I watched this movie aaaaaaaaages ago, mostly because I like the one song from it so much. And also Mohnish Behl. And then I just quickly fast-forwarded through it this morning to refresh my memory. It’s good! A little on the nose, but it doesn’t hurt to be on the nose about these issues.
This is the song I like so much:
It comes up pretty early in the film, without a lot of context, and it is still just lovely! Really, the only context for it is that we have seen Tabu in the present day, and now we get to see her in the past, lovely and confident and letting her joy fill up the whole house. Today, not so much.
I spoiled myself on this movie long before I watched it, probably one of the first times I saw the song, it was pretty easy to find a summary online, so I knew that Tabu’s marriage had problems. But then I was confused by the first few minutes of the film, because I couldn’t see any problems.
Her husband, Sachin Khedekar, gets a call from an old friend who is in town for the day, and he insists that the friend come over for a long lunch. Sachin then tells Tabu to prepare a nice lunch, spicy like his friend likes it. Tabu agrees. They are an old married couple, there isn’t a lot of romance or flirtation involved in their interactions, but they seem kind to each other, Tabu seems happy at the thought of guests, it’s all okay.
Sachin also calls their son, Sunil Barve, and insists he come home for lunch, and bring his fiancee with him. Sachin kind of seems like a nice guy, all excited and smile-y to see his friend. And when we see him interact with the friend, Ravindra Mankani, he seems kind of charming. He compliments Ravindra on his new wife and is delighted to learn about their love story, two middle-aged divorcees who found each other on a vacation and were engaged before it was over.
And then we go in to the kitchen to see the new wife, Smita Jaykar, bonding with Tabu. And for the first time, the audience starts to question the “happiness” of Tabu’s marriage. Just as perhaps she starts to question it?
(Very different kind of movie, also has Smita Jaykar in it)
I have to wonder, even if there hadn’t been all the drama and discoveries in the present, even if there hadn’t been the mistake in the past, would Tabu still have ended up leaving her marriage? Just because she met Smita and suddenly saw her marriage in a new light?
This movie reminded me of How Old Are You? for several obvious reasons, like them both being about a woman whose whole sense of self was destroyed by her husband, but also because it took another woman to show her what was really happening with her life, to make her realize that things could be different. In How Old Are You?, it was a woman who knew Manju Warrior before everything had happened to her, who understood as a fellow woman the challenges they face, but could also show Manju the way back to what she used to be. In this case, it is a woman who never knew Tabu before, a complete stranger, but who also knows her better than she knows herself because she used to be her.
Smita’s backstory also reminded me of Ki&Ka. Because it fixes a lot of the problems with that movie. For one thing, she has no self-pity about it. The way Smita delivers her story, she hits the line of “this was a bad thing that happened and I am grateful I got out, but I am not asking for your sympathy.” Ki&Ka was so caught up in the problems of the upper-middleclass gender dynamics, it didn’t seem to realize that there were different, and much worse, gender issues at play among the middle-middleclass and the lower middle-class and the regular old lower classes, and the characters should stop acting like they are so special.
For another, without any self-pity or pulling of punches, it is also clear that this was a baaaaaaaaaaad situation, and she saved herself from it all on her own, and has come out of it with scares and sensitive spots. In Astitva, with just a few scenes covering a few days, we got a very delicate sense of all the things that have made Smita into the person she is today. She is a side character, not someone who changes and grows over the course of the film, but we still have a very real and rounded sense of her and what drives her. In Ki&Ka, it wasn’t just that the characters had no development or changes over the course of the film, the character’s backstory was erased, was not supposed to have any effect on their current behavior, we never learn what kind of influences brought them to be the people they are today. Which, when talking about gender issues, is super important!
But in Astitva, it is a delicate combination of different characters with different things that drive them and let them see the world in certain ways. Smita got out of a long bad marriage, found herself, started her own business, and has a new husband who loves her and accepts her for who she is. Ravindra also got out of an early marriage, we don’t learn much about it, but Sachin is surprised to see him with another woman since he was never planning to marry again. I think we can assume it was a bad marriage, not abusive and infidelity bad, but one that wasn’t a real marriage of the minds. And now he is just happy and grateful to be with a woman who loves him and wants him for himself even though she doesn’t need him. And to have acquired two stepdaughters in the bargain. They have a different, hardwon, sense of what a marriage can be and should be, than Tabu and Sachin, who just accepted the roles society gave them. Again, so much better done than Ki&Ka.
It’s these two characters that make us start looking at Tabu and Sachin’s marriage differently for the first time. There is a great blocking in the first scene in which all the main characters are in one place. Ravindra and Namrata Shirodkar (Sunil’s fiancee) are sitting in two chairs, facing the couch where Sachin and Sunil are sitting next to each other and sharing a glass of whiskey. Smita is standing behind Ravindra, resting her hands on his shoulders, where he reaches up and gently holds and strokes them. Tabu is standing behind Namrata, not touching her, hands resting on the back of the chair. Smita and Ravindra love each other, are comfortable with each other, want to be close to each other. Sachin and Sunil are the same, casually sitting next to each other, almost leaning on each other. Namrata is independent, leaning forward in her chair without any support, and taking the seated position, with the men. Tabu is the one who is all alone. She has no one she can lean on, but she needs support, grasping the back of the chair. And she can’t bring herself to sit down, to take the place of the “men” the way Namrata can. Seeing her stand there, nervous, with nobody, while her son and husband relax and laugh and talk loud is not pleasant.
And it is all of a peace with the arrival of the registered letter addressed to her, which Sachin casually takes and opens himself. Smita is shocked, and offended. Clearly, her past has given her bad husband awareness superpowers. Even Ravindra, who has no heightened sensitivities but is a nice man who respects his wife, looks askance at this. But Tabu doesn’t object. Even when Smita invites her to, she just shakes her head and lets it happen.
Her comfort and, almost, happiness, with her husband’s atrocious behavior, is what makes Smita even more alarmed than the behavior itself. In my review of How Old Are You? I talked about timing, how Manju was trying to find the moment when she needed to stop being a wife and mother and go back to being more in the larger world. And how it was slightly different in English/Vinglish because Sridevi had already reached that point, had moved past it and found her outside interest (her catering business) and her issues were much more about changing how she saw herself, and how others saw her, than about actually changing her life.
(She’s still in her sari, she’s still cooking for her family, but she is just happier with herself than she was before)
But Tabu missed that moment. She devoted herself to her husband her entire life, she killed every moment of independence and yearning inside of herself, and now she has convinced herself she is happy, content, that all she wants is her husband opening her mail and letting her massage his head when he gets drunk. Smita asks her what she does all day, if she never wanted a job or an outside interest, not in a judgemental way but in a politely curious way, and Tabu answers sincerely that “there is always so much to do around the house, I don’t have time to think of anything else.” And she actually believes it! I mean, yes, taking care of a home is a lot of work and can take a lot of time, but it doesn’t really take that much brain power. You are going to think of other things, even if they are just things like “what dress should I buy?” or “what’s going to happen next on the soap opera?” or “who should I vote for in the next election?” The way Tabu denies even thinking beyond her home is a red flag.
That’s what makes her husband so insidious. He is never mean, or cruel. Everything he does is framed in loving language and kindness. But he treats Tabu as a servant, or a pet, or just a tool for hsi use. She is there to make his life easier in whatever way he requires at the moment. He truly does not see her as a separate entity from himself, as someone who has a purpose beyond his needs. And, over the years, she has learned to see herself in the same way.
There are two big moments in the film, one which I find completely believable and one which I do not. Oh, and SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
The letter Sachin opened that was addressed to Tabu was to inform her of a legacy she was left by her old music teacher. This makes Sachin start thinking back 25 years to when she was taking music lessons (the period that happy song is from). He remembers their little fights and how he had to keep “handling” her and training her to be a better wife, to be content staying at home while he constantly traveled. And he also, for the first time, puts the dates together and realizes there is no way his son could possibly be his son.
This is the part I find completely believable. First that Tabu would have a moment of weakness with hot Mohnish Behl, but more that Sachin would never even consider that she could be pregnant with another man’s child. Even if he knew they hadn’t slept together for 2 months, he would still be incapable of seeing her as an independent person, to the point where any child she had, he would just assume was his child, because she is an extension of himself.
I also find the flashback interesting after having seen all these Malayalam movies were it is more and more acceptable for a husband and wife to live separately, while he is working in the Gulf. But there, while the couple misses each other, there isn’t an expectation that the wife will put everything on hold until he comes back. She has children, she may have her own job, she stays close to her family and his family, he is the one who is on hold, working overseas. It’s much healthier! Still not a perfect situation, but it isn’t needlessly cruel, the way Sachin is being here, expecting Tabu to only be alive while he is around, and then to just pause all her desires and needs until he comes back again.
After the big reveal, everything happens about how you would expect. Sachin is a jerk, and so is their son, because the patriarchy always replicates itself. Smita and Ravindra stay in town, because they are decent people and are worried about Tabu in this situation. Tabu humbly agrees to be divorced and cut out of the lives of her son and husband, agrees with their decision that it is all her fault and she is a worthless woman. All of this follows along with what we have seen of these characters so far. I especially like the song when Tabu finally breaks down, not over leaving her family, but over leaving the house where she has spent her whole life, trapped inside.
But then there’s the ending which, don’t get me wrong, it’s super satisfying. But it also feels a little bit like the filmmakers just really wanted to give Tabu a happy ending, and they didn’t care that it was out of character for her to take happiness for herself. Or, even more shocking, to speak out in defense of herself.
Tabu is ready to leave the house, but before she goes, she has a long speech at her husband. She points out that he never saw her as a person, or treated her as a person. That she had one moment of weakness, and he threw her out. That he had innumerable moments of weakness over the years, but he never considered her feelings, or the feelings of the women he slept with. Does he know that he doesn’t have other children out there? And speaking of, the two of them have only had one child, in all their years together. If she hadn’t had their son, she would have been labeled barren. And yet, more likely, the problem is with him. She has spent 25 years faithfully loving him, and now he is throwing that away, and so she is going to finally be free to go on and find out who she is without him.
It’s a great speech but, like I said, I just don’t believe the character would be saying it at this moment. Maybe she would be thinking it, maybe 2 years from now she would be able to articulate all she was thinking and feeling in this moment, I just don’t see it happening so quickly, and so perfectly worded!
And I also don’t see what comes next, that Namrata, who has now broken her engagement to Tabu’s son, would show up to take her home with her. I get what they were going for, the two women of the family leaving together, but I think they needed a little more time establishing Namrata and Tabu’s closeness. Or maybe if Namrata had already married into the house, so we knew that she and Tabu would be spending kitchen time and cleaning time and all the other time together, and now they were both escaping. I understand why they couldn’t do that, have two broken marriages in the family at once, and weakening Namrata’s character by showing her putting up with it all, but I still wish they had done something to show why Tabu would leave with her and why Namrata would offer.
But, like I said, I can forgive the filmmakers because it is just so satisfying. To see Tabu articulate all the unfairness of her situation, and then to see Namrata and her walk off, heads held high, while their men watch them leave, abandoned. It’s pretty much perfect.