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Saturday, 12 June 2010

Femme fatales (Arth)

Mahesh Bhatt's films have always been subtly hardhitting. That is, before he started experimenting with Pakistani exports (bombshells who consider little or no clothes and titillating scenes their ticket to Bollywood glory). His earlier films (read Saaransh, Daddy and Arth) deftly balance arthouse and commercial cinema. With well etched characters, convincing plots and soulful music, these films have carved a niche for themselves in the history of meaningful cinema.
Not to forget, his women characters. Bhatt always made them stand out, amidst the veritable talents in his films. Here, we come to the two women artists in Arth, his semi-autobiograhical treatise on infidelity. This 1982 film depicted human emotions like never before. With an extra-marital affair forming the core, Bhatt weaves a fine drama that is as disturbing as gripping.
With an end that is quite unpredictable, it's the treatment of the film that makes it such a noir classic.
Arth's storyline is no secret. Inder, a struggling filmmaker (a young and handsome Kulbhushan Kharbanda) bluntly reveals to Pooja, his loving wife (Shabana Azmi) that he loves Kavita (Smita Patil), the filmstar. Since the revelation is too much to handle for any self-respecting woman who loves and trusts her spouse completely, Pooja's world comes crashing down. But she maintains her composure. She does not go ballistic demanding explanations. Pooja stays put in her bedroom, weeping quietly. This is where Azmi's repertoire comes of use. Her expressions win you over. Even when she shuns her cheating husband's touch, Pooja's voice does not tremble. You only see her breaking down before her friends and once, before Inder, when she pleads him to give her another chance. But, otherwise she is no weeping willow. She does not want favours, mercies and can live on her own terms. She is out to start afresh...
Bhatt chooses Azmi for Pooja's role and is bang on target. Azmi is kickass. She is the ideal model for every woman who desires to chart a self-respecting route and, leaves an indelible impression. In the scene where she enters into a fistfight with her husband, you can sense her desperation, her loss. When she forces herself to turn away from Raj (Raj Kiran), you know that she is not ready to commit because of her past. She is gearing up to live life on her own terms and realises that a commitment might weaken her. Azmi makes Kharbanda look lame (not that he is bad. He is a perfect grey.) when she is signing the divorce papers. In the party scene where she confronts Inder and his mistress, you almost feel that it is Azmi and not Pooja who is ranting out in a drunken stupor. Her eyes are mellow as well as questioning when Raj professes love with the beautiful ghazal Jhuki jhuki si nazar. She lambasts with fire, cries her heart out, fights with gusto... There is a tightrope balance between reel and real when Azmi is performing...What a blessing to the film world...
If Azmi's top notch, Patil is the other end of the talent spectrum. She is the mistress (not many scenes however). Though you know that Kavita is a homebreaker, you can't help but empathise with her schizophrenic self. In the scene where she is talking to her mother over the phone about Inder, you can sense that she craves for nothing but security and the promise of love. She is a unstable spirit always hunting for assurance. Even after she gets Inder, her newfound fear stems from the fact that she will never find peace because she has ruined another woman's life. Patil is spot on as the hallucinating Kavita. Her eyes perfectly mirror her guilt-ridden soul. She is very different in this film. Considering I've almost worshipped her prowess after watching Ketan Mehta's Mirch Masala (she fights like a tigress for her honour), it was a tad difficult to accept her as the weak Kavita, an infidel who suffers from a persecution complex. But perhaps it was the truth in her part that made me feel so. Her depression is indeed depressing. You almost feel like telling her to not be a party to this illicit affair, but then she loves Inder like crazy...
There is a discrepency, I feel, regarding Kavita's end decision. A woman, who blindly loved Inder, should not be in the mental capacity of taking the right decision (to end the affair). When Pooja assures Kavita that she needn't suffer from guilt pangs, a woman like Kavita (insecure and desperate to say the least) should run and secure her man. But, she emerges strong and dumps Inder because she does not find him trustworthy!!! How come sanity prevails in Kavita's depressed mind???
Notwithstanding these miniscule details, I found Arth thoroughly engaging. Even though I would have loved Pooja and Raj's union (can't help if I'm a sucker for mush), that Pooja emerges a strong free spirit after the gloom, gives the ending a sweeter aftertaste. A taste of hope, of renewal and of incredible woman power...


  1. I suppose, Mahesh Bhatt has stopped delivering likable films much before imports from Pakistan started pouring in. 'Zakhm', arguably, happens to be his last critically acclaimed movie. That was more than a decade back. True, he has directed only three more movies since then, but the fact that his last major hit was 'Hum Hai Rahi Pyar Ke' way back in 1993, after which his name appears against the position of director in 18 movies, doesn't justify his credentials; whatever his Tamanna might have been, his Junnon with making sub-par movies has made the Naraaz audience wonder, "Aisa Hyun Hota Hai?"

  2. Art imitates life as well as life imitates art holds true for this film which is nothing but a slice of Mahesh Bhatt's life. And also of Smita Patil's life. While Bhatt's object of affection was Parveen Babi, Smita was in love with a much-married and father of two, actor Raj Babbar. Of the films that Mr Bhatt made (Arth, Saransh, Ashiqui, Daddy, Zakhm to name a few), I guess this one takes the cake for its cinematic excellence. A poignant tale of how one tends to love someone more than life only to lose that beloved someday...often by default and sometime by choice. Well, another heartrending story which is just perfect on all counts. It speaks volumes in each frame about the pain and anguish of two women, Pooja and Kavita, and also their own strengths and weaknesses. For Pooja, it must have been difficult to live with a man who had cheated on her, betrayed her trust and faith by having an affair with another woman, she did the right thing by walking out on him and for Kavita, the guilt of being a home-breaker was enough to wreck havoc with her mind. It is this portrayal of mental trauma and pain that forms the crux of the film. He also hinges a part of it on the moral and social dilemma of having an extra-marital relationship. And the way Pooja's maid handled her unfaithful husband was completely different from how Pooja behaved with Inder who wanted to start afresh after guilt-ridden Kavita refused to be with him. And in the end, Inder paid the price for his diffidence and infidelity. Truly, it raises a toast to womanhood...they can make a situation and if things go wrong, can very well mar it only to emerge stronger. Wow!!! Sharmi, I really love the movies that you have been reviewing of late. Almost all of them have been my all-time favourite. Good!!! Love them all and love the way you have reviewed them, with a slight pinch of salt, but without missing the minutest details about them in your write-ups. Completely intoxicating!!!

  3. Another Shabana Azmi film that touched on the consequences of infidelity - and which I liked very much, was Maasoom. She is such a fine actress: towers above most other talent in the film industry. Brilliant.

    By the way, one more thing I like a lot about Arth: that lovely song, "Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho". Lovely music, and such poignant lyrics.

  4. @Arjun: At last you are here, and on such a great film. Right Mahesh Bhatt just lost his touch someway after Tamanna. I really think he should gather his thoughts and art and go back into making films such as Daddy and Saaransh. Keep visiting Arjun, it makes a difference to my bolg seeing such thoughtful comments by you :)

  5. @Shilps: Thank you Shilpi. I have been watching these films all over again and seeing them in new light. Pooja is a woman who I completely sympathise with. So, when she walks away free and strong, I am in the mood for rejoicing! Also, I really like the way she makes a name for herself. She is a strong woman and gives it back to her unfaithful husband. The other woman, Kavita, makes a mark because of her depressing behaviour. I thought Patil was so so fabulous. I am going to see this film again soon, and I will keep in mind your commentary. That will add a new dimension to the experience. Thank you :)

  6. @Dustedoff: Yes, Masoom is the one I love more because it was so so poignant. In fact I dedicated my second post on this blog to that film. Great film, great acting, great songs. Here's the link:
    Do let me know what you think.
    Yes, Arth is a powerful film. I also love the songs (greats by Jagjit Singh) especially Jhuki jhuki so nazar :)

  7. Sometimes it's hard to believe it was Mahesh Bhatt who made films like arth and saransh going by the films he has made in the past decade. All good directors go wrong with a film or two but he has been phenomenal in his failures!
    I think most of his critically acclaimed films had some autobiographical elements in them be it arth, daddy or zakhm...saransh I suspect must have some connection with him. In all these movies he seems to have an intimate understanding of the emotions that the characters in these films portray. Perhaps the duds he made were because of a lack of "personal connection" with the subjects and of course some movies he made to make his daughter a star.
    Arth being closest to his life is one of his best (I rate saransh over it).
    The women he chose to play the leads were the two most powerful actresses of that era and of all times I think. It is difficult to estimate who was better smita or shabana? Their rivalry as actors was well known and I think it was a coup in itself for bhatt to have roped in both these phenomenal actresses in one film.
    Aankhon mein nami hansi labon par...shabana painted these words with her expression -- eyes brimming with tears sporting a smile that told the agony her character was going through.
    And Smita portraying the psychologically damaged parveen babi, it was phenomenal.
    The mesmerising songs by Jagjit are like characters unto themselves. You stop to listen to them while they take the story forward. The song koi ye kaise bataye ke wo tanha kyon hai, wo jo apna tha wahi aur kisi ka kyon hai... these words so soulfully sung and picturised on raj kiran just as shabana spots kharbanda and smita is just so poignant.
    Whatever happened to that Mahesh Bhatt?
    And sharmi the best thing about your posts are your minute observations of even the merest flicker of an expression or an insinuation that the characters may show.
    It has been a phenomenal journey through old films courtesy your blog:)

  8. @Abhi: Thank you thank you so much Mr A. You are spot on about the coup. Shabana and Patil together...sparks are definitely going to fly, right?
    Mahesh Bhatt went all awry once he started focussing too much on his daughter's career. Though he stuck to his art in Daddy, in the films after that he simply lost the plot in an attempt to establish her. But you can't force art on a mediocre or rather, a non-artistic person. And, Pooja no matter how much she tried, continued to be irksome. Mahesh Bhatt should have realised that soon enough.
    You know, I used to have a veritable collection of Jagjit Singh's ghazals that I listened to regularly while in college. But, I lost them in transit to this city. I mourn their loss deeply. For, after Ghulam Ali, I really loved Singh's ghazals. The songs in Arth are simply gems and reflect the storm in Pooja's life.
    Exactly, whatever happened to that brilliant Mahesh Bhatt. When will he start making films like Daddy, Saaransh and Arth again???
    Thank you for the comment :)

  9. wasn't arth a copy of the tamil movie marupidiyum?