The Meaning of Arth, 40 Years Later

Some films are destined to carry the weight of relevance over the decades. Arth is one of them.

Forty years later it remains a textbook movie to draw the arc of self-realisation for an ordinary, middleclass, dependant Indian woman. Mahesh Bhatt straddled the middle ground between mainstream and off-beat, defying the expectation of a reconciliation between a repentant husband and forgiving wife. And by doing that, Arth created a milestone in Hindi cinema. 

Mahesh Bhatt proved that if he is honest and courageous, his own life can be mined for compelling stories teeming with fierce emotions. Yes, he has been called an exhibitionist but that is a creative risk a filmmaker takes when he delves into his own life experiences. Autobiographical experience when distilled through creative candour yields searing truth that one is forced to confront. Bhatt is almost a bystander to his own story because he generously gives centre space to the wife who goes through a relentless wringer of emotional turmoil. When he has the wisdom and ability to get scorching, emotionally gut-wrenching performances from his actors, a classic is born. Arth is the gold that emerged from the crucible of a nuclear explosion where hurt, rage, self-doubt, despair collide… and then are becalmed into acceptance. Acceptance that comes with growth, of self-assurance and belief in one’s dignity.

A DVD release cover jacket for Arth | Credits: Eagle Home Entertainment

Released in 1982, Arth catapulted Bhatt into the top league of Hindi mainstream cinema directors after two barely remembered films he made in the 1070s. He would go on to plumb the death of his personal experiences – its unhealed hurts, festering wounds, gnawing guilt, search for redemption – in subsequent films as different as Janam (1985), Zakhm(1998), Woh Lamhe (2006), but nothing came close to capture the searing power of Arth, his finest film. Yes, finer than Saaransh (1984) which feels somewhat dated now. If Zakhm throbs with the pain of his illegitimacy in society’s eyes and his mother’s vulnerable status, Woh Lamhe cast his younger self as a brave filmmaker vainly going beyond his best to pull his schizophrenic muse from the depths of suicidal despair and fantasies of persecution.

Bhatt is the son of Nanabhai Bhatt, a film maker who worked in Hindi and Gujarati cinema, and Shirin Mohammed Ali. The stigma of being born to a mistress and not a lawful wife was finally washed off with his success as a maverick who thumbed his nose at the establishment and became a cultish figure to others who wanted to be different. Ironical that the rebel finally became an establishment figure of a different kind of mainstream cinema.

But the ghost of Parveen Babi could not be exorcised in Woh Lamhe. It was not until he gave Pooja, the betrayed wife full scope to find her self-hood independent of her adulterous husband, that the devils that haunted this undeniably gifted writer-director were laid to rest. Arth is a brilliant film, its dramatic arc laser like in its exploration of irreconcilable feelings. The two women in Inder’s life are given enough space to tell their own stories – of insecurities overcome and fears allayed. Both the wife Pooja and the schizophrenic other woman Kavita are given their big dramatic scenes of confrontation. The two finest actors of their time, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil proverbially locked in rivalry, do complete justice to their vastly different characters. One as an ordinary woman rooted in her middleclass values and the other, a passionate diva who consumes the married man she is in love with, and internalises her guilt that comes out as accusations of the wife being a shameless, intrusive presence in moments of intimacy with `her’ man. It is scene that leaves us drained.

Of course, it is basically Pooja the wife’s story and Shabana Azmi gives one of the finest performances of her life. Smita Patil complements Pooja’s steady growth and compassionate understanding of Kavita’s frailties with a scene where she pours out her fear, anger and guilt in a performance that becomes a touchstone – of how schizophrenic frenzy overpowers its victim. Mahesh Bhatt the director and writer gives both his actors the big break out scene. The first one is at a party where Pooja, inebriated not only with alcohol but pain-fuelled rage, storms at a petrified Kavita, calling her a home-wrecking whore. Pooja is unmindful of her slipping pallu and the guests at the party staring aghast at this unseemly outburst. The guilty pair stand close together, wordless. Shabana’s entire body droops with exhaustion after her is anger spent in a cathartic outburst as we watch mesmerized.

Credits: Anu Arts

From this paradoxical moment that is both a high and low point in her journey, Pooja visibly pulls herself together. She stays in a hostel for working women, comes across young women with attitudes totally new to her conventional self.

The person in touch with her past is her maid, an abused wife with a congenital drunk for a husband. Rohini Hattangadi plays a typical Maharashtrian Bai, determined to protect and educate her young daughter. The scenes between the shy girl and a kind yet teasing Shabana are casual, but they are full of import. This connection finally leads to Pooja deciding to be the guardian of the young girl when her mother is taken into custody for killing her abusive husband. Pooja finds her anchor and purpose in life. She has already gently spurned the sympathetic ghazal singer (Raj Kiran) who is half in love with her. He is welcome as a friend, nothing more. Pooja is firm in her rejection when Inder comes back seeking forgiveness. Kavita too has realised that he is not the protective father figure she has been looking for and ends the relationship in a moment of sanity…in a dizzy see saw between incoherence and sanity.

Credits: Anu Arts

To look back at the notable predecessors of films that empowered women to find freedom, only V.Shantaram’s Duniya Na Mane stands out. That was a film rooted in the reformist soil of Maharashtra where our cinema’s domestic guerrilla was born. Nirmala defiantly refuses to accept the much older widower she was conned into marrying. Finally, the basically decent man, a lawyer, feels both emasculated and ashamed. He commits suicide setting the young woman free. Nirmala is the first rebel of our cinema. And she spawned generations of rebels, who fought their different battles in their own way. All are rebels with a cause. 

Shabana Azmi’s Pooja is not an obvious rebel. Yes, she finally rebels against conventional expectations that a wife will forgive and accept a chastened husband who seems assured that she will do so. But from the first knowledge of his passionate affair with a demanding, unstable actress, to finally reaching a sense of her own dignity and personhood is a journey that many women would avoid. Staying married even to an adulterous man keeps her position intact in society. Some may even praise her generosity. Not today. Women will pity and even scorn a woman who will stand by an unfaithful husband. Why, many feminists faulted Hilary Clinton for staying in a marriage that was notorious for her husband’s serial infidelities much before La affair Monica. They attribute it to her craving to hold on to power.

Credits: Anu Arts

Pooja is a happy homemaker, content to create a warm nurturing place for her ad filmmaker husband. An orphan, with only family friends for support, Pooja is totally – emotionally and financially – dependent on Inder for that all important feeling of security. She feels abandoned, rootless and humiliated. So dependent is Pooja that she abases herself, pleading and begging the adulterous husband to give their marriage another chance. Being emotionally naked is more demanding and difficult for an actor than physical nudity. Pooja’s difficult journey that she undergoes with grit and determination – and without bitterness – is a triumph of will over circumstances. The way she pulls the tattered cloak of dignity round her and learns to stand courageously alone, taking responsibility for the practically orphaned child, is quietly inspiring. No declamations, no rhetoric but extremely powerful in its firm resolve. In that sense, Arth was ahead of its time. It echoes the decisive stand Jill Clayburgh takes in Paul Mazursky’s influential film, An Unmarried Woman. Un-married in the sense of voluntarily giving up on marriage.

We got a dis-engaged young woman in Queen. This was Rani’s journey from sheltered, rejected at the mandap naïve young woman to self-assertion during a two-week trip to Paris and Amsterdam. Though Charming and engaging, the film doesn’t have the emotional range and depth of Arth. It is easier and more acceptable to break an engagement to a self-serving cad than a marriage in which a woman like Pooja has invested so much. It is the new millennium that has given more agency to the Hindi film heroine. Arth was and is more radical because Pooja breaks the internalized lesson of patriarchy, that a wife must forgive her husband’s transgressions. 

Pooja’s successor is Amu (Taapsee Pannu) of Thappad. Her otherwise caring and faithful husband slaps her at a party, before family, friends, and colleagues, because he is frustrated at losing out on the expected promotion. He was to be the company’s head honcho in London. Amu conceals her shock and anger under a stoic expressionless face and continues to be the dutiful wife next morning – giving him bed tea, breakfast and seeing him off to work. She then goes to stay with her parents with no word on when she will return. Her quiet announcement that she will not return and wants a divorce with no monetary demands’ shocks everybody. Her mother and mother-in-law want her to overlook ‘just’ a slap for the sake of the family.

Taapsee Pannu pictured in Thappad | Credits: AA FIlms

This is what a woman and a wife does and has been doing for ages. But Amu puts her dignity above everything else. She can’t respect a man who doesn’t respect her. And she can’t be in a marriage without respect. You recall a wistful moment in English Vinglish. Sridevi says with barely suppressed longing, of her husband and daughter: yes, they love me, but a little respect would be better (or words to that effect).

Amu is younger and hasn’t been used to this lack of respect. It is only her father who supports her without question. He had always felt that she could have succeeded as a Kathak dancer but Amu wants to be a homemaker. Anubav Sinha enlarges the theme by creating two other couples where men think nothing of putting down their successful professional partners, working women who have got ahead through their own merit. Amu’s brother says that she is making too much of `just’a slap (yes, again a mere slap). It took nearly 40 years for the message of Arth to filter down to a contemporary film. Doesn’t that say something about our film industry?

The message is simple. The biggest battle in a patriarchal society that is bedevilled with many ills is to retain one’s self-identity and dignity. That is inviolable.

Lead Image: Anu Arts/Eagle Home Entertainment

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