Tuesday, March 16, 2010

of man-children and acquiescence: Abhinetri

A gorgeous but lethal mix of Shakespeare-Wallah and Jab Jab Phool Khile, Abhinetri has convinced me that the only sensible course of action the next time a Shashi Kapoor character says "izzat" (honor) is to run screaming. At least in films made before the 70s masala heyday, nothing good ever comes of it. In Abhinetri, Shashi plays Shekhar, a work-minded fertilizer scientist who only gets out of the lab to visit his Maa (Nirupa Roy, of course; I didn't catch the character's name, so we'll call her Nirupa). After an accidental meet-cute with classical dancer Anjana (Hema Malini),

he beigns to realize there are in fact other women in the world, and this one sure is purty and fun.

He soon takes her home to meet his mother - because apparently that's what you do on your first date in the Filmi Pradesh of 1970 -

who tells Anjana how she used to be an accomplished singer but gave it up when she had Shekhar.


Just look a this picture (after you revel in Hema's fantastic batik-bordered sari): how is any person, let alone a love interest/wife (i.e. a woman in a domestic situation), supposed to deal with this guy? He is spoiled beyond belief by a mother whose only activities seem to be praying, pilgrimage, and doting on him.

No, honey, your mom did that.
The movie is full of references by both Shekhar and Anjana to his saintly mother - Anjana's died when she was very young and Nirupa confesses to always wanting a daughter, so don't go thinking Anjana is going to help cut those apron strings - and Anjana slips easily and happily into their tight little family. In one squicky example of Shekhar's closeness to his mother, Anjana is resting on Nirupa's bed with her back to the door as Shekhar walks towards he room, talking to the shape he sees in the bed assuming it is Maa. Anjana ducks her head under the covers, keeping up the ruse, and enjoys him praising Anjana as a great dancer and very good girl...a filial leg massage.

This would be just a cute wacky misunderstanding if it weren't for the fact that 1) it's the first time they touch each other, thus setting off their love life with weird Oedipal vibes, and 2) Shekhar's immediate reaction to discovering who she really is is to run and tell his mother.

Shekhar: what does it matter to your mother that you mistook your new-found girlfriend for her but said nothing embarrassing and divulged no secrets? It's got nothing to do with her! What I object to about Shekhar's tie to his mother is that she is his sole reference point in life. Being an adult means you try to understand some of the gray and complexity of the world, to learn about people who are different from you. It also means understanding that the world is bigger than just you and your immediate family. You'd think he'd apply some of the mixing and experimentation inherent to his professional life to his social life - except he doesn't have any. The only people he seems to have any real rapport with are his mother, his boss, and the office peon. His life is no broader at work, where Shekhar is sheltered and coddled by his boss Dr. Das (Nasir Hussain). Dr. Das acts very dad-like with Shekhar, telling what to do in the lab and in his personal life, even to the extent of arranging his entire honeymoon.

Shekhar only knows his mother and his job, and as the story unfolds we see he's not very good at adjusting to hopes or standards that are unfamiliar. This is where the izzat-wailing comes in. Just like Nirupa gave up singing when she got married, there is, apparently, an understanding that Anjana will do likewise despite having a highly acclaimed career in a respected art. As far as I could tell in two viewings of the key scenes, there is no real discussion of whether Anjana will consider giving up dancing once she gets married, nor any conversation about how the decision will be made and how that choice would affect both her and and the new marriage. She just does it. Shekhar doesn't seem to be able to handle even the idea of her having been a dancer in the past; when the two go out for a meal at a restaurant and some male customers recognize and compliment her, he is agitated by their attentions. "Are you Mr. Anjana?" one of them asks him; Shekhar continues to fume and eventually stands up to shoo the man away. Anjana asks Shekhar what the man said that upset him so, and his only response is to huff and puff before looking at her sheepishly and smiling. Again, no discussion of what's going on. Another little crack appears as Dr. Das scolds Shekhar for forgetting some important work because he's distracted by having such a lovely wife at home. Shekhar brings a pile of work home with him that night, but Anajana wants him to pay attention to her instead of his papers. Despite her attempts to distract him with flowers and staring at her bindi, he won't give in, and she flounces off. Balancing work and home life is a relatable problem to many of us in 2010; Abhinetri adds a filmi touch by having Anjana fake a car accident to get his attention. Yeah, that's healthy.

Otherwise, though, things seem to be okay. The glow lasts for over a year as Anjana stays home and Shekhar continues at the lab, where he gets a promotion as the facility becomes more prominent. She rejoices in his success, so much that she actually tells Maa the news before he is able to. But this being Shashi with hair not quite long enough to be fully curly means that he's going to freak out when there is a hint of her returning to the life she lived before they met. Her old dance teacher asks her to fill in in a big production, and she does so, to great praise and, judging by her face, personal satisfaction. Watching her glamorous dance about love on stage is hard enough for Shekhar - in fact, he leaves before it is over - but witnessing male fans' behavior towards and comments about her pushes him over the edge. She comes home, gloating in her success, and they have the following exchange:
Anjana: A man was saying even legendary Urvashi couldn't dance like this. Another man said "watching you enhances my sight."
Shekhar: People say this, not me. People who see your performance put a price tag on you.
A: I'm not prepared to hear such mean accusation.
S: I also am not prepared to bear such dirt being thrown on my honor.
A: You are jealous of popularity. You don't like my progress.
S: I can't tolerate people whistling on your cheap and sensuous gestures.
A: If you progress, I should be happy. Because I got fame today, I've become filthy. I know a man will never be happy to see woman's progress. And a wife's progress hurts the ego of her husband.
S: I can't accept your insanity as your progress. A spot on clean character looks too bad. No. As long as you're in this house, you will not dance.
A: I'd though that after this program I will never dance again. But after this threat I'm adamant - I'll continue to dance.

Remember earlier in the film when he boasted to his mother about what a great dancer and good girl Anjana was? Apparently he doesn't either. She's become insane...because she likes recognition for her hard work and skill? So does Shekhar in his own professional life! Hypocrite! It's now her fault that men she doesn't even know make rude comments about her. Again we see that his objection is not particularly to her having a profession but rather the fact that she's finding satisfaction elsewhere than home and/or the attention she gets for it - and, I think, the attention she gives it. Unlike his beloved Maa, his wife isn't ready to give up a very important part of her personality and her intellectual and creative life to have more energy for him. And he can't handle it.

If I hadn't read about this film, I would have been shocked when Anjana walks out. I'd been impressed with how strong Anjana remained in the face of her beloved's unjustified, unexplained, and hypocritical complaints, but I never expected her to actually act on her feelings the way I wanted her to. So it is with an even heavier heart that I watched this through to the end, when for the sake of keeping up appearances when Maa comes to visit Anjana moves back home and both Shekhar and Anjana ask Maa to stay so they can keep living the lie. Again, no discussion! Just acquiescence! It's a slap in the face to Anjana's need to have a life outside of Shekhar and it's a puffy-chested old boys' club slap on the back to selfish, babyish Shekhar. And so it condemns Anjana to the life of the actress referred to by the title, pretending to be happy with something when we have seen her wish for more, taking on a role that she is not entirely ready for, giving up part of herself in order to play to a demanding audience of one. UGH.

Like Jab Jab Phool Khile, Abhinetri is absolutely gorgeous to look at, full of space-age sofas, sherbet hues, sparkly saris, and architectural wigs, as well as songs drenched in flowers and Kashmiri skies. Unfortunately it also shares with JJPK the trap of a beautiful Shashi playing a close-minded, childish young man unwilling to compromise with the woman he loves when it becomes apparent she has some contrasting values - or at least had them when she met him. Here he has lucked into a life with two devoted parent figures (both his actual mother and his father-like boss) who insulate him from confusion and variety; in JJPK he is protected from dealing with the outside world by geographical isolation and a lack of education. Shekhar has oodles more education than boat-owner Raja, but you'd never know it. And like Shakespeare-Wallah, Shashi is spoiled by other women who give him every attention he could ever want and cannot deal with a woman who expresses genuine emotions in performance. It's interesting to me that in S-W his character (Sanju) is fine with having a girlfriend who does Hindi popular cinema - probably because he laughs at it and trivializes it - but after an initial attraction to the talents of his next love, a Shakespearean actor, he grows very uncomfortable with how exposed her art makes her. In both cases it seems to be the audience that bothers him, not the actual behaviors and appearances involved in performing. Does the Hindi film actor (played by glamorous Madhur Jaffrey) escape from this kind of scrutiny because her performances are recorded and she is not immediately involved with the audience? Or is there something inherently more threatening to his control or his honor in the "higher arts"? What angers both Sanju and Shekhar, unhinges them, is how other people respond to "their" women - when people rush up to them after a performance or yell to them on stage, which of course film viewers cannot do directly. And that's what sickens me - the attitude of ownership and possession these reactions imply.

For me this was a bad, bad film - or rather, a bad, sad, and frustrating message wrapped in a very beautiful package. In addition to the colors and style mentioned above, the songs by Laxmikant-Pyarelal and choreographed by P. L. Raj are gorgeous, especially the charming and girl-power-y "Sa Re Ga Ma Pa" set in a Kashmiri garden.

"Dhadkan Har Dil Ki" is a totally random delight, featuring Bela Bose pantomiming a pony cart with two guys under a sheet and wearing a Ravana-like set of twelve horse heads.


Dadkan Har Dil Ki
Uploaded by tommydan1. - Explore more music videos.
Bela Bose might be my new role model.
My other favorite is "Oh Ghaata Savre," a lovely rain song featuring Anjana on her own in her house, impish and eager and happy, before she even meets Shekhar.

Pathetic Shekhar has no friends, but Anjana has a doozy of a gal pal played by Nazima.

Ratna seems to be the feminist voice in the bunch, but she too decides it's better to just kiss and make up than make your husband face the uncomfortable process of learning more about your true nature and desires. But I loved her performance, at least. In fact, all of the performances are good, especially Hema, who fills Anjana's strong words with corresponding oomph. Shashi does his usual squeaky/confused/pouting thing that we've seen before, and it's too bad he's so charming in this because it makes the disconnect between my opinion of the performance and my reaction to the character that much more painful. And speaking of beauty: as if to make up for the foolish character, somebody in the crew decided to give us three sequences of Shashi Kapoor wet in a button-down shirt. Three. Take that, Mr. Darcy.


Best to end there, don't you think?

5 comments:

Rum said...

Sorry for not starting on Shashi week Beth, do forgive, but in my upcoming the phases of Shashi this seems to fit under his "Asshole backward hot guy" roles that made pie induced to throw one at those beautiful curls! In this film i was shocked at that terrible dialogue even more than his nastiness in Jab Jab Phool Khile, because he was a backward asshole villager in that! I like that Shashi attempts the nasty bastard roles but i feel bad after for hating someone that WONDERFUL!

pavementphilosopher said...

This was airing on TV a few days ago and I couldnt watch more than a few minutes, knowing how it would all end - ugh!

Somehow, Beth, this seems quite typical of loads of Bollywood movies - the central theme is pretty progressive, but the ending is tacked on for commercial considerations - "audience kabhi accept nahin karega" etc. It makes for such frustrating viewing sometimes!

Was this the case with Abhinetri? Or was it really as bad as I thought it was ? :)

Erin Georgia said...

I know MANY husbands who cannot stand to see their (I want to say "woman" because that's what it feels like, but I won't) wives performing. They won't let them kiss, they won't let themselves kiss their costars they won't let them meet the audience after the show, they won't let them do talkbacks with the audience. I.Want.to.strangle.these.men!

It's OPERA for hells sake! There is a little something called passion between the characters that are written that can't just be brushed off with a "Oh, just hug him then". The most depressing part is that these poor girls become like the Nirupa character... they start to believe that they shouldn't perform and share this very integral part of their being with audiences. It makes me sick.

Oh wow. I need to watch this.

bollyviewer said...

Your Shashi-week does seem to be getting off to a sticky start. You need a dose of Kehni ki nahin baat (aka the best song EVER) - to wash out the taste of all these retrogressive ideas...

Speaking of Darcy, which Jane Austen character would you cast Shashi as? My fondest wish is to see him cast as Wickham or Willoughby.

Pitu said...

I must watch this movie! Had heard about it earlier but not sure why I haven't seen yet. Have you seen the Rajesh - Zeenat starrer 'Ajnabee'? Also frustrating.

Also, confession time: while I get worked up when male characters in Hindi films try to stop their artiste wife from performing, the truth is I could never be married to a guy who gets tons of nasty attention from women 24/7 (a la SRK/Hrithik). Can't imagine how that would be easy. But of course, there I think it's fairer to not marry than marry and then make a fuss about it :D