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