Thanks to Anu Warrier’s Conversations over chai, I have just been the fortunate viewer of Astitva, by Mahesh Manjrekar, a film which was shot in 2000. If you haven’t read her review, please do, it’s a thoughtful, well-balanced commentary of the movie, and it will also serve me as an introduction if you don’t know the story. I hesitated at first to write anything on the film, because of the quality of Anu’s review. But then she’s Indian, I’m from the West, and I thought a Westerner’s comments were perhaps not useless on such a delicate and sensitive issue. There’s also Carla’s excellent take (check here). She insists rightly on the unbalanced, artificially over-demonstrative narrative, which really bogs the film down. What I will say doesn’t swerve much from what Carla says, but I also want to give a man’s perspective on the question!
But first, a few comments, in the same vein as what Carla suggests, concerning the mediocre method used by the film-maker. It’s indeed a real pity that such movies cannot rise artistically to the level of humanist (and feminist) involvement which their intention prepared them for. It’s a pity, but I think that, unfortunately, there is a reason for this: I’m not sure the average Indian spectator would understand too much allusiveness or irony in these marital questions. In fact, I wonder if these courageous movies do not need to be somewhat blunt for viewers to “get it”. What I’m thinking of is Anu’s mother-in-law’s reactions to the main character’s choices (check at the end of her review). “She was wrong. Her husband had a right to be angry.” So what (asks Anu) about Shreekant's many infidelities ? “But men will be men”, she answers, and to cap it all: “women shouldn't behave like that.” If someone can react in this way in 2016, after having heard what the film so unequivocally hammers down, well then you can understand why it has tried so hard.
Okay, there’s Aditi’s “mistake”: she should have vanquished her hesitations and confronted her husband’s displeasure as soon as possible, and not let the news of her pregnancy become a 25-year secret. But this isn’t where she was “wrong”, of course. She was wrong in not remaining the dutiful, Sita-like, devoted wife which Indians traditionally associate with married women. She was wrong in not accepting her secluded, lovelorn fate, wrong in succumbing to her desires, wrong to keep the baby, wrong to want to protect her family from the disruption which she probably, even in the early stages of eventual revelation, would have caused, wrong wrong wrong. On the other hand, her husband had a “right” to be angry: he was right, she was wrong. If this how many people in India still react to such situations, can you blame the movie for being preachy and flatly explanatory? And when you blurt out the truth, you can expect some uneasy delivery.
In fact the whole movie is too much like a demonstration, like a classroom explanation. The film-maker has valiantly seized the opportunity of this sad story to deliver a message to his countrymen (and women) about human basic human facts, and he’s worried this important lesson won’t be heard. Trouble is, not everybody hears it. How can the rational exposition of certain facts not enter certain people’s minds when they are exposed to them? And if the cinema can’t do it, what will? I realize that what I call “facts” here aren’t the same as the laws of physics. But how do we start? How can an artist describe human nature as we all know it is (women experience sexual urge, just like men; women’s morals will crumble under pressure, just like men; marital violence is felt the same as rape, etc.) and yet not be thanked and earn recognition for saying it out loud at last? How can one break through the mask of social habits ultimately based on masculine power over age-old defenseless women? The educational and political task is daunting, we know, and perhaps this movie is only hoping to play its little role.
I also wonder (and this is my masculine input) whether one shouldn’t also chastize the film-maker’s attempt to force-feed his feminist message in his film, to the detriment of a more interiorized treatment of feminine realities. Aditi’s character is very much in control in that end speech of hers. All the more so as it’s the apex of the movie, and an excellent piece of acting on Tabu’s part. But what she says there seems to me too articulated, too methodical, too content-laden. It smacks too much of that effort to theorize about feminist issues which, while essential and urgent, are nevertheless far too rationalized to be realistically presented in bulk by one single person shattered by a separation after 27 years of marriage and a shameful public avowal of her faux-pas. I would have wanted Aditi – and I think I know women enough to say this – to show her difference and her truth about what she’s gone through, by a more restrained, interiorized language which I think would have been as efficient, and certainly more respectful of how Indian women would behave. And the various aspects developed in her final speech could have been distilled throughout the film. Please note that, again, I am not saying that what Aditi is made to say isn’t important or necessary as a message: I think this isn’t what the psychology of the situation calls for. I say this even as I admire Tabu’s dignity and conviction at delivering the speech!
A sign of this, by the way, is the abysmal void, theatrically speaking, in the other characters’ behaviors during the speech. Because it’s really the film-maker’s feminist manifesto (and it’s followed by an even worse sermon by her son’s ex-fiancee), nobody in the directing team has thought of how the other characters should react. They’re all pathetic statues, and the worse is of course Shree himself. He’s just standing there, his arms hanging motionless and looking at her blankly, supposedly realizing the enormity of what he’s done. This isn’t bad acting. It’s a flaw in terms of human understanding. Because if he’s beginning to understand what he’s done, the very least he should do is reach out to her in one way or another (she might understandably have bucked away). The same goes for the final gesture towards his son, whom he’s learnt isn’t his son after all, and whom he had repudiated publicly: I don’t understand what went through the director’s mind then…
Should we say Shree is a monstrous, obnoxious egomaniac? No, this isn’t true: if he were really that, he would never let his wife say what she says so calmly and methodically, he’d joke and sneer, or worse, snap and move out. Instead he’s just there, like we are, because he’s made to be the recipient of the speech just as we are. We don’t know what he is, apart from a puppet meant, I suppose, to represent all male chauvinists. In this last scene, he’s portrayed as a listener (we can even see the shade of a tear in his eye), which certainly is what Mahesh Manjrekar wishes us all to be, but listening is nothing if there isn’t some form of understanding, or conversely, some reaction against what is heard. If he’s still so right about Aditi, why does he let herself talk like that, and if he’s understanding his wrong, his immobility is inhuman. Maybe that’s what we have to retain, his inhumanity. But it doesn’t coincide with her character during the film: Shree isn’t a monster, he’s just a spoilt product of an education and a culture in which men don’t question their wives’ subservient attitude. He’s genuinely worried when he can’t manage to combine professional and marital obligations, and even he hopes his wife will accept his choices, he acts as if he understands her and has a heart.
So, after all this criticism, what’s left of Astitva? The feminist stance makes the film worth watching, in spite of these flaws. Then there’s a followable story, and finally there’s Tabu’s presence, who creates an atmosphere of intelligent, humanistic benevolence, where you don’t fear violence or prejudice. The actress who declares “not to grab” roles is there by sheer presence, and will not impose herself on you: the film rests on her balanced, subtle persona, even if she isn’t given enough depth (more history, more background would have been great). And I was pleased to see Monish Bahl, Nutan’s son: unfortunaly he isn’t given a great role, but he performs rather well nevertheless. All in all then, a watchable movie, to be put into its courageous feminist perspective.