Koimoi Recommends Arth: I was 17 and that I would be writing about films someday was not even a thought back then. While surfing through TV channels, a local cable channel had a young Shabana Azmi on it. She rejected the guy with a million-dollar question and walked away. I had never seen a woman have this agency in the films of the yore. I was curious to know what film that was? It was Mahesh Bhatt’s semi-autobiographical drama Arth.
It was the climax that hook me, it was the gaze, it was a woman finding a voice and a man watching his privilege crash down lured me into it. Today as I revisit this gem of a film that looked at infidelity in a way Bollywood never has to date, I recommend you to watch this Shabana Azmi, Kulbhushan Kharbanda & Smita Patil starrer on Koimoi Recommends.
Director: Mahesh Bhatt
Available On: YouTube
Drawing inspiration from his own life and adding fiction to it, Mahesh Bhatt wrote and directed Arth back in 1982. Inder (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), an adventurous and egoistic filmmaker, is married to Pooja (Shabana Azmi), an orphan who finds her home in Inder’s love. But soon, we realise, Inder’s love has sheltered someone else as well. Enter’s Kavita (Smita Patil), who loves Inder, and he leaves Pooja just so he can spent rest of his life with Kavita. Pooja takes time to come to terms with the turmoil and begins finding ‘Arth’ (meaning) to her life, and a classic is made.
Infidelity in the Hindi cinema has always been either a comic plot point or glorifying one of the two at the cost of declaring the other a monster. But there is a third ground of empathising with both sides and pointing at the real evil. Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth stands there. One would expect a trajectory like this to turn out to be a catfight, and it does too at a point, but knows its limitation.
Why do I say that? Mahesh Bhatt, as the writer has lived this story. He has the guts to look at his privilege, ego and power of being a man. The women in this universe, both Pooja and Kavita are simply looking for respective homes. One practically and another emotionally. These aren’t women who don’t have lives beyond the man they are in love with, nor are they voiceless. It is just the love that makes them do things.
And just like Pooja and Kavita, Bhatt in his story, tells you stories of several other women from different walks of life but never makes it too heavy. A maid with an abusive husband, but wants to educate her daughter (my favourite parallel plot and Rohini Hattangadi has my heart). A girl in the hostel finds happiness in quick earning and materialistic achievement, for this she barters her morals.
All of this and Arth never for a moment becomes preachy. It gives each one of its characters the respect they deserve. Shabana Azmi’s character, for instance, is the most realistic transformation. When Inder reveals about the extramarital affair, she doesn’t wake up to the realisation of her worth the very next morning. She pleads him to get back, requests Kavita to leave him, tries to abuse her in public (a scene you must watch and marvel at Azmi’s performance).
At a beautiful point in the film, Inder comes and tells Pooja to sign the divorce papers. She makes him say the date louder and that rings no bell in him. It’s her birthday. And the same man comes back to her at the end and expects her to take him back. She beautifully asks him if she had returned to him after doing all that he did? And a beautiful climax is made. One of most hard-hitting and impactful climax Hindi cinema ever got.
Smita Patil’s Kavita gets the same respect. She may have wronged Pooja, but she battles the ghost of her wrongdoing. Her mental health is discussed when it wasn’t even a thing for half of our population. The final scene where Pooja and Kavita meet has gone down the history and rightly deserves.
Arth is about the meaning of love. Self love prominently. It is about finding the true meaning of your life. Add to that the powerhouse Shabana Azmi, an hauntingly beautiful performance by Smita Patil, an honest to the character Kulbhushan Kharbanda & the sweetest Raj Kiran, a doomed but aspirational Rohini Hattangadi and a heart-aching tale of self-realisation is made.
While all of that, I cannot end this piece without mention how much a character and a beating aspect Jagjit Singh’s iconic music in the film was. Some articles said he was called out for ‘contaminating’ Gazals, and if this is contamination, I am all in for it. Just three songs, all picturised on one man (Raj Kiran), but the impact they create is everlasting.
You must watch Arth for everything that it stands for. Women empowerment at the top and, yes, for being a woke and self-aware story about where it is based and where it comes from.