Director Mahesh Bhatt had once justified Arth, a semi-autobiographical film, saying, "We all borrow from life." But not everybody achieves results quite as cauterising.
The theme of Arth -- a married man involved in a relationship outside his marriage -- has been explored both before and after the film with varying degrees of success.
What sets Arth apart is the layered, complex characterisation of the three principal characters, the husband, the wife, and the other woman.
Before I elaborate on Bhatt's triumph in creating three identifiable characters, this is the story in a nutshell: Pooja (Shabana Azmi), an orphan, is emotionally and financially dependent on her husband, Inder Malhotra (Kulbhushan Kharbanda).
Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Raj Kiran
Inder, an ambitious and adventurous director, is, however, surreptitiously involved with a successful actress, Kavita Sanyal (Smita Patil). Kavita, we learn as the film unwinds, suffers from schizophrenia.
In a moment of heightened anxiety, Inder bluntly confesses his affair to Pooja. Their marriage collapses. Initially, so does Pooja. But with encouragement from family friends (Siddharth and Geeta Kak) and the unconditional support of a silent admirer, the sensitive poet-cum-singer Raj (Raj Kiran), Pooja finds the courage to begin life anew.
Bhatt's ability to strike a near perfect consonance between the yin and the yang is amazing. He seems to understand the interior map of both his male and female characters' mental terrain.
Take Kulbhushan's character Inder, for instance. Inder would have happily continued with an acknowledged wife and a closeted mistress if Kavita hadn't threatened to spill the beans to Pooja. Also, his inability to take rejection -- he slams the door on Kavita when she demands commitment, breaks into fisticuffs with a client who criticises his ad film, and tears his secretary's resignation letter when the latter refuses to distribute his 'second' marriage cards -- reveals his oversized ego.
Interestingly, even when he confesses about his affair, he laments about his own turmoil rather than assessing the repercussions of the revelation on Pooja. He visits her at her hostel, where she is now living, and demands a divorce. She deliberately asks him to spell out the date. He does. But doesn't remember it is her birthday. Later, he assumes Pooja will welcome him with open arms after Kavita withdraws.
Smita's character of Kavita is equally, if not more, complex and compelling. From the very first scene -- an intense lovemaking scene -- she gives you the impression of a woman teetering on the edge. Each barb, jibe and insult, whether it is from the wife, the maidservant, or her husband's secretary, is like an added laceration to her already wounded self-esteem. Her guilt, exemplified best in the scene when she accuses Pooja of scattering her mangalsutra beads all over her house in a bid to hurt Kavita, builds up gradually. Far from alienating her, it binds you to her. From the very onset, you feel as sorry for her as you do for the wife. Her decision to expel Inder from her life is the only heroic and tad implausible note in an otherwise well-calibrated characterisation.
But the author-backed, multi-layered role belongs to Shabana Azmi. The graph of her character Pooja is astounding. Her first reaction when faced with her husband's infidelity is to lie supine in her bed and weep. Later, she optimistically hopes the storm will blow over. When all else fails, she implores her husband to give her a second chance and even pleads with the girlfriend to leave her husband alone.
Before her long-drawn enlightenment, she descends to Dante's Hell. Fortified with alcohol, Pooja publicly spews venom at Kavita and even degenerates to calling her a whore. Later, she stoops to a bestial act: Inder and she physically abuse each other, an incident that she admits regretting in hindsight.
Her first act of courage is her decision to return the keys of the flat gifted by Inder after he brutally informs her the flat was a gift from Kavita. But Pooja is no heroine of a larger-than-life drama. The change in her persona is perceptibly gradual. In the letter accompanying the keys of the flat, she admits to Inder that she is vacating his flat, not his life, because she doesn't know of a life without him.
Koi yeh kaise bata de
Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho
Jhuki jhuki si nazar
But her financial independence and the confidence that she is still loved for being herself (validated by Raj's open adulation) gives Pooja the courage to sign the divorce papers. She is still afraid to be her own person, though. When Raj admits his love for her, she admits she is hurt and, subsequently, scared to feel.
In Pooja's meticulously detailed and involving evolvement, the big push comes from unexpected quarters. Her bai (maid), Pooja's stoic supporter through her many ups and downs, murders her two-timing alcoholic husband because he squanders away their daughter's school fees. Pooja volunteers to bear the onus of the child's education and upbringing. Hereafter, she finds courage to turn away her husband's plea for reconciliation and even gently dissuades Raj from expecting her to be his soulmate.
Besides three splendid performances by Shabana, Smita and Kulbhushan Kharbanda, the film is lit by Raj Kiran's sunny presence and a flint-sparking cameo by Kiran Vairale (as a hostel girl who willingly barters moral scruples for materialstic needs).
The dialogues that cover the entire gamut from sensitive to shocking, and Pravin Bhatt's mood-evoking lighting (the post-lovemaking scene shows candle-lit faces of a silhouetted Smita and Kulbhushan), are the perfect arsenal for Mahesh Bhatt. The end result: a raw, hard-hitting, yet moving film.
* There was a long time between the completion and release of Arth as no distributor was willing to invest his money in this experimental film.
* The film fuelled rumours of the existing rivalry between Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. Reams of pages were consumed by the speculation about who performed better.
* The songs were penned by the late Kaifi Azmi and composed and sung by ghazal exponent Jagjit Singh. The numbers, three in all, were all picturised on Raj Kiran.
* Despite huge appreciation for their music, the husband-wife duo of Jagjit and Chitra Singh were unable to make much headway in Hindi film music.
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