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19 March 2016

Arth (1982)

India Bollywood Press Book 1982 ARTH Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil photo IndiaBollywoodPressBook1982ARTHShabanaAzmiSmitaPatil1.jpg
Directed by: Mahesh Bhatt
Music:  Chitra Singh, Jagjit Singh
Lyrics: Kaifi Azmi, Rajinder Nath 'Rehbar', 
Iftikhar Imam Siddiqui
Starring:  Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Kulbhushan Kharbanda,
Raj Kiran, Rohini Hattangadi, Dina Pathak, Om Shivpuri,
Kiran Vairale, Chand Usmani, Shammi, Geeta Siddharth,
Siddharth Kak, Mazhar Khan, Dalip Tahil, Gulshan Grover
The eighties were the nadir where Hindi films were concerned. It was the era of bare story-lines (or none at all) padded with mindless action, numerous glycerine bottles, cacophony in the name of music, garish sets, weird costumes, blow-dried hair, heavily-caked makeup, and eyelashes that impaled one at six hundred yards. It was also the era when 'middle cinema' made a comeback; smaller films with actors instead of stars ('stars' signed these films to prove their acting 'creds'), better story lines, and a small bunch of producers-directors who bankrolled these oases of realism amidst the over-the-top excesses of the pure commercial film. Names like Kundan Shah, Shyam Benegal, Saeed and Aziz Mirza, Sai Paranjpye, Aparna Sen, Govind Nihalani, Shekhar Kapur, all made some definitive films during this decade. Amongst them was another name - Mahesh Bhatt. He had made films before, half a dozen of them, none of them very great, all sinking without a trace. Then, he had a brainwave. He wrote a story based on incidents in his own life, added a soup├žon of drama, and delivered his first major hit. 

Pooja (Shabana Azmi), and her husband, Inder (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) have been married for some time. While Pooja spends her time looking though classifieds for a flat they can afford to buy, Inder is busy working, or networking, coming home late, often not at all. 
The reason for Pooja's anger is not far to seek - Inder has been fired - again - from the agency where he works; they have three months to vacate the company flat and find another residence. From the time they have been married, Pooja has not known the stability of having a house to live in.   

Pooja turns to her friend, Aparna (Geeta Siddharth), for solace. But Aparna, secure in her husband's love (and with the stability of a house of her own), doesn't quite seem to understand. Pooja is an orphan; she has never had a home to call her own. When she married Inder, she assumed he would turn her dreams into reality, but he cannot seem to stick to a job for more than three months before he has a disagreement with his employer.
But even as she's sitting there, Inder telephones saying they have to vacate their house that very day. Meeting him at a bookshop, she is initially taken aback  when he provides her with a book on interior decoration. They don't have a place to stay in, and he thinks this is funny? But Inder has a surprise for her.
Pooja can barely believe it. Her happiness knows no bounds, and for a while she and Inder are blissfully happy. But even in the midst of her happiness, Pooja is practical. Where did Inder get the money to buy such a huge flat? Well, he found a partner, says Inder; they have started their own production company. The partner will invest money, Inder will provide the intellectual capital. He will now work solely for himself. He presents Pooja with a wad of banknotes - she can decorate the flat to her heart's content. 
In exchange, she has to live without him for some time - he has to shoot three films in Goa. One of them even stars film star Kavita Sanyal. And while Pooja is still lost in her dreams about how to decorate her new flat, Inder leaves.

Pooja happily spends her time (and the money that Inder's left her) in decorating her flat, and waiting for Inder to return. When he calls, she has only one other dream - to have a child. 
Back in Goa, Inder is with his leading lady, Kavita (Smita Patil). It is clear from their conversation that they have been involved for a while. Kavita too desires nothing more than to have Inder's child. (I'm beginning to feel rather sorry for the man. That's a lot of pressure.)

Back at the flat, a maidservant (Rohini Hattangadi) has been sent up by the chowkidar - Pooja hires her, and even allows her to bring her daughter along while she works. The maid is the single earning member of the family; her husband has been fired from his job for drunkenness, and she is forced to pay for his daily quota of drinks as well. She tells Pooja he's having an affair, and often beats her when he's drunk.  
She's very pragmatic about her situation, however. When Pooja remarks that, under those circumstances, she would have left her husband, the maid is shocked. Leave her husband? Why on earth? It hasn't even occurred to her! Besides, the 'other woman' is also a poor soul - why, only the previous day, he had beaten her mercilessly! That's her lot in life - work in others' houses, get beaten in her own. But her daughter will not share that fate - she requests Pooja to deposit her salary in her daughter's name.
Her husband doesn't know that she works here; if he did, he would take her salary away, like he does from the other two houses where she works. Unfortunately for the maid, her husband discovers the truth, and very soon, he's outside Pooja's flat, creating a disturbance. Luckily, Inder and Harish arrive just then, and drive him away. When Inder wants to dismiss the maid, Pooja demurs - what's the maid's fault? Does Inder know that the maid's husband is a drunken lout, having an affair, and taking it out on his poor wife? Her words sear Inder though Harish quickly changes the topic. 

The next morning, Inder leaves, pleading a heavy workload. In fact, he tells Pooja, he'll be working late. Pooja is upset; she's called their friends over for dinner. Inder promises he'll try to get home early. As usual, he's at Kavita's. 
She is making plans for their marriage, and even introduces Inder to her mother over the telephone. But when Inder leaves her to return to Pooja, Kavita is furious - Inder had promised her that once Pooja got a house, he would stay with her. Now? It's obvious that Pooja knows nothing about Kavita. It's even more obvious that Inder will never tell her. Kavita presents Inder with an ultimatum - tell Pooja about their relationship by the morning, or she will call Pooja personally. 
A cornered Inder decides to confess to Pooja, but the maid's arrival cuts him off mid-conversation. The moment passes, and Inder rationalizes away his cowardice. The next morning, a client, Dilip (Dalip Tahil), is watching Inder's new film and is less than pleased - he didn't shell out big bucks so Inder could advertise his affair with Kavita Sanyal. Their arguments deteriorate into fisticuffs, and it takes Harish and Pooja (who's arrived there) to break up the fight. 

Worse is to follow. Kavita asks her assistant, Gulshan (Gulshan Grover), to phone Inder's house; she needs to talk to Pooja. However, when Pooja answers, Kavita doesn't speak and Pooja hangs up on the blank call. When she calls again, however, Inder has reached breaking point. After screaming into the phone (he knows without her speaking that it is Kavita on the line) that he 'will tell all', he turns and abruptly blurts out the truth to his wife - he loves someone else. They were just good friends... he doesn't know when and how... he didn't intend to... he hasn't slept these many nights... his heart is breaking..
A shellshocked Pooja walks silently by him and collapses on her bed.

While Inder is still managing the fallout, a very hesitant Gulshan knocks at the door. Inder waves him inside. Gulshan, ill at ease, informs him that 'madam' was terrified at the phone call and left her shooting mid-way. She's downstairs in her car; she wants to meet Inder for a minute. 
It's only after Inder drives away with Kavita that Pooja allows herself to break down. Both Anil (Siddharth Kak) and Aparna come to her support, but Anil disagrees with his wife when she suggests that Pooja should pack her bags and go with them. This is her house. Affairs are not long-lasting, and Inder will soon realise that his relationship with Pooja is worth more than anything else. He will return. 

Back at Kavita's place, Inder is asleep when she wakes him up at his regular time to go home. She is shocked when Inder wakes up with Pooja's name on his lips.  
Pooja, meanwhile, decides to meet Inder, and insists on Harish taking her to Kavita's house. Reluctantly, Harish does as he's asked.  History repeats itself - only, now it is Kavita inside the house, and Pooja waiting outside in a taxi. Instead of Gulshan, it's Harish who's the messenger. Inder's made his choice however, and a disgusted Harish tells him he can convey the message himself. However, Inder convinces him to take Pooja to the office. 

Pooja is desolate - where did she go wrong? When Inder assures her that they will always remain friends, her fragile control breaks. She begs Inder to put this behind him and come away with her. They can start again. She will try to minimise her flaws, she tells him, begging for a second chance.  
Inder is blunt about having nothing to do with Pooja any more. Smarting at this second rejection, Pooja leaves. 

Two weeks have passed, and Inder doesn't call even once. Pooja is heartbroken. Her well-meaning friends decide to take her out so she will have a change of surroundings. Reluctantly, Pooja agrees. When she arrives at the party, Aparna and Anil haven't shown up yet, but she meets Raj (Raj Kiran), a professional singer, who makes her laugh with his conversation.  
It's short-lived, that laughter, as Inder walks in with Kavita. Pooja takes refuge in  alcohol, and that leads to a confrontation with her errant husband. As she loses total control, Dilip, who's present at the party, tries to take advantage of her inebriation. Raj rescues her and takes her home. 

Infuriated by the consequences of Pooja's 'cheap behaviour', Inder lets her know that the flat she took so much delight in, was bought with Kavita's money. That, as far as Pooja is concerned, is the last straw. 
She sends back the keys to the flat, their chequebook, and the balance of the money Inder had given her - she's leaving; all she's taking with her is the Rs2000 that she had when she got married to Inder. She makes it clear that she's only leaving Kavita's house, not Inder's life.  

Slowly, Pooja takes up the reins of her life again. She moves into a working women's hostel, even though she's not employed. Her roommate (Kiran Vairale) offers to get her a job. She herself works as an escort, using her 'rich friends' to pay her bills. Shocked by her vulgar reality, Pooja blasts her room-mate, only to be told a few home-truths herself. 
But Kiran (for want of a name, I shall use her real name here) is not unsympathetic. The next morning, she provides Pooja with a lead for actual employment and even gives her her railway pass. 

The job is at a recording company, and there, Pooja runs into Raj again.  Unfortunately, she doesn't get the job (they don't employ married women as receptionists, the manager tells her), and Raj has just failed his audition there, so he invites her home to celebrate their mutual disappointments. He also provides her with a fake appointment letter so she won't be expelled from the hostel. Pooja is both amused and horrifed at his impudence.  
Meanwhile, Kavita is waiting for Inder. When he finally does return, after celebrating Harish's birthday, it is to find a distraught girlfriend who's sure Pooja was at the party. Already drunk, Inder blows up. After all, he'd left Pooja to be with her. Kavita's insecurities make her question his every move. Inder is not completely hers yet. After all, he hasn't divorced Pooja. He's leaving a door open so he can go back to Pooja, she snaps at him. Nothing Inder says can reassure her - she demands that he divorce Pooja. Now.  
Pooja is blossoming under Raj's unquestioning friendship. As she's going to Raj's house one evening (he wants to celebrate her birthday), she finds Inder waiting for her. Surprised and pleased (and hopeful), she is shocked when she realises that Inder wants her to sign a divorce appeal.  
It's only to appease Kavita, insists Inder, because her insecurity is making Kavita ill. Pooja signs, a wry smile twisting her lips. After all, her husband of seven years doesn't even remember her birthday.   

Slowly, things are changing. While Anil is sure that Inder will soon come to his senses, Raj's makes his feelings for Pooja very clear indeed. While Pooja's slowly finding her feet, and learning to live alone, Kavita is becoming more and more insecure, and the situation is taking its toll on Inder as well.  
What will happen to these four people, their lives, their loves, their happiness? Will Pooja ever stop loving Inder? Will she care for Raj? Does Inder regret his choices? Kavita? Raj? Where do they fit in? At the end, they all have hard choices to make, choices that have consequences not only for themselves, but for the others they care for.  
Supposedly semi-autobiographical, Mahesh Bhatt's Arth, a subtle but hard look at marital relationships gone wrong, was considered rather bold for the 80s - its ending was controversial for the times. Arth's strength lies in finely nuanced performances from its leads - all three of them. Shabana's Pooja, Smita's Kavita, and Kulbhushan's Inder were all sketched with a humanity that stopped them from becoming caricatures. The film belonged, however, to its two female leads, while Kulbhushan was content to play a supporting role. 

Ably book-ended by fine performances from both Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil, the two female angles to what could have been just a conventional love triangle, Arth was both understated and sensitive. Truly one of Shabana's greatest performances, she found an able antagonist in Smita, once considered her professional rival. (The magazines of the day pitted them against each other in a way they didn't for the duo who were the male part of the reigning art/parallel cinema quartet.)  
Shabana's Pooja is an orphan, who is both emotionally and financially dependent on her husband. Like most middle-class women, who are homemakers, her life revolves around Inder. When she realises he's been cheating on her, she goes through a gamut of emotions - grief, anger, bitterness, resignation... she even plumbs the depths of desperation, calling her husband's mistress and begging her to leave Inder alone; she has no one else to call her own.
The scene is powerful for two reasons - Shabana's grief, which she tries very hard to control, and Smita's stunned silence, a myriad expressions flitting across her face as she listens to the wounded wife at the other end of the line.

Later, Pooja gathers up the tattered remnants of her self-pride and walks out on Inder. It takes a great deal of strength, and while she does have a quiet admirer in Raj, the movie does not show her as dependent on him for her transformation. On the contrary, he stands aside, letting her free to be what she will. 
Shabana immerses herself in the character of Pooja, and it is astonishing how she lives and breathes that character, bringing her to life in a way that makes Pooja more than just another cheated-upon wife. In a crucial scene, her Pooja turns into a wounded animal, striking out at those who hurt her - "Pati ki seva mein aurat ho kabhi ma aur kabhi behan ban-na padta hai, aur bistar mein kabhi randi" ('A woman has to turn herself into a mother or sister in the service of her man, as well as a whore in bed.') she remarks, and unable or unwilling to retaliate, Kavita turns away.  Drunk as she is, Pooja doesn't realise that she's shaming herself just as much as she's shaming her husband and his mistress.
It's a definitive performance and Shabana sinks her teeth into the role, not just demanding our sympathy, but also gaining our respect. It won her a well-deserved National Award for Best Actress as well as the Filmfare Award for Best Actress.

Smita was a worthy antagonist. Her Kavita is forever doomed to be the other woman. When, driven insane by the evidence of her husband's infidelity, and with a dutch-courage borne out of alcohol consumption, Pooja rakes her down in public for being a whore (amongst other things), Kavita holds onto her emotions - until she reaches home. Her breakdown is spectacular - every insult that has been thrown at her reverberates within her head; faced with the evidence that her love for Inder has caused the breakdown of his marriage, Kavita begins to unravel. (She's shown to be emotionally volatile from the beginning.) 
Pooja's anger and disgust cause Kavita to skid alarmingly close to a nervous breakdown. And their final confrontation sets the seal on Kavita's emotional health. It's a delicately nuanced role and Smita's Kavita was both demanding and vulnerable, as she strives to hold on to her man - a man who could neither be wholly his wife's, nor his mistress's. One cannot but feel a sneaking sympathy for her as Kavita struggles to make sense of her life and love. (Smita was to later lash out at Mahesh Bhatt for editing her role such that Shabana walked away with the hosannas. Smita even lost the Filmfare Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role to Rohini Hattangadi.) 
In the end, both Pooja and Kavita are losers where Inder is concerned. The difference is that Pooja steadily recoups her strength in order to forge her own way forward, while Kavita, once proudly independent, finds herself being more and more dependent on Inder's presence in her life. Alongside these two women are two others - Rohini Hattangadi is Pooja's maid, a woman who cheerfully struggles to earn a living so she can educate her daughter. She decides early on that her daughter will not share her fate of being tied to a man who lives off her, and is willing to take a critical step when he betrays that ambition. 
The other is Kiran Vairale, who plays Pooja's hostel room-mate, with her cynical take on man-woman relationships. She is both vulnerable and poised, exploited and exploiting. She wants to attain a lot of things, and is willing to pay the price of her dreams. As she cynically remarks to Pooja the night after the latter rakes her down, there are no free lunches; no, not even in a supposedly 'pure' marital relationship. She has no delusions whatsoever about men, or about herself, and is refreshingly free of guilt or middle-class morality.
Kulbhushan Kharbanda is Inder, the cheating spouse, who doesn't have the strength of will to oppose either of his women. When Pooja walks out, his relief is palpable because now, he doesn't have to deal with her tears. When Kavita becomes more and more demanding, it is clear that he cannot stand to be with her, yet he doesn't have the courage to leave her either. He does love her; he also seems to love Pooja. As he vacillates between them, it is the women who finally decide the resolution for themselves. Inder is pusillanimous, not cruel; he's weak, and also just human (with rationalisations for every one of his cowardly actions), and the script treats him just so, even if he is a ready target for our outrage. 
Raj Kiran is the friend whom everyone should have. Gentle, supporting, affectionate, and while he tries to convince Pooja to give them a chance, he's secure in himself to let the woman he loves walk away from him because she needs to first find herself, and her place in the sun. When she comes back, if she comes back, it will be to him, and he will be waiting. 
It was a controlled performance.  And it helps that, playing a singer, he gets all four solos - Tere khushboo mein base khat, Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho, Jhuki jhuki si nazar, and Koi ye kaise bataaye, all sung by Jagjit Singh.  
Mazhar Khan has a small role as Harish, Inder's assistant. He's also the voice of Inder's conscience who, though he lies for Inder, is completely disapproving of his relationship with Kavita. He's perhaps the only one who has the guts to tell Inder so. 

Arth was - supposedly - the story of Mahesh Bhatt, his then-wife, Kiran, and Parveen Babi.  Both Shabana and Smita were 'other women' in real life at the time - Smita had tied the knot with Raj Babbar in 1981, while Shabana was going through a tumultuous relationship with the already-married Javed Akhtar. They would get married in 1984. So it was rather ironic that this film, starring the two, became a sort of transformative experience for married women - dealing with their husbands' infidelity -  at the time. 

Despite its slight tinge of melodrama, Arth remained a benchmark for films about gender equality, domestic violence, and women's emancipation. The film very nearly languished in the cans, because distributors were wary of picking a film with such a controversial ending. Other directors warned Bhatt to change the ending if he wanted the film to be screened. It says much for his conviction that he persisted with the film as he had originally shot it. In a career that became increasingly self-indulgent as he shamelessly mined his life (and others') for stories to translate onto the screen, Arth remains one of his most honest ventures.

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