My Hindi teacher handed me this film, with no explanation - she just said I should see it. I am glad she did. Saudagar ("trader") is a sad, thought-provoking, excellent film, and an unusual showcase for the skill of young Amitabh Bachchan, before he became "Amitabh Bachchan (TM)".
Moti (Amitabh) trades in gur, a sugar product distilled from the sap of date palm trees (sometimes called jaggery in English). Each morning he collects the sap and brings it to Majhu (Nutan), a widow in his village. Majhu boils the sap into jaggery, and Moti brings it to market, sells it, and gives Majhu half of the take. They are a very successful pair - Moti is very industrious, and Majhu very skilled.
On an excursion to a neighboring village, Moti spies a supple young village girl Phoolbanu (Padma Khanna) and is instantly smitten. He wants to marry her, but the price her father asks (to set aside for her as insurance in case of divorce) is Rs. 500 - too steep for Moti's pocket. So Moti hatches a plan: he decides to marry Majhu, so he can work her even harder without giving up half his profits, save up the Rs. 500, and then divorce her.
If Moti sounds like a reprehensible character, that is because he is. One of the more compelling elements of Amitabh's performance in Saudagar is how hard it is to imagine him playing a character like Moti after hitting the long stride of his stardom. Moti is surely a dashing, charming man - all the village girls swoon over him - and he unabashedly uses that charm to his advantage to outwit his competitors in the marketplace and to deceive and manipulate Majhu, all the while remaining an appealing (though not a sympathetic) hero. He plays the character with subtle emotive skill; his eyes convey, before each wantonly selfish step he takes, that he knows he is behaving despicably. As Amitabh sets his jaw and his brow, one can almost see Moti weighing his wants against Majhu's livelihood and honor, the way he weighs out gur by the kilo on a balance in the marketplace.
Even more compelling and rangy than Amitabh in Saudagar is Nutan, who is beautiful, in a sad-eyed kind of way that is very appealing. Here she is supposed to be an over-the-hill widow, no match for Moti's voluptuous young village girl; actually, though, Nutan's mature, solemn beauty is much more attractive than Padma Khanna's vanity and curves. Her performance, too, is excellent; her role requires the most range of the three principals, as she has moments of hard resolution, joyful domestic bliss, and explosive rage, and Nutan carries it all very well.
Finally, Phoolbanu, the vain, pouty girl who enchants Moti, is something of a pastiche - she is presented as both an upstanding, hardworking Indian woman, and at the same time a nubile, sexualized nymph. Her introduction shows her writhing beneath a palm tree trying to catch droplets of sap on her tongue; the image is very suggestive, almost lewd, and it's clear from Moti's expression as he watches her that he finds it so as well:
The end of Saudagar is a little ambiguous - it is left to the viewer to imagine Moti's ultimate fate - but there at least develops an understanding between the two women that they are both victims of Moti's cruel selfishness. This is very satisfying; although they were made to suffer by Moti's connivances, they should not have to pay to redeem him.