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Revisiting ‘Arth’s’ to-have-and-to-hold love

  • There are no heroes and villains in Arth, only flawed, very real people struggling to make sense of their lives
  • I revisited the film after reading last month that Jacqueline Fernandez was likely to play Smita Patil’s part in Revathi’s remake of the film

(from left) Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi and Kulbhushan Kharbanda in a still from ‘Arth’.
(from left) Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi and Kulbhushan Kharbanda in a still from ‘Arth’.

The somewhat predictable, contrasting chemistry he shares with his wife and his lover are established in his first interactions with them.

“The least you could have done was tell me you wouldn’t have dinner at home," irritated wife Pooja, played by Shabana Azmi, tells Inder (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), who has just returned home in the morning. Pooja wants the stability of home ownership; Inder can’t understand the fuss about four walls. When he does get her a house, he says it will have to be at the cost of their time together. Soon, she has neither.

“You smell, go bathe," Inder’s lover Kavita, played by the late actor Smita Patil, tells him. “No," he says playfully, moving in closer, and that’s enough foreplay for the couple.

Arth (1982) was Kharbanda’s peak chest swag moment. His shirt remains unbuttoned halfway to his waist through most of the film and his body hair is a badge of his virility and his self-centred free spirit. “Don’t leave me Inder, don’t leave me Inder," Kavita repeats as they make love that first time and the camera slowly exits the bedroom. You know this is a plot point that will take on a life of its own.

When he hurts his foot on a piece of glass, both women separately tend to him. There’s something about Inder.

I revisited the film after reading last month that Jacqueline Fernandez was likely to play Patil’s part in Revathi’s remake of the film. My generation of moviegoers watched and dissected every Patil film long after her tragic death in 1986. Many of us are yet to see a Fernandez film, but director Mahesh Bhatt doesn’t seem overly concerned about this reinterpretation of Arth, his nuanced, tender take on marriage and infidelity, one that was considered radical in the 1980s.

“Revathi to give new meaning to Arth," he tweeted in 2017 when news of the remake broke. It’s not the first time Revathi’s name has been associated with this film. In 1993, she played the wife’s role in Balu Mahendra’s Tamil remake Marupadiyum.

Arth released two years after Silsila, also a tangled triangle reportedly inspired by real life and infidelity, but India Today reviewer Sunil Sethi aptly described that film as a “pure polyester yarn".

There’s nothing polyester about Arth; it is an expert, intimate cutting of Bhatt’s handwoven tapestry of life. The film was inspired by the director’s three-year-long extramarital relationship with the late superstar Parveen Babi. Babi was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Bhatt revisited the relationship in later films such as Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayee and Woh Lamhe but none of them stung like Arth.

“Listen Pooja..." and before you know it, Inder tells his wife that he’s being eaten alive by guilt and that he can’t bear it any more and that he’s leaving her. After he goes, she calls her friend and then sobs over the rotary phone.

When you watch it now, Arth is also a throwback to the time when milk was delivered in glass bottles, cane furniture was trendy, looking out of a window in Mumbai you saw greenery, not skyscrapers, and friends consoled you that a home could not be broken so easily. Though to be fair, one worldly-wise character does tell Pooja that even marriage is just a transaction.

There are no heroes and villains in Arth, only flawed, very real people struggling to make sense of their lives. It’s a Hindi film, not an Elena Ferrante novel, so unlike in The Days Of Abandonment you are not forced to bear witness to the daily minutiae of a wife’s heartbreak and painfully slow return to somewhat even keel. Here, Pooja goes from the pleading “give me another chance" to the confident “I have got this" with relative ease, aided by a handful of stunning, impeccably timed Jagjit Singh-Kaifi Azmi ghazals.

In some ways, Kavita’s anguish of being with Inder and still not “having" him, her overwhelming guilt and her battle with mental illness seems more challenging a journey to negotiate than Pooja’s quest to be independent.

The strongest scenes in Arth are when the two women come face to face. If you have seen the film, you probably haven’t forgotten the party confrontation where a drunk Pooja goes up to Inder and Kavita and demands an answer to that most painful and pointless of questions: “What does she have that I don’t have?" Or the later scene when Kavita tells Pooja: “You come to my house and cry. Why do my sheets smell of you? Why are you the wall lying between me and Inder every night? The beads of your mangalsutra keep stabbing my feet morning and night."

Patil and Shabana Azmi came together in only a handful of films but the impact was always sensational. “Today, in public memory, Smita and I are so closely bonded together that I feel I could well be Shabana Patil and she Smita Azmi," Shabana Azmi told Deccan Herald in an interview in 2015.

At the end, Kavita tells Inder she doesn’t want Pooja’s charity. “Leave Inder. Go back to Pooja. Maybe she will forgive you," she says. The circle is completed when Inder, hands shaking, must repeat the plea that Pooja voiced earlier in the film: Give me one more chance.

But Pooja has outgrown her old life. She asks him calmly if he would have taken her back if the situations had been reversed. No, he replies. There’s nothing left to say. She tells Raj (Raj Kiran), a gentle singer who is in love with her, that she has nothing to give any man at this point in her life.

Revathi has said her film will be a modern take on the original. At a time when women across the world are increasingly asking why we even need men and where the institution of marriage itself is mutating at rollicking speed, one would think that the director would need to make some serious script changes to keep pace.

Or maybe a few clever tweaks will suffice. “The more things change, the more they remain the same," Bhatt told Mumbai Mirror in 2017. “We may claim to have moved into a new age where emotional references of the past have apparently withered, but this narrative will be relevant as long as the human heart looks at the other with the instinct of possessiveness."

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