this comes in a dream, which he seems eager to shake off on awakening. The fantasy seems to make Somu as uncomfortable as it makes the viewer.
The sweetness of the relationship between Somu and Nehalata is epitomized the adorable song "Ek dafa ek jungal tha," in which Somu acts out the panchatantra fable of the jackal who fell into a vat of blue dye and briefly fooled the rest of the jungle's animals into treating him as a god.
I am not crazy about the filmi mode of presenting mental illness (or in this case, traumatic brain injury) in the form of arrested development, even though I have seen it used in some very good films. Diya Mirza plays such a character in Tehzeeb, where the device a bit of a weakness and distraction in an otherwise excellent movie. In the much older Bahurani, Guru Dutt's rendering of the same deficit is touching, and works as well as it does partly because of its allegorical value. Here in Sadma, it is more contrivance than symbolism; it does not seem to carry any particular emblematic meaning, but rather provides a canvas on which the movie's touching relationship is painted. Sadma is widely viewed as one of the best performances of Sridevi's career, perhaps because of the challenge of portraying the unrealistic deficit in a believable way. Sridevi meets that challenge more than adequately; even in her more typical roles she often has a woman-child quality to her performance, and Nehalata is the quintessence, the distillation of such characters to pure crystalline form. Sridevi's performance is remarkably consistent and unselfconscious, free from winks at the audience or inappropriate moments of preternaturally adult behavior. The performance works, and is satisfying, sympathetic, and moving, despite the inherent weakness of the device itself.
Woven through Sadma are several coarse threads that contrast with the fine tenderness of the relationship between Somu and Nehalata. The sad, desperate Soni flails about for escape from her decidedly untender marriage to Somu's employer. Her breathless, brazen attempts to seduce Somu are distressing to watch. And Soni's erotic dream about him, which from a pure marketing point of view is merely an excuse for a sexy Silk Smitha item number, nevertheless highlights the extreme disconnect between her desires and the plodding reality of her life.
Soni's pathetic overwrought worldliness casts Nehalata's innocence in sharp relief. Contrasting along a different axis is the lecherous Balua (Gulshan Grover), who exploits Nehalata's childlike mind to take advantage of her adultlike body. There is contrast, too, between Somu's earnest goodness and the boozy appetites of his friend Paintal, who drags Somu to the brothel where he first encounters Nehalata and resolves to rescue her. The roughness of these stories makes the warmth and sympathy between Nehalata and Somu that much more gentle in contrast; Somu's home becomes a haven in which gentle fables can be told and puppies played with in peace, while the harshness of the world remains outside. These tendernesses - especially the tenderness with which Kamal Haasan renders Somu - makes the unutterable cruelty that the film does to Somu in its climax all the more vicious a sucker punch. Haasan's performance in the film's final minutes is truly memorable, rendered in pure emotion and without background score apart from the driving beat of the rain and the engine of the train taking Nehalata away from Somu forever.