Arth: ideologically loaded weapon of feminine emancipation

Publié le 12 Mars 2012


When I first watched this 1982 movie by Mahesh Bhatt I knew it was a good one, so many people had written so already. I knew that the main roles were exceptional, Shabana Azmi (Pooja) and Smita Patil (Kavita) leading the team. But Kulbhushan Kharbanda (Inder), as the husband and faithless lover deserves the same praise. I also had Carla’s review in mind, which you must read both for her perceptive understanding of the film’s significance, and for the story itself. Carla’s a great admirer of Shabana Azmi, so much so that it’s difficult to write anything about her without wondering about Carla would say, or has already said. And finally in her videos, Shabana Azmi herself speaks about Arth as the defining moment in her career, or “the film that changed her life”! So when you know all this in advance, the film changes from simple entertainment to a document to be evaluated and appreciated on the basis of its reputation.


This reputation starts when you know it has been a landmark in terms of women’s attitude concerning their role and standing in Indian society. As Shabana Azmi says (in the video linked above), the distributors wanted the film’s ending to be changed, because at the time no one would have understood a wronged wife saying no to her husband’s plea of reintegration within the couple, especially if he admitted his wrongs. A good Indian wife would have had to acknowledge that men can err, and it would have been her duty to forget about his infidelity. This wife, however, after asking whether her husband would have done the same, ie, take her back if she had been the one to deceive him and asked to be taken back, leaves him and starts a solo life of her own, on her own bases. Such independence of spirit at the time was like a whip in the face of the male-dominated tradition. Clearly it means that men and women are equal human beings, and that what men do to women can no longer be seen as a privilege of any kind.

What will I do without him.

All this sounds perfect. But one sentence in Carla’s review intrigues me. She writes “Pooja is unquestionably a victim, but she isn't a complete saint” – well, perhaps that’s where the film’s otherwise flawless balance of feelings and action can be found slightly one-sided: perhaps in fact Pooja is too much of a saint. That famous (or infamous) scene in the restaurant where she insults Kavita, her husband’s mistress, calling her a whore, cannot be held against her: not only is she saying the truth, but she’s got the guts to speak out and expose her rival’s (and her husband’s) double dealing. Hardly insulting or immoral. So I’m wondering whether Mahesh Bhatt’s difficulty wasn’t precisely to portray a woman who, if she hadn’t been completely a victim, wouldn’t have upheld the film’s message as convincingly. One could say he needed such a “perfect” wife to enable his traditional spectators to accept her departure from the norm.


Another unrealistic element is the character of Raj (Raj Kiran), the gentle singer who befriends Pooja and acts as her protector while she’s without a husband. What’s unrealistic isn’t the fact that he feels attracted to her and yet respects her, it’s that he does so with such cool and detachment, wishing her well on her new life, and deciding that what she does finally gives the "true" meaning to her life... I mean, if he really loved her (and the film makes it clear that he does), wouldn’t he prove to her that his respect of her person was a form of love? And filmi-wise, “DDLJ” her? But in between stands the film’s slightly ideological stance: women can and should be given a chance to live their lives on their own.

Spirit of life

I know I’m treading on a very thin line when I say that Arth is ideological, but here’s another sign: who can really believe all the way in Kavita’s strange craziness? Her character turns her (especially towards the end of the film) into a sort of voodoo puppet full of needles, which a vengeful and rightful wife has pricked to punish her for her crime! Why is she so weirdly obsessed by her hubris, so panicky and wild? Pooja doesn’t even have any children. Am I wrong to think that any woman in her situation would reasonably calculate her chances, and plainly carry on with her life? So what I think is that, here again, the director needed her to be as conscience-stricken as possible, in order to bring out Pooja’s rights and consequently her rightful decision of independence.

Whore in bed

Paradoxically, marriage is strengthened in Arth. This could be looked upon as a surprise if one puts oneself into the position of the empowered women who could see in the film an inspiration to think about terminating their contract when their husbands run wild… But any indictment of marital double-dealing has this effect, and here we have a surfeit of allusions to this duplicity, but Pooja’s character certainly vindicates the institution: in fact marriage comes out almost stronger than the message of women’s independence. If Pooja had decided to choose Raj, for instance, the institution of marriage would not have been upheld so much. And her refusal to take Inder back means that he isn’t worthy of a marriage based on trust and mutual promise, something he understands, as he indeed accepts her choice. Another element in favour a virtue in the film: the moment when Pooja's roomate in the hostel is rebuked for her cheap understanding of man and wife relationships: here again, Pooja stand out as the promoter of virtue and decency.

tired of giving

One last word concerning the actresses’ performances: Shabana Azmi carries with her a grace and a strength which I can only marvel at from beginning to end. She has an almost masculine femininity, by which I mean, her persona is so much in earnest, so demanding and focussed, that you can feel that iron character of hers under her pure profile. There are shots of her when she’s so glaringly intense and yet her role comes out so delicately chiselled: I declare I feel trapped even if I have done nothing wrong! And Smita Patil: well, that was a formidable actress as well, and their pairing certainly creates a great effect. And in his lank yet very human role, Kulbhushan Kharbanda creates the exact dose of outrage in the spectator’s mind.

Kavita  Shock

The film can be watched (with subtitles - thanks downloader!) on YouTube here.

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Film reviews

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<br /> Arth was indeed a path-breaking film dring its time and just like Suja has written above, I also can remember the discussions at that time about Smita's and Shabana's personal lives vs the roles<br /> they enacted on the screen. The ending was well-recieved at least among my relatives and friends, who had seen the film. Unfortunately I didn't get a chance as yet to watch the film.<br /> <br /> <br /> Mahes Bhatt would go on to make another autobiographical film with Kumar Gaurav as his alter-ego in Janam (Birth), where Bhatt recounts his sotry as an illegitimate son of a famous film director.<br />
<br /> <br /> Hello Harvey,<br /> <br /> <br /> Thanks for your visit and comment. I'll definitely keep Mahesh Bhatt in mind now, and see if I can watch another of his movies soon.<br /> <br /> <br /> <br />
<br /> Most people who have seen this film have liked it; no wonder you did too! I have not seen it since 1982-1983 when it was just released in India. It created a lot of interest at that time, and not<br /> just for the sterling performances.<br /> <br /> <br /> Smita Patil's character which is rather hysterical and off-centre (do I remember it correctly?) was said to be a reflection of Parveen Babi who was the other woman in Mahesh Bhatt's life. Not a<br /> new role for Parveen - she has been the other woman in Kabir Bedi's life before and that breakup was said to have broken her heart and started her on a downward spiral mentally. Parveen<br /> disappeared from the Industry soon after this film, when she came back many years later it was evident that her sanity was questionable. In that light, the portrayal of Smita is that of a woman<br /> who has been the 'other woman' once too often and discarded, a woman in the early stages of losing touch with reality. A very tragic situation.<br /> <br /> <br /> Smita, in the meanwhile, was the other woman in Raj Babbar's life. He took her as his second wife when he was already married to Nadira. Smita took a lot of flak for that in the media. I cannot<br /> remember the timing of the events but she was involved with Raj at the time of this film. Shabana too was in a similar situation, being the other woman in Javed Akhtar's life.<br /> <br /> <br /> Smita and Shabana were strong women, idealistic women and there was a lot of discussion amongst the young women at that time, ie. of my generation, as to how's and why's of it. These<br /> women could have married any men they liked, they were beautiful, rich, talented. Why did they get seduced by men who were already married? What about morality? What about self-respect? How<br /> could they accept being second? What kind of an example were they creating for young women? I remember talking to my friends about this, and being puzzled and without answers. Subsequently<br /> Shabana's relationship has proven to be a strong and stable one, who knows what would have been the situation with Smita and Raj if she had lived? I cannot think of Arth without thinking of all<br /> the real-life personalities and their stories.<br />
<br /> <br /> Hello Suja,<br /> <br /> <br /> Well...! I'd no idea the film was so fraught with biography! Indeed, I can well imagine how all this must have weighed in the minds of the spectators and commentators.<br /> <br /> <br /> Your questions are all impossible to answer, I think. How can a woman accept being second? You don't choose to fall in love, and if the person you fall in love with is already engaged elsewhere,<br /> what can you do? Either you wrench yourself away, or rather, you have strong family ties who can help you do that, or you hope to change his attachment.<br /> <br /> <br /> And up to a certain extent, the same is valid for people whose first interest fades and who take up a new love interest. There should be a strong moral no to this sort of behaviour, but I think<br /> it must be a very hard situation if of course it isn't only pleasure-hunting but real love happening all over again.<br /> <br /> <br /> <br />