Around three-quarters into the film commonly touted as Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s musical magnum opus, Subir the singer (Amitabh Bachchan) turns angrily to his young wife Uma (Jaya Bhaduri; invincible), also an award-winning singer like him, when she tells him mildly that she is going to give up singing so as not to cause him discomfort. The unsaid, obtusely voiced, lingers between them in their vast, opulent living room, amplifying their individual loneliness: is he finally threatened by her success?
And is it, we cannot help but ask, because she is a woman?
Come now, Subir. The film is titled pride, after all.
It’s a precarious moment in the film because Subir has done everything in his power to avoid confronting his jealousy. He chooses to respond by unmasking her suggestion and hurling it back at her – just like a real man – defensively: “Do you presume your fame and fortune are responsible for my loneliness?”
When she replies quietly that it is he who can answer that and not her, he mocks her for “this sacrifice”. It is at this point that we sit up alertly: Subir isn’t just jealous of his wife’s success as a woman who is not his subjugate; he considers her to be his equal! He isn’t just happy with her offer to give up music because his real issue isn’t her fame: it’s her talent itself and its universal recognition.
Hat-tip, Hrishi-da, for giving us a woman in the 1970s whose mere talent can make a man so insecure.
Because Abhimaan could be read as a film about a man who is jealous of his immensely talented wife but that would be a reductive summary; it wouldn’t do justice to her struggle and place in this story. It would also unfortunately imply that the film is about a man’s evolution from immature, brash, fame-obsessed whiskey-drinker to a sober, mature, almost-father – and only about this man. It isn’t, because much as we’d like him to make that transition so we can round off the film as a drama involving two virtuosos, he doesn’t. Fame matters to him at the end of the film just as much as it does in the beginning, if not more. The difference is that Uma evolves into a personal project for him to fix: he can turn a blind eye to her talent if he can play at being the stronger of the two. Deal?
Plot: Subir, city pop-singer, meets star singer of the village, Uma, when he visits his aunt. Their love for music – his willingness to learn, her eagerness to share – brings them together. They get married, move to the city, and Uma, at his insistence, begins her musical career and, being more talented than him, shoots to fame. Subir is unhappy, Uma is consequently unhappy and music – or the lack of it – becomes the wedge in their relationship. She goes back to the village, pregnant, and he gives up singing. He’s alright though, just sulky and bouncing his ego off the walls of his empty house when he’s bored. She is not. He misses her. She misses her music.
Revelation: Abhimaan is the story of a woman who loved music much more than trying to make her marriage work or be a good house-wife. Abhimaan is the story of a woman who is so obsessed with music that she sinks into depression when it is taken away from her.
Ah yes, the depression.
Mukherjee slyly ties in the fact that she is an almost-mother along with her giving up of music altogether, so it’s convenient to think that the non-baby and the separation from Subir are creating good-wife pangs in Uma, who has triedso hard to play second fiddle to him. Music, what? She is after all, a traditional girl (contrast Chitra, Subir’s ex-flame and token modern-girl in the film who wears bright, sexy sarees, is star-struck by Subir and can reprimand him in front of Uma-the-good-wife when the latter can’t) from the village who has no aspirations, only the austere, almost creepily-Vedic desire to sing for the soul and to all of nature which is as pristine and innocent as herself. Right?
But nothing pleases or disturbs Uma after music disappears from her life. She is constantly called a “stone”. When people tell her the arrival of the child will reconcile the two, she is angry. Does she believe it herself? No. She fantasises, instead, about her own death leading to a confrontation between her to-be child and Subir, one that will reveal Subir’s much-delayed repentance. What a grotesque fantasy, but what a revealing one. Any notions we have of Uma as the perfect mother are out of the window, at this point.
Another powerful but tender scene eases us into accepting Uma as the woman who is aware that patriarchy has stripped her of her singular love: when her father, in a desperate effort to cheer her up, suggests that they play Raga Jaunpuri and lightly strums his veena, a fuzzy low-angle shot gives away Uma’s turmoil; she wrenches his hand from the veena before running off – ah, but to have a gift for a phantom as pervasive as music, what a curse it is. To be so talented, and have it curbed by society’s expectations and patriarchy’s immature wrath.
Perhaps Mukherjee is himself uncomfortable with this tensile, terse female character he has created because he spends the last 30 minutes of the film trying to get the men in her life to break her. Oh, they call it therapy. They consider electric shocks. They just want her to smile. Cry. React. They’re all slowly coming to terms with her unrelenting presence but they’re bewildered. They bombard her with images of what could have been a rosy future with the child, and ask her what to do with the gloves she knit for it. Throw them away, she says. Don’t come near me. Don’t apologise. Her silence is not hard to read: it says, I don’t care.
A man can tolerate anger in a woman, but he will not tolerate indifference. Indifference implies a moving-on and a leaving-behind, a hierarchy of affections; Subir’s ego is too fragile to stomach such heroic undertakings. When she drifts away, he scrambles to tie her down by presenting himself, apology in hand. I, Angry Young Man, have deigned. Come home and make chai now? When that doesn’t work, he realizes he has to bow down to the greater force in her life: music, his arch-rival.
So we come, at last, to an impasse, and this is possibly where Mukherjee is at his best, for relenting to the character that has outgrown his film and letting her decide the plot of the film. If you thought the film was about Subir, you cannot anymore. Mukherjee asks some tough questions: what does confronting music mean for Uma? And what does yielding mean for Subir? What happens when the lights go down? The parallel plot, cleverly disguised as Uma’s journey to subservience, re-emerges: they will sing “Tere Mere Milan”, (cue applause for ceaseless S. D Burman finery) a song that contained their joint hopes from the past. A song that Subir took to imply was his hope for a child.
But really, a song that Uma took to mean their joint love for music.
This remains her only visible triumph, but one she clings to strongly. When waves of applause overtake each other, the men are efficient, warding away crowds, leading her ahead protectively. Everyone appears stable in the euphoria of the moment, amidst the comfort of the noise and flashes of the camera. What tells us their future could be otherwise: Uma’s tear-streaked but unsmiling, impassive face as they enter the dark night.