It’s still Mahesh Bhatt’s birthday! I celebrated by finally watching Arth. Well, most of Arth, I think I may have ended up with a slightly edited version.
Arth should be melodramatic and unbelievable and unrelatable. But, it’s not. And not just because I know it is based on a true story, but the way it is acted and filmed and written keeps it grounded the whole time, no matter how crazed the twists and turns may appear in a blunt plot synopsis.
It’s part of the 80s art film boom, which had a certain style to it. Apartment sets with white walls and tan furniture. Lots of plain saris. Lots of conversations in hallways and stairways and walking along marine drive. It all feels very “real” in a different way than other films. Sometimes, this may not quite work, the very boring and everyday background, when used in a boring and everyday plot, just ends up being, well, boring!!! But the combination of these casual conversations and costumes that look like what the actor’s just happened to wear to work today, with a super melodramatic plot and characters, well, it makes the whole thing work!
(Well, the kind of casual thing some people wear to work. Sushmita Sen wears this! According to the director’s commentary, her outfit for this scene is just something she had lying around in the trailer)
The acting is a big part of this, of course. I talked about this a little in my review of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, but the 70s is when the first generation of students came out of IIFT. Which naturally resulted in an artistic boom in the late 70s and 80s, as all these young writers and directors and actors hit the scene together.
Of course, Mahesh himself didn’t come out of IIFT, he had a much more “traditional” training, starting by just picking up odd jobs in the film industry, and eventually making his first movie at 29. His turn towards art films came a little later, perfectly timed to take advantage of this new pool of talent. Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil both came out of IIFT. Kulbhushan Kharbanda was an ex-theater actor who had first been put into film by Shyam Benegal, former IIFT teacher and president. Talent was thick on the ground in 1982 Bombay, all Mahesh had to do was pick it up.
(already had a hard time with this character (sell some jewelry and pay the land tax yourself!), but I have an even harder time now that I’ve seen him play a sleazey husband)
All the actors are talented, but the actresses are where it comes to a whole new level! There is a scene late in the film when Smita and Shabana confront each other. Smita goes all out, raging at her, looming over her, and Shabana just sits there, perfectly still, and watches. It’s this amazing contrast of energies, like seeing a fire raging around a beautiful lake.
And that’s what the film is really about, the women. That’s what blows my mind, that Mahesh Bhatt could look at his own life and truly not see himself as the protagonist! It’s not just that he isn’t the “hero”, he isn’t even the “man you love to hate”, he’s secondary to the battle of wills between these two women. This is their story, their suffering, their growth, their change.
Really, there is no one to “hate” in this movie. They are all flawed, they all make mistakes, but they are all just doing the best they can with the situation they are in. There are no heroes, either, just people trying to fight their way to doing the right thing.
And sometimes that “right thing” is awfully hard to see. Especially when it becomes a question of who needs you more rather than who you want to be with. Or, who is stronger and better able to take the blows of life, rather than who deserves them. And that’s also the part of the film that got to me the most, because of course this “real life” story has a very sad coda now.
I kind of want to talk about “real life” now, which weirdly means I have to put up a SPOILER in this case. So, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER (but also you might want to read this before you see the movie, because it kind of makes it deeper if you know the true story)
Mahesh Bhatt married very young, at like 20, to a Christian woman who converted to Hinduism on marriage. I don’t know if she was white or what, but the fact that she changed her name is a pretty clear sign that she also changed her whole life to be with him. And then, after years of marriage and two kids, it fell apart when he started an affair with Parveen Babi, the glamorous actress. Which sounds romantic, except that Mahesh was struggling with alcoholism, and Parveen was struggling with mental illness, so it was probably more messy and two drowning people trying to hold each other up then romantic.
(But still, so beautiful!)
While Mahesh recovered, married again, and had two more children (including Alia!), and has moved far past this dark chapter of his life, Parveen disappeared for several years, then returned to Bombay and started giving increasingly delusional interviews to magazines, culminating in trying to file a police case against Amitabh Bachchan, the Pope, and Bill Clinton (among others) for conspiracy to murder her. Her last few years she locked herself in her apartment, refusing to let anyone in, and finally was found dead by her milkman. It’s just sad! It’s not glamorous and dramatic sad, it’s just plain mental illness sad.
Arth tells this story, but not Mahesh’s story of falling in love and fighting his demons to be with the woman who needed him (that would come later, in Woh Lamhe), but the story of his forgotten first wife, the woman who gave up everything to be with him and now had to find her own identity without him. And the story of poor Parveen, struggling with the guilt of the affair and slowly realizing she wasn’t in love with Mahesh himself so much as seeing him as yet another thing that might “cure” her.
The tone is set right from the opening scene, Shabana alone, but not happily alone, anxiously awaiting the arrival of her husband, Kulbhushan, to tell him they have received an eviction notice and are leaving their flat. Shabana is great in this scene, she still has that innate stillness and grace that will be present in all her scenes, but she keeps shifting, moving from place to place, holding her knees up to her chin. And when Kulbhushan arrives, she lets loose all her panic over losing their home, what will they do, what will he do, how will he fix this. While Kulbhushan just stumbles to the fridge to pull out a bottle and ignores her panic. I love the way alcoholism is dealt with in this film, Mahesh doesn’t try to whitewash that part out of “his” character, but he also doesn’t really emphasis it, because this isn’t “his” movie. The character is just always drunk or on the way to being drunk, and that’s all there is to it. It’s not used to excuse his behavior, or even remarked on in any way, it’s just part of him.
What we learn over the next few scenes also shows that their marriage isn’t quite the happy dream in could be, it already has problems. Shabana is anxious about security and the future, having been raised as an orphan, she clings to the idea of home and security. She is eager to have children, but won’t do it until they have a settled house. When Kulbhushan declares that he has started his own film company, and there is money enough to buy and decorate their own apartment, Shabana is ecstatic! Running from room to room, throwing open doors, talking about her decorating scheme and buying furniture.
In a shallower film, we would see this story as the perfect marriage broken by the evil other woman. But this film goes a little deeper, it shows that while Shabana may idealize their marriage at first, when it first ends, in fact the cracks were there long ago. Mahesh was on his way out, one way or the other, and Shabana was clinging to him. And it’s pretty clear she was clinging to him more for the security and home he represented, than for him himself.
(A shallower movie)
Meanwhile, Smita’s character is clinging to him in a different way. While Shabana is “boring”, talking about furniture and touching his feet (there’s a lovely shot of him sitting on the floor, legs outstretched, and her curled up at his feet, gently touching then), Smita is exciting! She wakes him in the middle of the night to play act what it will be like when they are old together. She kisses him and lavishes affection on him and talks about how she can’t live without him. And she is out in the world with him, at work, at parties, while Smita would rather stay in her perfect home.
Smita isn’t quite the standard “innocent wife”, with her own conflicts and reasons for placing so much value on this relationship, but Smita isn’t quite the standard “passionate other woman” either. She starts out the way, seeming magical and exciting. But then there are still little moments that seem off, somehow. She seems a little too crazed sometimes in her demands for Kulbhushan to stay with her. Her reaction to being confronted by Shabana at a party is to threaten suicide. She calls her doctor often, telling him she is “feeling better”. She talks about her mother being so happy that Kulbhushan is here now to “take care of” her. And then there comes the moment when she has a break down, panicking, calling the doctor for help, finally handing the phone to Kulbhushan who is given instructions on how many pills to give her and what to do.
If this were Kulbhushan’s movie, this would be a shocking moment, all about his discovery that his lover is mentally ill and what he feels about it. But it’s not his movie, it’s Smita’s and Shabana’s movie. So it’s about Smita’s feeling that she is spinning out of control, and that Kulbhushan is the only one who can take care of her. Or even, that she needs SOMEONE to take care of her, and Kulbhushan is handy, so she is holding on to him and not letting go.
And Shabana is on an opposite journey. There’s a moment, early in the film, when they essentially trade places. Shabana is trying to figure out how to live without Kulbhushan. Her friends encourage her to go out more, to go to a party. She is immediately uncomfortable, feels everyone is talking about her, and sits in a corner. The singer for the evening comes over to chat with her, to take her out of herself, and she starts to relax. And then Kulbhushan walks in, with Smita. Shabana has already had too many drinks, in an attempt to relax, and she throws herself at them, screaming about how Smita may be his lover, and in his bed, but Shabana is his wife. Kulbhushan forces his way past her and pulls Smita out with him, the host moves in on Shabana, clearly seeing her as easy pickings, and is shoved aside by the singer, who volunteers to take her home. She arrives, to be greeted by her devoted maid, and throws herself on her bed, sobbing.
That same night, Smita threatens suicide. It begins her slow descent to madness, culminating in her own scene raging against Shabana. Meanwhile, it is the next day that Shabana decides she doesn’t want her house or Kulbhushan’s money, she wants to make her own way from now on. There is still a hope that Kulbushan will come back to her, but she has made a first step into her own life.
Part of Shabana’s journey, but not all of it, involves a new man in her life, Raj Kiran (who strangely enough in real life had his own psychotic break, he was missing for several years with his family looking for him, and Rishi Kapoor claimed to have seen him at an Atlanta mental hospital). The singer from the party, who she bumps into again while trying to get a job at his record company, becomes her friend. He builds her up, gives her confidence, tells her she doesn’t need to be “Pooja Malhotra”, just “Pooja” should be enough. But he ends up doing too good a job of it! She turns him down, first because she doesn’t feel anything yet, but in the end because she would rather stay living on her own as “Pooja” than give herself over to another man.
(Also, he was in Karz! For like 3 minutes, and then he was reborn as Rishi Kapoor)
But a bigger part of her journey is shared by other women. Her friend, who she talks with even before the marriage breaks apart, sharing her anxieties and fears in a way she can’t with her husband. Her maid, who becomes her new family, staying at the original apartment with her after they both leave their husbands. And who tracks her down later at her lodging house, asking her help in getting her daughter into a good school. And her roommate at the lodging house, who offers to help her get into some light escort work, and points out that there is little difference between her life as a wife living off her husband and the life of an escort. And finally, the maid’s daughter, who she adopts at the end of the film. Choosing, in the end, to live her life independently, with her new “daughter”, rather than chasing her original idea that security could only be gained from others.
In the end, Smita comes to a similar conclusion. But not until she has a truly EPIC madwoman scene! Kulbhushan begs Shabana to come see her, in hopes that learning Shabana has forgiven her will finally chase away her demons. And Smita greets her in a massive black caftan, hair slicked back from her head, to pace the room and wave her arms while she gives a huge monologue about how Shabana comes to her at night, tortures her, blames her for breaking up her marriage. How she threw her mangalsutra on the floor, and now the beads catch in Smita’s feet, no matter how much she sweeps or scrubs. Shabana listens to this all calmly, composed, and finally, gently, forgives her. And asks her to believe that she “will not come back into her house again.” Just as in the earlier scene, Shabana passed her madness on to Smita, now she passes on her calmness. Smita finally knows what she has to do, she has to let Kulbhushan go. She will never feel the security she needs in their relationship, better to end it, healthier to end it.
And so, both women end up happily alone in the end. As I said, it’s really their story. Told by the man in both their lives, but with himself removed from the center.