Arth: Reel v/s real meaning

The subject of how to judge a film based on real (usually ‘historical’) events is debated heavily in cinema circles and I have been part of a few such discussions on the blog of film critic Baradwaj Rangan.  The discussion usually centres around whether focusing too much on the film’s inaccuracies in portraying events is missing the forest for the trees, considering that a film is after all an artistic expression (assuming film as fiction as opposed to a documentary).  That facts may be altered slightly or a little more than slightly to further the filmmaker’s beliefs/ideology (by whatever name) is another aspect that is often debated.

This subject is particularly pertinent when it comes to Mahesh Bhatt’s landmark film Arth.  As is well known, the film is based on his relationship with the actress Parveen Babi even as he was married to Lorraine Bright.  He parted ways with both as it were and married Soni Razdan in 1986. In a tribute to Babi after her death (the tribute was published on Outlook), he expressed profound sympathy for her plight.  He also mentioned that she had in fact inherited schizophrenia from her father.  So why is it then that in the film, Kavita’s mother tells Pooja that Kavita is paying for her sins through her madness?

In fact, it is interesting that a film purportedly about the Bhatt-Babi affair is told from the wronged wife’s perspective.  From this perspective, the husband Inder falls prey to lust far too easily to give her any semblance of security and utterly fails to make decisions until he is pushed to the wall (by which time it’s too late).  Kavita is, until the end when she finally “sees the light”, a mostly unsympathetic and insecure woman who responds to Pooja’s entreaties to leave her husband be by doubling down on pulling him away from her.   Inder’s assistant Harish respects Pooja and disapproves of his master’s extra marital affair but ultimately has to be loyal to Inder until the latter makes him perform an errand that finally gets him to tender his resignation in utter disgust.   Anil is well-intentioned and extremely helpful to Pooja in her time of need but his unstinting faith in the institution of marriage comes across as bizarre given a husband who is hell bent on severing all ties with her.  A prospective employer of Pooja molests her and would have raped her had she not escaped in the nick of time.  Basically, in the world of Arth, the sensitive ghazal singer Raj is the only man of much use to Pooja as his support is entirely unconditional even in the face of unrequited love.  A feminist treatise, in other words, culminating with Pooja walking away with a child who is not hers but who, as she says, will give her company in the solitary existence she has now chosen for herself.

That is, until you consider the plot line in light of the real events it is based on.  How exactly did we traverse from a supposedly hereditary psychological disorder to the curse of a woman scorned?  To be fair, the film does give us an early indication that Kavita is troubled and seeks shelter in Inder’s, ahem, reassuring embrace.  Still, when her mother says her near-insanity is but well deserved punishment for what she did to Pooja, it raises the question whether she is really the only guilty party here.

Yes, she made love to a married man.  And, driven by her insecurity, pushed him to part ways with his wife.  But he is an adult, dammit, does he not have agency?  It was he who consented to do whatever she asked of him, smitten as he was by her.  So where did that leave him at the end of the story?  Deprived of both the women who had once loved him.  Too bad, but is it such a bad deal compared to schizophrenia?

Let us bring in the real events here. Parveen Babi was one of the leading actresses of Bollywood at the time of her affair with Mahesh Bhatt (as also depicted in the film).  Schizophrenia robbed her of a successful career whereas Bhatt won critical acclaim for Arth and went on to make many successful films.

And make no mistake, the jarring background score is the only false note in this unusually sensitive, grown up film.  Rarely are films of such quality made in Bollywood (though, strictly speaking, this was parallel cinema and struggled to find distributors willing to take a punt on it after it was made).  So nothing said here is intended to take away from his success.

But the ‘real’ takeaway from the film seems to be that the punishment for a homewrecker enchantress is mental breakdown whereas that for the unfaithful husband is untold success.  This is in stark contrast to the inspirational yet realistic reel ‘takeaway’.

There is, of course, no compulsion for the filmmaker to have his fictional characters do what their real life inspirations did.  Yet, the stilted portrayal of Kavita remains an unresolved aspect in an otherwise finely balanced film (as between the three main characters).

Kulbhushan Kharbanda, who essayed Inder’s role, also touches upon this aspect when he says that they (the makers of the film) had essentially taken the easiest way out by narrating the story from the perspective of the wife when it could have also been done from that of the love interest (a good example of the latter is Bajirao Mastani).   Kharbanda also alludes to the societal difference in the way sexually overcharged men and women are regarded, saying the former is called casanova (which almost sounds like a compliment) whereas the latter is called nymphomaniac.

To that extent, perhaps, Arth is true to the society it reflects.  But considered this way, it is a more bitter pill to swallow than a plain ‘unbiased’ (by real events) reading of the film’s message would leave one with.  Its message then is not necessarily that a woman can and should fight back against her unworthy, disloyal life partner and lead an independent life if she has to but that even if she does all these things, she is still only a woman in the eyes of society.  A distinction that Pooja implicitly reminds Inder of when he asks that she forgive him.

P.S:  Mahesh Bhatt also suggests that had he remade the film, he would have characterised Kavita as more humane than in the original film.

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