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30 October 2017

Abhinetri (1970)

Directed by: Subodh Mukherjee
Music: Laxmikant-Pyarelal
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
Starring: Hema Malini, Shashi Kapoor, 
Nirupa Roy, Nasir Hussain, 
Asit Sen, Nazeema, 
MacMohan
When I wrote up Anuradha, fellow-blogger and long-time reader, Dustedoff, mentioned another film that had almost the same characters and plot. She suggested it would be interesting to see how the films differed (or were similar). I had watched Abhinetri a long time ago, and apart from remembering Oh ghata saanwri thodi thodi baawri, my only recollection of the film is a tinge of annoyance at the male character. [That seems to be a common thread, anyway!] So I decided it was time to figure out whether my younger self was right in that tinge of annoyance, and whether a much older, perhaps-wiser me could find extenuating circumstances that could – if not forgive – at least understand the circumstances.

Anjana (Hema Malini) is a well-known theatre performer – dance is not just her passion, but her profession as well, and her ballets have made her an extremely popular artiste. She lives alone, and is quite happy with the direction her life is taking.
One night, coming out to turn off the porch lights the door jams behind her. Taking shelter (from the downpour) on her porch is a stranger. Though initially taken aback, Anjana is quick to make use of him to get her door open. When he finally storms off in a huff (after managing to open the door), he forgets to take his jacket with him.  [I loved the banter between the two.]
Shekhar (Shashi Kapoor) is a scientist – in that most stereotypical of characterisations, he’s the serious, absent-minded, socially inept, no-life-outside-the-laboratory kind. [The lab is the most perfect film laboratory – full of coloured liquids and testtubes and beakers.] When Anjana comes to return his coat (she finds the lab’s address in his coat pocket), Shekhar’s affable boss, Prof. Das (Nasir Hussain), plays ‘catalytic agent’.
In spite of her objections, Shekhar is forced to accompany Anjana home. Anjana doesn’t really seem to mind. When she learns that Shekhar’s mother lives in the village, Anjana asks to meet her (her own mother died when Anjana was a child). Shekhar promises to take her on his next visit, and later, borrows Prof. Das’s car for the trip. 
Of course, he forgets to tell, let alone ask Anjana whether she wants to go – which leads to some contretemps before the misunderstanding is cleared. Soon, Shekhar is introducing her to his mother (Nirupa Roy), and Anjana is lovingly welcomed into the maternal fold. Much joy ensues – and much banter: the two women have a fine time pulling Shekhar’s leg, and Anjana revels in Ma’s affection.
It seems like the universe is bent on actively encouraging their romance – indeed, Ratna (Nazima), Prof. Das, and even Shekhar’s mother aid and abet in the progress of their relationship. A wedding and honeymoon ensue, and when they return, Shekhar and his Anju settle into domestic bliss. 
Newly married, Shekhar loses his professional focus – the irascible Prof. Das has to remind Shekhar that it’s been nearly a year since his wedding. Recalled to his professional duties, he almost immediately forgets Anjana. Which results in Anjana trying some rather juvenile tricks in order to get his attention. Their quarrel is quickly forgotten in their love for each other, but this is only a momentary fix. Shekhar’s absorption with the lab and Anjana’s dependence on his presence exacerbates the situation. What were initially small problems resolved with love become insurmountable barriers between the couple.
As Shekhar gets more and more involved with his research and the lab, Anjana, who had initially given up her career (despite her own misgivings and against the warnings of both Ratna and her guru), is bored out of her head playing house. When her dance teacher, who’s also a father figure in her life, comes to her in difficulties, Anjana quickly agrees to don her ghungroos again.
Which brings matters to a head because Shekhar is furious that his wife – his wife! – is dancing! On stage! With another man! The horror! 
Besides, his ego takes a beating when the onlookers suggest that he’s living off his wife’s earnings. That, and the men’s derogatory comments about Anjana infuriate him so much that he demands that Anjana choose between her dance and their marriage. Anjana, at first taken aback by the absurdity of his reasoning, and furious that while she celebrated his promotion, he couldn’t be happy for her success, eventually becomes mad enough in her turn to choose to leave home. 
Both of them are so entrenched in their own points of view that any future meetings between them are either avoided (by one or both) or end in bickering. Even Ratna’s well-meaning effort ends in a fiasco when Shekhar insults both of them. Finally, one day, Shekhar gets news that his mother is coming to visit. Which means he has to plead with Anjana to return home – he hasn’t told his mother yet that they have separated.  

But will Anjana's temporary return solve the problem? What will happen when Ma leaves?

This is one of Hema Malini’s early films, and her chemistry with Shashi Kapoor was endearing. Bonus, both of them looked good enough to eat.
Hema’s Anjana is a strong, independent character and very unusually for a Hindi film heroine, someone who can take a stand for herself without deteriorating into a shrill stereotype or a whiny doormat. [I’m beginning to see just how many of Hema Malini’s characters were imbued with strength, independence and a sense of self-respect.] She loves her profession, sees nothing wrong in exhibiting her skill in front of an audience, and is very clear that her profession is as important as his. 
What I liked about Abhinetri is that it gave Anjana a voice, and she is supported in her position by her mother-in-law. [Which is another pleasant surprise – when do you expect a ‘ma’ in Hindi films to stand by her bahu?] Anjana’s character arc is so well-defined and she’s so self-respecting a character that the end, when it came, seemed both sudden and pandering to the status quo.

‘Ma’ is another unusual female character, both in the Hindi cinema of the time, and for the character she plays. She makes a case for female independence of thought, as well as commiserates with Anjana for Shekhar’s expectations that she will give up her career in order to fit into traditional gender roles. It is also unusual to see a ‘Ma’ who admits to having been a singer before marriage – filmi mothers usually have no other identity other than motherhood – and how difficult it is to give up something you love because society has clearly defined roles for women.
While Anjana is a nuanced character – she ignores the cheap comments, knowing that it comes with the territory, and asserts that Shekhar is a good man while also ruing he doesn't respect her – I wish Shekhar had been as three-dimensional. Initially shown to be rather decent, Shekhar turns into the ultimate man-child, self-centred (even selfish), self-absorbed and worst of all, whiny. While it’s understandable that Shekhar cannot bear to hear cheap comments about his wife, his solution is to veto her dancing. [It is obviously the woman’s fault if men leer at her, and the solution is to stop her from going out of the house.] In the restaurant, when he sees Anjana and Ratna enjoying a cabaret – which makes Shekhar uncomfortable – he snaps: Stage par apne jism ki numaish karne ko art samajhte hai…
 
When he insists that Anjana stop dancing, he tells her that he has more concern for their respect than she does – Aaj tumhari wajah se mein logon ko munh nahin dikha sakta – and that he cannot bear to hear people whistle at her ‘cheap gestures’.  Even his request for her help is an insult to her art – ‘Koi darshak nahin hoga, koi wah-wah nahin hogi,’  he tells her, at the same time he’s pleading with her to return and ‘act as his wife’. 
Anjana calls him out on that – she shows him how his principles are fluid when it becomes expedient.

I wish I could believe that they lived happily ever after. Perhaps they did – Anjana is shown to have a voice of her own, after all. Unfortunately, however ambiguous the ending, one gets the feeling that the woman has learnt the error of her ways.

One wonders how Anjana forgets the insults he’s heaped on her? When Ratna advises her to make peace with Shekhar, Anjana says: “Woh bahut achhe aadmi hai. Lekin unke ghar mein jo naukar ke izzat hai, woh biwi ki nahin. Aur jis ghar mein aurat ki izzat nahin, main wahan kabhi nahin jaaoongi.”  So how did she decide that returning to her husband, without having a frank discussion, was a good idea? After all, her dance is summarily dismissed even if Ma points out Shekhar’s double standards – Shaadi ke pehle toh pasand tha?

Now, as Madhu would say, ‘Comparisons, comparisons’…

Both Nirmal (Anuradha) and Shekhar (Abhinetri) are shown to be self-absorbed workaholics married to well-known artistes. Both love their wives very much, but both take their wives for granted once they are ensconced at home. Neither does either man show any interest in the art that attracted them in the first place. Superficially, Nirmal and Shekhar are one and the same.

However, Nirmal is shown to be understanding – at least, initially – of the sacrifice that his wife would be making. He does not demand it of her; Anuradha makes that sacrifice of her own volition. Secondly, Nirmal does not look down on his wife’s passion – he just doesn’t realise (because he hasn’t listened to Anuradha) that she’s missing her singing. There’s no evidence that Anuradha would have needed his ‘permission’ or that Nirmal would have objected if she had found a way to continue with her career.
Shekhar, on the other hand, sees dance as something to be ashamed of; he seems to equate cabaret with ballet with theatre with smut. And it's a blot on his honour. There is no evidence that Shekhar has learnt that his wife is an individual, after all. What he rues is Anjana’s absence unlike Nirmal, who accepts his behaviour is responsible for Anuradha’s misery.

In treatment, both films apply a plug to the crack instead of repairing the dam. While Anuradha extolled the female character’s ‘sacrifice’ in the most grandiose of terms – thereby making her seem selfish if she did leave to chase her dreams –  Abhinetri not only just pays lip-service towards Anjana’s love for her dance, but in the feel-good manner of the masala film, stops at their reunion – without a discussion as to the issues that separated them, or even an apologetic look, let alone an apology. It is difficult to find fault with a film that respects its female character and gives her the space to tell her own story in her own voice, but in the final analysis, I think Abhinetri fell short of its intended message, and the ending continues to gnaw at me.

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