Friday Classics: Abhimaan, Hrishikesh Mukherjee Does A Star is Born

Kind of related to Secret Superstar, right?  Another movie about a female protegee of a successful musician.  But completely different in every other way.  Anyway, an interesting film to talk about!

Hrishikesh Mukherjee worked in every genre, and yet every film of his feels more like a “Hrishikesh Mukherjee” film than anything else.  By the strict definition of “auteur”, he is possibly the most auteur-y of all Hindi directors.  An extremely specific feel to every film whether it is a comedy or a romance or a melodrama.  Or, more often a combination of all of them.

Mukherjee always seemed able to see the comedy in the middle of tragedy, and the tragedy in the middle of comedy.  And none of that needed any tricks or filmi moments to come out.  Mukherjee saw everyday life as drama, and he made the audience see that too.  And he made us see everyday life as comical too.

This is one of a handful of films in which his “everyday” life was actually his everyday life.  That is, his everyday life working in the film industry.  By a different director, this would be a very melodramatic plot.  Heck, we’ve seen this from a different director!  It’s Aashiqui 2, which is TERRIBLE.  Terribly fun, but also terrible.

But Mukherjee takes the same broad strokes of the plot and turns it into something more.  This film could stand on its own even if it hadn’t happened to have a strange real life reverberation.  Although the real life reverberation makes it a slightly different experience to watch.

Related image

(Also, the poster is GREAT!)

This film came out in 1973.  At the time Jaya Bhaduri was one of the top heroines, beloved by the public and the critics, effortlessly beautiful and talented and charming.  She was dating Amitabh Bachchan, a failed actor who was a beginning to be a bit of a joke in the industry.  They had both worked with Hrishikesh Mukherjee in the past, they were a good couple and their real life chemistry easily blurred into their characters, the casting made sense.  Jaya’s natural talent demanded that her role be at least as deep and interesting as Amitabh’s, but Amitabh held his own against her.

Of course, what makes it more interesting, looking back on it from The Future, is that Amitabh and Jaya were about to play out in real life the plot of this film.  Only with the roles reversed.  In the film, Amitabh was the popular success, who fell in love with and married a relative unknown, Jaya.  And then the unknown turned out to have a natural talent which put the popular success to shame, easily eclipsing him.  And in real life, the same year this film came out, the pattern was beginning to play out the same way.  Amitabh was just beginning to be noticed, Anand, Zanjeer, and Deewar coming out soon. He married Jaya the same year Abhimaan released.  And within a year of their marriage, Jaya had gone from being a famous beloved actress, to being “just” Amitabh Bachchan’s wife.  Because he had grown so big, so fast, there was no way she could ever catch up.

Not that any of this was in Mukherjee’s mind when he came up with the idea.  It’s not a coincidence that the film is about a playback singer and his wife.  Mukherjee had the idea based on various playback singers he had known and their wives.  It’s a career that combines fame and talent and competition, but without the self-awareness inherent in an acting career.  A playback singer’s career can last forever, there is never a need to stare at your face and decide you are over the hill, or even to challenge yourself to new heights when the audience gets bored, you can just keep doing the same excellent work.

And he certainly wasn’t picturing the real life scandal that would be coming in 5 years which the end of his film seemed to hint at.  A situation that in real life was only resolved after much much public drama, but in this film, because it is a Mukherjee film, was resolved by very private drama.  And I can’t get into any more without getting in to actual SPOILERS.

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We open with a very Mukherjee type hero.  A successful professional type living in the city without family but with a faithful employee.  Similar to what Amitabh played in Anand, or plenty of other Mukherjee heroes.  There is something about the loneliness of the solitary man that he likes to use as a jumping off point for plot complications.  How will he handle people entering into his solitary life?  And, how does he handle the person already in it, the loyal employee who treats him as family?

Amitabh seemingly is handling his life well.  He is a successful and sought after playback singer for films and concert performer.  His faithful servant gives him a hard time about living alone and so on, but he ignores that.  His life seems good.

Until he goes to the country and hears a beautiful voice, the purest voice he has ever heard, and follows it to find Jaya, a village girl.  But not a village girl like we would see in another film.  She isn’t spicy and spunky and uneducated.  No, she is confident and educated, just happens to have been raised away from society and the rest of the world.  She is confident enough to challenge him when he interrupts her singing, and to be quietly proud of the experienced semi-famous musician, her father, who taught her.  Amitabh cannot help but fall in love with her and invite her to marry him and join him in Bombay.

It is a happy marriage from the first, they have interests in common (music), and more importantly, they like each other.  And they like the new life they have built together.  Amitabh loves having someone in his house to come home to, someone who belongs to him.  And Jaya enjoys having her own home, being in the city, all of this.

It is Amitabh himself who brings up the issues between them, without even seeing they will be issues.  He throws a party to introduce her to his friends, and she is shy.  Until she meets an elderly musician who Amitabh treats with great respect and who she has heard of through her father.  The suggestion comes up for her to sing for him and the rest of the party guests, and Jaya demures, too shy to do it, until Amitabh offers to sing with her.  It is seemingly just a nice moment at the party, but the elderly musician warns Amitabh afterwards, that his wife is more talented than he.  Her voice is better, and so is her control of it.  And this will inevitably cause issues.  Amitabh ignores this warning, it does not concern him.

There are a lot of things that are not concerns in these early days.  Amitabh is proud of his wife and her talent, it is what first attracted him after all.  He not only rejects this warning, he encourages Jaya to take her first few jobs as a playback singer.  At the same time, Amitabh is still getting phone calls from infatuated female fans.  Which he invites Jaya to listen to and they laugh together.  Of course she has no doubts of his faithfulness, or that he might ever be interested in another woman.  They are too perfectly in love for that.

In another director’s films, there would be huge moments of drama to show the cracks in the marriage.  But this is Mukherjee, so there is no big drama about it.  The phone starts to ring more for Jaya than for Amitabh.  She offers again to stop working, he says “no no, of course keep working, it’s no problem”, but then expresses mild irritation in other ways.  Jaya doesn’t know how to please him and gets frustrated by that.  And out of boredom and loneliness, Amitabh starts visiting an old female friend every night after work, instead of coming home.

This is the bit with the real life parallels.  Maybe.  One version (out of many many versions) of the Amitabh-Rekha affair is that it began when he just wanted someone to talk to, someone who understood his life, and would visit her house for long talks after work.  Or maybe that was because of this film?  People looking for an explanation leaped on one that felt familiar because they had seen it play out onscreen just a few years earlier?

Anyway, instead of the drama and so on of the real life affair ending, this film has it end in a quiet sensible way.  Jaya doesn’t make a huge scene or give ultimatums, she just decides to visit her home village for a while.  Expecting that Amitabh will come for her and take her home.  Only, he doesn’t.  Despite his only “family”, his servant, telling him he should.  He doesn’t come even when he learns Jaya is pregnant.

I have a bit of a hard time with the final resolution.  Because it seems, not exactly tacked on, but like it makes the rest of the film not really matter.  Jaya and Amitabh had these very realistic marital issues.  Not insurmountable ones, but things that we were ready for them to work out.  And then they don’t.  Because instead, Jaya has a miscarriage.  Which is so terrible that it overrides all the other marital issues they were having and Amitabh immediately comes to her side.  And she does not even care.

The situation changes from “how will they get back together?” to “how will Jaya pull out of her deep depression?” all of a sudden.  Which, again, is completely realistic.  The lowlevel marriage problems they were having are nothing next to the pain of a miscarriage, of course Jaya would be devastated and Amitabh would set aside all their other tiny issues to try to help her.

But it is a bit of a cheat plotwise!  Mukherjee had written himself into a hole, if Amitabh wasn’t going to go to Jaya even when she was pregnant and had quit everything, then what would make him go to her?  And what would make her take him back when he came?  Personal disaster was kind of the only thing left.

But I can mostly forgive him for how he ties the themes together so beautifully at the end.  Now that everything is horrible and real, all of that jealousy over music fades away.  And instead what is left is what it was in the beginning, a beautiful thing in both their lives that they could share together.  It brought them together in the beginning, and it can bring them together again now.

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3 thoughts on “Friday Classics: Abhimaan, Hrishikesh Mukherjee Does A Star is Born

  1. Pingback: Film Reviews | dontcallitbollywood

  2. I know I ought to see the movie.But I keep postponing it because… it seems very bland.Not very lively -especially when compared to the crazy antics in Golmaal.Again,the songs are lovely.But not extraordinary.

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    • It’s a nice movie. Mostly interesting for Jaya and Amitabh. Both because their chemistry lights up the screen, and because they do such good things with their roles, each individually showing off amazing acting ability. But I have to confess, I also put off watching it for years and years, because it just didn’t seem like something that would grab me.

      On Sun, Oct 22, 2017 at 3:43 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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