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27 March 2016

Astitva (2000)

Poster: Courtesy Wikipedia
Directed by: Mahesh Manjrekar
Music: Rahul Ranade, Sukhwinder Singh
Starring: Tabu, Sachin Khedekar, 
Sunil Barve, Namrata Shirodkar, 
Mohnish Behl. Smita Jayakar, 
Ravindra Mankani

Astitva. Self-identity. The core of any individual's sense of being. Made simultaneously in Marathi and Hindi, Astitva deals with a woman's discovery that she too has an identity; she is her own being, a woman before she is daughter/wife/mother. This could be anyone's story. Here, in this film made at the cusp of two millennia, it is the story of Aditi, who happens to be a woman. And in telling this story, 'Aditi' becomes the reflection of many such other Aditis, who abound in our society. Women who have lost their identities within their familial systems, within marital relationships, within societal boundaries of what they should say or feel or do. From the noughts, then, Astitva.

It's a normal busy morning in the Pandit household. Shreekant Pandit (Sachin Khedekar), is harrying his wife, Aditi (Tabu), and son, Aniket (Sunil Barve) - calling out for his tie, telling his wife that he'll be back late - there's a meeting in the afternoon that will go on till late evening. As he impatiently waits for his wife and son, he gets a phone call. An old friend, Dr Ravi Bapat (Ravindra Mankani) and his wife, Meghna (Smita Jayakar) are in Pune to deal with some personal business. They will return to Goa, where they live, the next morning.
Shree promptly invites them home for lunch; meeting, office, impatience - all fly out the window. He asks Aniket to cancel all his appointments at office and come back home for lunch with his fiancée, Revati. Everyone's plans have to be rearranged to suit Shreekant. It is clear that both Aditi and Aniket are used to Shree's autocratic behaviour.
Ravi and Meghna arrive; the 'underwear friends' (as Shree calls them) sit outside to quaff a few drinks, and play 'catch up'. Meghna and Aditi are in the kitchen, where Aditi is getting lunch ready. During the conversation, Meghna reveals that she was a divorcee when she met Ravi. She has two daughters from her first marriage; her ex-husband had had an affair with a business associate. What hurt Meghna more than the knowledge of the affair was the fact that her husband didn't think he'd done anything wrong.
Meghna is also aghast that Aditi is 'just' a housewife. She herself had realised that she needed to be something more - after her divorce. Now, she's unwilling to be dependent on anyone else. Aditi smiles. The time to be 'something' has gone; she's too busy taking care of the house now.
Aniket and Revati (Namrata Shirodkar) walk in just then. Shree introduces her to Ravi and Meghna. In the course of the conversation, it comes out that Shree is not very comfortable with the idea of a working daughter-in-law. 'She's a modern woman', he says, drunkenly, 'she needs to be independent.' If she needs to work, why doesn't Revati join his company? It is clear from Revati's expression that this is a conversation she's had many times before. She's glad to have Ravi's expressed support.

Meghna and Aditi join them, and Shree's remarks about Meghna make both women uncomfortable. Just then, they're interrupted by the arrival of the post - there's a registered post for Aditi. As she signs for the mail, Shree opens the envelope, much to Ravi's and Meghna's consternation. 
So what? She's his wife, isn't she? asks Shree as he makes a huge deal out of the fact that a man named Malhar Kamat, who lived in Hubli, had left his house, land, jewellery and a hefty bank account to Aditi. As he continues to drink, and get more and more boisterous, 'celebrating' Aditi's good fortune, he misses Aditi's expression of shock. 

It's only later that evening after Ravi and Meghna have left that Shree, recovering from his hangover, suddenly wonders just who Malhar Kamat is. Aditi has to jog his memory - Malhar Kamat used to teach her music. In fact, Shree had met him twice. Shree is curious - was Kamat married? Why did Aditi stop learning music? Did Kamat marry later? Aditi is nonplussed - how would she know?
That night, as is his wont, Shree sits down to write the day's happenings in his diary. Writing it all down causes Shree to recall the past. 
He had unexpectedly returned from a business trip to find his wife in the midst of a music lesson. Earlier that day, Aditi had complained to her teacher about not having any talent for music - Gaana mere bas ki baat nahin, so her guru, Malhar Kamat (Mohnish Behl) had asked her to sing what she felt - express those emotions in the form of a raga.
Shree had waited until their riyaaz ended; Aditi had then introduced him to Malhar Kamat, who was very proud of Aditi's progress. In a couple of years, Aditi could become a professional singer. Shree had promptly interrupted - his wife would not sing for money; he made enough to provide for her. Aditi was only learning music as a hobby. 

Shree now recalls that Aditi didn't look too happy then. 

The next morning, before leaving for work, Shree quickly takes one of his old diaries with him. Without stopping to have breakfast or even waiting for Aniket, he leaves for the office, claiming to be incredibly busy. At work, he asks his secretary to see that he's not disturbed for the next few hours. 
Then, he begins to read his diary, intermittently jotting down some dates and events. The diary reminds him that he'd just arrived from Nepal, only to leave for Singapore the very next day. Aditi had been very upset. She had reason to be angry. In the two years of their marriage, he'd not stayed at home for two months at a stretch. While he travels to one country or the other, she's left behind to while away her time.
'I feel so alone, Shree,' she had said; where did she fit into his grand plans? Shree, trying to coax her out of her sadness, had encouraged her to begin learning music again.

And so he had left for Singapore. It's upon his return that he had met Malhar Kamat. The very next morning, he had left again - for Nigeria. He'd returned from Nigeria on his wedding anniversary, with his first independent contract in hand. He had been damn elated. He had found Aditi moody - as usual - and had apologised. As usual.  
To make amends, they'd gone to Khandala for a couple of days; upon their return, Aditi had fallen ill. She'd reassured Shree - it must have been something she ate. A couple of days later, he'd returned home elated - he'd secured another big contract - only to find Aditi in tears; she was pregnant. The diary reminds him of his disbelief at the time - he'd just secured a major contract, he'd looked at a plot for a bungalow, and now this! He was the happiest man alive! Aditi had tried to interrupt - she had something to tell him. But Shree hadn't listened, hadn't paid heed to her evident grief.
 
Until now, when reading his own words brings back a very visual memory.

Aditi is surprised by his unexpected return from work. What happens next shocks her, but she finally divulges her secret - a truth that tears both of them apart. 
 
The next day, Aniket, Ravi and Meghna are all waiting anxiously for Shree to speak. Aditi is, as usual, standing silently. Ravi has no idea why Shree had requested his and Meghna's presence so urgently, and is taken aback when Shree responds that Aditi would answer all their questions. Aditi is shocked out of her silence - why is Shree making a public tamasha out of what should be a private matter?  
Shree pays no heed - Ravi is family. Aditi reluctantly acquiesces. She asks Aniket to leave, but Shree insists he remain - Aniket has to hear the truth as well. 

Meghna is furious - what's between Shree and Aditi is a private matter. She has no interest in being witness to it. But Aditi stops her, asks her to remain - for her sake.   
Once she begins talking, Aditi holds nothing back. Her humiliation is complete. But her punishment is yet to come. 
 
Astitva is the story of Aditi, a typical upper-middle-class housewife - educated, intelligent, loving - the fulcrum of the household's existence. And Tabu is Mrs Shreekant Pandit, smoothing over her husband's occasional boorishness with a smile, patiently and lovingly taking care of her little household, ignoring many of the little pinpricks because, above all, she doesn't want strife... long years of marriage have inured her to expecting anyone to pay any attention to her.

Despite all that, the Pandits have what would be termed a 'happy marriage'. A marriage where one spouse makes all the compromises needed to smoothen their lives. The cracks appear only when Shreekant's friend, Ravi, and his wife (the once-divorced Meghna) appear, and it widens when a letter addressed to Aditi is opened by her husband.
(Tabu's silent expression of forbearance at this invasion of her privacy is fabulous.) 

Aditi's biggest mistake, when her impulsive action leads to grave consequences, is not listening to her sister's advice. Her personal integrity will not allow her to deceive her husband to that extent. 
So it's ironical that her enforced silence becomes the bigger deception. When the edifice that she has so carefully nurtured shatters, Aditi is shaken. She has bent with the storm so many times that she cannot bend any more or she will break. With the quietness that characterises her, Aditi takes a crucial decision, and a brave one. 
These scenes will tell you, if nothing else has so far, why Tabu is considered one of our best contemporary actresses. And why it's a shame that she doesn't get many roles that suit her calibre. (Thank heavens for Vishal Bhardwaj!) Aditi fetched Tabu a well-deserved Filmfare Critics Award for Best Actress.

Considering my reaction to Shreekant, which was mirrored by many of my colleagues and friends who'd watched the film, Sachin Khedekar succeeded in his portrayal of a controlling, insecure, hypocritical male. 

When Ravi, a long-time friend, visits with his newly-wedded wife, Meghna, Shree is ill-at-ease with the fact that Meghna is a divorcee. While he's thrilled that Aniket is getting married to the beautiful Revati, he is also unhappy that she's a working woman. When, lonely and aimless during his long absences from home, Aditi suggests taking up a job, he almost explodes. 'Hamare gharaane mein na aaj tak kisi aurat ne naukri kii hai, na kisi ne karvaayi hai,' he tells her bluntly. 'Mujhe apne ghar me biwi ke paise nahin chaahiye. Main apna ghar chala sakta hoon.' (No woman in our household has ever worked, nor has anyone allowed them to work; I don't need my wife's money to run my home. I earn enough.) It's an insult to a man - that he cannot provide for 'his woman'.

He laughs - wink wink - about his many one-night stands on his business trips. In his eyes, a man having affairs in not wrong at all - it's a sign of his masculinity. That, of course, does not hold true for women. 

In the aftermath of Aditi's revelations, his mask of affability drops and he shows what he really is - a cruel, insensitive man who doesn't think twice before emotionally eviscerating his already shattered wife, the wife he professes to love. Even Ravi's defence of her, or his pointed observation about Shreekant's own marital infidelities do not make him face his own double standards. 'I'm a man, damn it!' Besides, it's not as if he brought a baby home!
 
It is not that he is hurt that makes him so nauseating - anyone would feel betrayed, especially when the betrayal is so huge and the deception so long-lasting. His immediate reaction to his wife's confession is understandable. Where he crosses the line into being a hypocrite is when he doesn't see accept that his own actions means he has no business judging anyone else; where he's an inhuman clod is when he demeans his wife by questioning her in front of his discomfited friends - rejecting her plea to sort it out behind close doors. She has to be tried in the court of public disapproval. It is not enough that she is punished by him; she has to be humiliated before their son, and his friends. In this final denunciation, he breaks both the illusion of marital happiness and the bond between his wife and the son who is her blood.  
His final decision is even worse, treating Aditi as no better than chattel, to be dependent on the man's good graces for her continued existence. When viewed through Ravi's and Meghna's eyes, Shreekant's behaviour is shown up for what it is - hypocritical, manipulative, even cruel. It is his ability to shrug off a 30-year marriage that forces Aditi to take a long, hard look at her life so far.
It's Revati who raises a very important question that Aniket fails to answer; it's she who takes a crucial, if unexpected, decision of her own. Namrata Shirodkar is very pretty and was competent enough in the role, but I do wish they hadn't made her give a rah-rah speech. It was unnecessary; Tabu's monologue before that scene was very powerful. Namrata's concluding 'message' took away from the impact of the ending - I don't need to be hit on the head with a hammer to take home the message.

Mohnish Behl has a small but vital role as Malhar Kamat; he's the unfortunate man who falls in love with Aditi and assumes that she returns his affections.  
This is the scene, upon second viewing, that made me see Aditi herself as flawed - her momentary lapse of judgement had affected Malhar as well. So when she, floundering in guilt, sends him away, one understands why, and even empathises with her, while feeling sorry for him. However, when she later excoriates his bequest to her as his 'arrogance', she seems unnecessarily cruel, and extremely selfish - she hasn't once thought about him, or about the consequences of her actions that reflect upon him. In one sense, she had used, and then discarded him, without second thought. So it seems unfair that she partly blames him for her downfall. I would have liked to have seen her own her decision.
Smita Jayakar brings a much-needed visible anger to her role as Meghna. Divorced from an abusive husband, she's happily married to Ravi, but is clear that she'll never depend on a man again. She is vocally supportive of Aditi, and does not hesitate to tell Shree off for his double standards.  

Ravindra Mankani was relatively decent in his role as Shreekant's conscience, but Sunil Barve as Aniket was one of the most appalling 'actors' I've seen in a long time - he'd about as much expression in his face as a dead fish. He came across more as a petulant man-child rather than a young man hurt by the truth about his conception. Besides, he cannot deliver a dialogue to save his life, and so, his anger towards his mother was so flatly delivered he sounded like he was reading a telephone directory.
Astitva, like Arth, is not without its flaws. For one, it picks one side to focus on, and defends it vigorously. But the film served to shine a light on some very pertinent points, including marital rape and emotional abuse. It openly made a case for women's desires; like men, women too have emotional and physical desires. They are not wrong to have them. 
Astitva makes Aditi the voice of any woman forced to subjugate her own desires to keep her marriage going. As Aditi points out with characteristic simplicity, what they (women) want is of no importance; keeping her man happy is a woman's prime responsibility. Shree has many extra-marital affairs; but he expects her to be completely faithful to him. Shree is away most of the time, and sometimes when he returns, he's in no 'mood' to have sex. So. Where does she go to satisfy her desires? 
When he does want physical release, he doesn't always ask for her consent. Aditi does not shy away from calling the act what it really is - rape within the bounds of marriage. Worse, Aditi points out, they'd never had any other children. If she hadn't given birth to Aniket, she would have been accused of being infertile. (Shades of Chandravati from Mrityudand.)

Astitva revealed the callous double standards by which society judges women, and by 'society', I mean both men and women. I watched this film a second time with my mother-in-law and she was very disapproving of Aditi's actions. 'She was wrong,'  she told me. 'Her husband had a right to be angry.' So what about Shreekant's many infidelities, I retorted. (Not that I'm advocating a gander-goose ripple effect, but Shree's character irritated me). 'But men will be men,' she said, as if that should explain all. 'Women shouldn't behave like that.' Her opinion is one that is still shared by a large section of society, to whom that statement does explain all. Women are still held to a different moral standard. Their chastity still forms the moral bulwark of society. Take that away, and society crumbles. Even today.

Watch Astitva for Tabu. And for raising issues that are still pertinent 16 years later.

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