In the last week a lot has been written about Sholay that opened in the theatres 35 years ago on Independence Day. But a small-budget mythological that also released in 1975, has been nearly forgotten.
The film opened on May 30. The first show in a Mumbai cinema collected only Rs 56. The next show netted in Rs 64, the third Rs 98 and the last one crossed Rs 100. No one was impressed. Jai Santoshi Maa was a disaster!
Ten days later, the miracle happened. Collections began improving and the Rs 12 lakh film went on to do a business of Rs 25 crore. It’s still rates amongst Hindi cinema’s biggest grossers. And has prompted thousands across the country to keep the Solah Shukravar Vrat (16 Fridays’ fast).
Women would prostrate at the entrance of the theatres, light incense sticks inside, shower flowers and coins on the screen, dance the ‘Jai jai Santoshi mata jai jai maa…’ garba with Satyavati and at the end of the film, break their fast and distribute ‘prasad’.
Temples of Santoshi Maa sprung up in every state and ‘devi’ Anita Guha was mobbed everywhere she went. Downslide begins The idol worship continues, but Guha’s adulation was short-lived. She soon got tired of playing the goddess in mythologicals and after her actor-husband Manick Dutt’s untimely death, led a Garbo-like existence in her Bandra apartment. She died three years ago and her building on Linking Road is presently being pulled down.
Co-star Kanan Kaushal, the long-suffering Satyavati, also got typecast and despite 60 Hindi and Marathi and 16 Gujarati films, never got the big break she had dreamt of. And eventually retired to a lonely life in her suburban home.
The film’s producer, Satram Rohra, declared himself bankrupt. His distributor, Kedarnath Aggarwal, was allegedly cheated out of his earnings by his own brothers and suffered a paralytic attack.
Ashish Kumar who enacted the role of Satyavati’s husband, Barju believed all this happened because of the curse of the goddess. When I met him in the ’90s, he insisted he was the real producer-director. His wife, the ’60s dancing star Bela Bose, had, on the advice of their family priest, started keeping the Santoshi Maa vrat for the child they both wanted. On the 11th Friday she conceived. Since pregnant women couldn’t sit for the ‘puja’, she requested her husband to read the ‘katha’ to her. The birth of their daughter, Manjushree, nine months later and regular Friday rituals, strengthened Ashish Kumar’s resolve to take the devi’s story to every corner of the country.
He claimed that he had convinced Rohra’s guruji-financier, Saraswati Gangaram, to part with the initial sum of Rs 50,000 to get the film started. Later, after it was stuck for finance, he cajoled Aggarwal to see the rushes. Aggarwal’s wife who had got a baby after 20 years following Santoshi Maa’s Friday fast, persuaded him to buy the film’s rights in advance for Rs 11 lakh and shooting resumed. Kumar maintained that he was paid a paltry Rs 25,000 for his efforts and didn’t even get the 15 per cent overflow he’d been promised.
Aggarwal’s partner, Sandeep Sethi, told a different story, grousing that Kumar had gone over-budget and shot more than was required. He claimed to have re-edited the film and says Kumar sold off his rights and the 15 per cent overflow for just Rs 35,000. But later, when the film was a big hit, Kumar sent them a notice, but later, withdrew charges. The legal tussle benifited no one. Neither Sethi nor Kumar made another hit. Kumar staged shows of his play, Katha Santoshi Maa, then invested all his savings in Solha Shukravar. It flopped, Ganga Sagar fared better, but it wasn’t another Jai Santoshi Maa.
As I was leaving, Kumar pointed out that since then, no mythological had been able to repeat the magic of his earlier film. “Jai Santoshi Maa was the devi’s chamatkar,” he asserted. How true!