Abhimaan, the 1973 classic by Hrishikesh Mukherjee is a case-study in the art and craft of cinema. One of the best films ever made, Abhimaan‘s treatment of its theme, the performances, the technique and the music provide a text book of film appreciation for any film lover.
A detailed study by Antara with rhythm analysis of the songs by Joy Christie.
There are few films we remember from our childhood, especially when aged less than 8 or 10 years. We remember what we see of them in repeat viewing in later years but to recall what we saw then is usually in faint, blurry images. At least, that is how it is with me. Two films I remember clearly from back then. One at the age of 5 —Julie Andrews bursting forth on the screen over the green moors and the hall in Calcutta reverberating with “The hills are alive….”
And the other? You guessed it. Abhimaan – I watched it on Doordarshan when I was in 3rd standard. While for The Sound of Music I remembered the impact of that one scene at the age of 5 (though I must have seen that film at least 20 times since) for Abhimaan, I remembered each scene, each song, at an age lesser than 8 years. That was its spectacular impact.
What’s it about Abhimaan that hit me? Difficult to say. I loved everything about it – the story, the dialogues, the scenes, the songs… the film practically got printed in my mind. J
Ok so history over, let me start off about what makes this film so endearing more than 50 years after it hit the screens.
Some preliminary notes:
Now as our journey into the film begins, let me take you through Abhimaan in 7 parts – woven around each of its songs. Why songs? Well, each song serves as the connecting dots and moves the story forward several notches.
As I mentioned earlier, there are only a handful of films that begin and end with songs and Abhimaan begins with a song that places the film firmly in its context. Burman Dada uses a light, soft pop type of music here, to exemplify a popular stage show. As the film opens, Chandru (star singer Subir Kumar’s friend turned secretary), played by Asrani , announces the much awaited stage performance of Subir Kumar. Dressed in a red and black checkered blazer, a beige turtle neck sweater and wide cream-coloured bell-bottom pants, Subir Kumar strides in with the microphone and his song sends the audience into frenzy.
The closeups of the resso, guitar, accordion, drums build the tempo, and in the 4.04 minutes of this song, we realize Subir Kumar is a super popular singer, his records sell like hot cakes, his women fans swoon when they hear his voice, his picture makes it to the cover of Filmfare, his songs are part and parcel of daily lives of everyone from housewives to couples in love, they are regularly played on radio, in cafeterias, kids dance to his songs being played on spool tapes. To amplify his larger than life image, the camera maintains a steady bottom angle through the song, moving to side profiles for closeups.
Majrooh uses this song to project Subir’s loneliness behind all his stardom – that he is in search of a soulmate and peace. Kishore Kumar’s buoyant, youthful voice catches the verve of Subir.
Some notes about the music:
SD Burman weaves the song on reso, guitar and accordion with congo and bongo. The mukhda has two flutes as feelers and the first interlude builds on a high pitch flute, congos, bongos and accordion.
As Stanza 1 begins with Chain nahi baahar, chain nahin ghar mein, you can hear the congos, drums, bongo and accordion with violins in the backdrop of the melody as the flute comes in again. In the interludes, the accordion and saxophone and electric guitar and violins make up the M1 and M2.
Der se mann meraa, aas liye dole
preet bhari baani, saaz meraa bole
koi sajani, ek khidki bhi na khole
laakh taraane, rahaa main sunaaye
Majrooh makes it clear that Subir may have hordes of female fans but there is no one in his life that he sings for.
And yes, this is the stage that begins the film. It will be the stage where the film will end. But that’s later in the story.
Subir Kumar is a busy man. He has recording sessions, his new house is being built (which of course Chandru is managing), he has a dear friend Chitra (easily Bindu’s most layered role) whose company he enjoys and she adores his music. But there is a catch. As Chandru puts it cryptically, the rich and elite Chitra, is not the girl for him for she is not the archetypal wife material, modeled on his mother or Mausi. Wife material in other words would mean someone who would take care of Subir, “dekhbhaal karegi” and basically cater to all his wishes. Well, Subir may have a soft corner for Chitra but he certainly is not in love with her. He is more in love with himself. The fame and limelight has affected him. He has lost his sleep. And he feels disturbed when women fans wake him up with midnight calls but secretly somewhere he enjoys the adulation.
Chandru has no such trappings. He is happy playing second fiddle, managing dates, money, recording commitments, fees and everything else for Subir and also does not shy away from giving him a piece of his mind when needed.
Interestingly, Subir is always dressed in silk kurta (he is the star) and Chandru, more often than not in a simple shirt and trousers (he is the aide) – the class distinction is apparent even under the garb of friendship. Chandru may fondly call him “rascal” or “abbey gadhe” but Subir has a huge bedroom with ornate telephone and wine decanter on his bedstead while Chandru has a modest bedroom which is more of a sitting room and a small bed downstairs. And yes, Chandru does not take money for his services. Its his “pyar ki mazdoori” so that places him at par with Subir otherwise.
Hrishida’s trusted cameraman Jaywant Pathare appears in a cameo as a producer with a portfolio of money. Chandru makes it clear that Subir has a sizeable portion of his income in black and that the IT department has 6 inspectors sniffing around for black money in the film industry. Hrishida’s subtle hints at the state of the economy, the underbelly of the film industry, are typically cloaked in innocuous dialogues laced with humour.
But Subir has a heart that beats for his Durga Mausi (Durga Khote) and even if it did he hesitates whether to heed Mausi’s request for a charity show or stay committed to his recording dates, Chandru helps him decide. Mausi’s request should be given priority, Chandru is clear on that.
Mausi is the one who brought him up as his mother. Obviously she is delighted to see him pay a surprise visit after 8 years of busy stardom and rushes to make his favourite dishes – the kamalkankdi ke bade and moti moti besan ki roti.
But it is the musical Shivastotra (sung by Anuradha Paudwal in an understated but noticeable debut) floating from the temple that catches Subir’s attention. (The music arrangements of Abhimaan songs were by Anil Mohile and Arun Paudwal, Anuradha’s husband)
The next morning as Subir bows at the temple before leaving for the airport (instructions from Mausi) that “nadiya kinare herai aayi kangana” gets him transfixed. Forgetting everything, he chases the voice and meets Uma, the single-plaited sari-clad beautiful girl with a golden voice. Her simple charm is in sharp contrast to his flamboyant flowered shirt and sunglasses. Love blossoms.
Lata Mangeshkar stays as Uma’s voice in Abhimaan while Burman Dada brings in three voices for Subir – Kishore, Rafi and Manhar Udhas. With Anand Desai, I had done a detailed deconstruction of Nadiya kinare, which was later included by HQ Chowdhury in the second and revised edition of Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman. Click the link below to read it:
Not a single frame in Abhimaan can be called an “extra”. Similarly, each dialogue in Abhimaan is weighted and rich in meaning and purpose. Take out a line here or there and you miss a lot. Hrishikesh Mukherjee had a team of seasoned experts with him – Nabendu Ghosh’s screenplay, Rajendra Singh Bedi’s dialogues, Ajit Banerjee’s art direction, Jaywant Pathare’s camera and Mangesh Desai’s re-recording – all sync in together to create an unforgettable film where you won’t find a frame out of place.
Star marriages are funny things. Either they are events of huge pomp and show that the world sits up to watch and talk about. Or they are hush-hush hurried affairs with close friends and family and are suddenly sprung up on the unsuspecting audience.
Uma and Subir’s marriage takes the second route. The moment Subir realises that Uma is the “mann ka meet” he was looking for, he wastes no time in agreeing to Durga Mausi’s proposal for Uma and tying the knot.
Chandru of course is taken completely unawares when Subir lands up with Uma in tow all of a sudden and asks the poor fellow to guess who she is. After two hilarious bloopers, the shocked Chandru is told that he now has a Bhabhi and he immediately announces a gala party to celebrate, typically like a ‘star secretary’.
How would two newlyweds convey their longing for each other in the midst of their reception party? If the new films are to have it, they will lead their respective song and dance troupes and make a huge public spectacle of their affection.
Not so with Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan, where all that the newlywed couple does is exchange a few loving glances and tender signs amid a crowd of people without anyone noticing, and nothing can be more intimate than those seemingly innocuous gestures.
The song itself is a beautiful conversation between the newlywed couple. Subir describes how each piece of Uma’s bridal finery (her bindiya, trinkets and bangles) is having a telling effect on his consciousness. Uma responds mischievously in equal measure through the song, assuring him they will surely take his sleep away
Sajan bindiya le legi,
le legi, le legi,
Majrooh hints at the turmoil that’s truly going to snatch Subir’s sleep away as his wife catapults into the limelight, but you won’t know about this ego trap till you further get into the story. Teri bindya re, on the face of it, is a tender tête-à-tête. Looking a beautiful picture of grace and dignity, Uma hardly ever looks straight back at her husband and instantly lowers her eyes with a shy smile when he signals a kiss.
mera gehna balam tu, tose sajke dolu
bhatakte hain tere hi naina,
main to kuchh na bolu
to phir ye kya bole hai,
bole hai, bole hai, tera kangna
re aay haaye, mera kangana re
bole re ab to chhoote na
Majrooh makes Uma emerge as one who has no doubt whatsoever about her role in Subir’s life – this is her home and she is here to stay forever. It is Subir who may be in doubt later… the song has that subtle premonition.
In a wonderful gesture of sobriety, befitting a newlywed Indian bride, Uma sits with her back to Subir, and yet the undercurrent of passion between the two is palpable. Talk of how romance can be understated yet is intensely apparent, and this song in the god-gifted voices of Lata Mangeshkar and Mohd Rafi comes to mind.
Some notes on the music:
It’s a musical conversation, based on Raaga Mishra Gaara, and Rupak Taal played in purely 7 beats. Burman Dada brings in Mohd Rafi, starting the prelude with swarmandal and tabla instead of instruments humming of Rafi.
In order to amplify the romantic tete-e-tete of Subir and Uma, SD Burman’s uses minimal orchestration and no harmony on violins – a special forte of the maestro. The mukhda has just the tabla, rhythm guitar and a manjeera in the background, the sort of manjeera used in bhajans. The sitar and flute strike up a conversation too in the interlude M1. For the first stanza, a soft vibraphone, a flute in high pitch in M2 and a santoor in M3 – the use of instruments is only what is necessary to accentuate the romantic exchange.
The song brings to light a truth that does not escape the notice of the seasoned and wisened musician Brajeshwar Rai (David). Having heard both Uma and Subir together, Rai Sahab delivers the key dialogue of Abhimaan – ‘Itihaas ne sikhaya hai ki purush naari se shreshth hai. Uma Subir se zyada pratibhashaali hai. Kya Subir yeh she paayega?”
His equally wise companion who has probably seen many such talents fade away, cryptically says there is nothing to worry. All the talent will get suppressed in managing home and raising kids. “Yeh to aur bhi bura hoga,” rues Rai Sahab.
If you hear too many bells ringing here, that’s because history is strewn with many such instances. Rajendra Singh Bedi’s dialogues are so precise and powerful, they remain etched in your mind.
That Chitra has a special place in Subir’s life is clear to Uma who overhears their conversation at the reception party. Chitra makes it clear that although her world crashed when she heard of Subir’s marriage, she now understands that Uma was better suited for him than her. Chitra’s graceful acceptance of Uma in Subir’s life is reciprocated with equal understanding by Uma. Both these ladies rise much higher up than Subir in their strength of character and maturity. Their little interaction establishes a key brick in the storyline that will re-emerge later with greater significance.
A happy marriage – almost dream like, builds intimacy between Uma and Subir. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the master of the understated uses several symbols to show their intimacy in beautifully subtle ways. The smudged sindoor, the hand gestures for a kiss, the way Uma sits leaning against Subir listening to his childhood stories and then wincing at the thought of him getting hit on his hand by his schoolteacher – all these work towards building a cozy picture of their married life. The bedroom is their love nest and they enjoy their newfound love to the hilt.
Hrishida has this ability to build a pattern and then give it a twist later so that it jerks the audience into a realization. Abhimaan is no different. A freshly bathed Uma, with her wet hair that sparkle with water droplets is pulled down by Subir for a morning kiss when she goes to wake him up. This shot is repeated twice during their happy days and we get used to it. One does wonder why Hrishida needed to show it twice. Well, he aimed at establishing it as a regular part of their relationship so much so that one day when their relationship hits rocky waters, Subir’s frustration and anger at his wife’s rising fame is made evident by the way he brushes the waiting Uma aside. But more on that building block later. Notice here, the camera takes a bottom angle shot of Uma (from the point of view of Subir) and cuts to a top angle shot of Subir (point of view of Uma). Later, the change in Subir’s attitude will hit the audience just as sharply as it hits Uma.
Subir’s women fans who call up in the middle of the night are cause for mirth and also indignation for Uma. Subir promises he won’t entertain such calls again. Uma is the perfect wife, taking care of home and chores. Subir couldn’t have been happier and composes a song of their future. This will be another building block of their relationship which will serve as the climax. But again, wait till we join the dots.
True to his commitment made to Rai Sahab, Subir propels Uma towards recording songs with him. The beautifully picturised recording shows how gently the experienced Subir tries to guide the rookie Uma towards singing to the microphone.
Needless to say, the songs top the charts. For Lutey koi mann ka nagar, Burman Dada picked out the lesser known Manhar. One popularly believed reason is that he wanted Lata’s voice to ring supreme, at a much higher level than the male voice to emphasize Uma’s talent.
Some notes on the music:
So you have the flute and rhythm guitar in the prelude, soft violins behind the melody in the mukhda with a unique rhythm on dholak and congo. The santoor, possibly by Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, plays an important role in this song, with its presence in the M1 and M2, and as fillers in the stanzas.
Uma, untouched by the starry trappings is happy in her simple white sari and sindoor. But little does she know that the chart-topping song is an unstoppable juggernaut that’s going to take her up a path of glory, higher and away from her husband.
“Shaadi ke baad hum dono ek nahin ho gaye, kya?
Tumhare gaane ka matlab hai main gaana ga raha hoon.
Mere gaane ka matlab hai, tum gaana ga rahi ho.”
Tall words from the towering Subir Kumar. But perhaps even he didn’t know how hollow they would sound to even his ears later. Uma’s rise to fame is instant. Though she is adamant not to sing solo songs, it is Subir who persuades her. His heart doesn’t agree with it, we know that from the grim expression that instantly comes on the moment the film producer says he has come for Uma this time because the top music director has agreed only on this condition that Uma would sing. Oh, well!
Hrishida uses another collage to show Uma’s rocketing fame and what better way than to weave it through an incredibly beautiful song. Now notice the way the camera pans as Lata’s aalap floats in. From a closeup of the vibraphone, the camera cuts to the recording studio and pans from the mixing console to Chandru and Subir sitting outside the recording room. The camera zooms in to Subir, his face unsmiling and gloomy. As Lata picks up the 2nd line of the aalap, we cut to a closeup of Uma, at the mike, equally pensive and thoughtful. She isn’t into this out of choice. Subir doesn’t want this to happen. But it does and their relationship takes a different track.
The rapidly moving collage of shots encapsulates Uma’s trailblazing rise. Chandru builds a new shelf for her awards right below Subir’s and her trophies quickly take up space and outnumber his. Hrishida’s bottom angle shots of Subir capture his overarching ego. Uma blissfully unaware of what is going hopelessly wrong in their relationship smiles as she sings “jab ho gaya tum pe yeh dil deewana”. Subir’s face gets darker. Notice the bottom angle closeup again when the photographer asks him to move away from Uma. One of the best portrayals of abhimaan or ego lie in these shots.
Majrooh uses just the minimum of words to convey the sheer helplessness of Uma:
Tere pyar me badnaam dur dur ho gaye
tere saath hum bhi sanam mash-hoor ho gaye
dekho kahan le jaaye bekhudi apni
“Dekho kahaan le jaaye” has a plaintive Uma looking up (a beautiful top angle shot here for she is drowning in a situation she never wanted to be in). The autograph hunters snatching the book is last nail in the coffin.
Some notes on the music:
The prelude opens with Burjor Lord’s vibraphone followed by a delectable aalap by Lata. The violins, followed by guitar with the rhythm guitar in the backdrop playing the chords create a sense of foreboding. The mukhda uses three different sur maadals.
If the santoor was predominant in Lutey koi mann ka nagar, it is the vibraphone that shines in Ab to hai tumse, which is based on Raaga Maand. Listen to the delicate santoor, rhythm guitar and violins as side rhythms landing delicately with the vibraphone in M1. You will hear the vibraphone softly trailing Lata in the first stanza. It leads the way, almost like laying out a carpet, before she picks up the second stanza. The vibraphone is there by Uma’s side, like a trusted friend. This is a speciality of this song – Burman Dada employs an unconventional use of the fillers or in between music pieces – they start with the ending notes of Lata’s singing, not after she has finished, which is usually the norm. The superb pick up of drums in the later part of the interludes is heavenly.
The next scene connects one of the first building blocks – Subir makes it clear that their morning intimacy is not anymore in his horizon. His rude ignore hits home and Uma decides she doesn’t want to sing anymore. Uma’s four songs figuring in ‘Binaca Geetmala’ is a reflection of her delivering chart-topping hits. But Uma is determined.
How easy it is for Uma to turn away from this mindblowing fame and popularity. She was never involved in it. It was only work or “kaam” that her husband wanted her to do. Now that he doesn’t want it, she can say bye without a blink of the eye. But for Subir, the glory is his world. And he doesn’t want to share it, not even with his wife.
Things go on the downslide. The strain in the relationship begins to show and Uma loses her smile while Subir stops singing and hits the bottle, literally. His solace is Chitra to whom he rushes in Devdas like fashion and even reiterates Devdas’s dialogue “main to is liye peeta hoon ki bas saans le sakoon” when she asks him about the sorrow that’s eating into his soul.
Hrishida uses a series of sequences to build up Subir’s anger. Subir’s monumental ego gets dented when Uma is offered a much higher remuneration by a producer to convince her to sin. Hurt and indignant, he hikes his own rates to be above his wife’s and is turned down. Coming home drunk, snapping at his wife and Chandru for no reason are just some of the many signs of his ego clouding his thoughts and emotions.
Piya bina basiya baaje na is the song that impacts every soul, for the pathos in it rings true and heartfelt. It is Uma’s plaintive cry to her soulmate, the one who has turned away from her without telling her where she went wrong. Hrishda’s camera adds many layers to the heavenly music, the striking words and the flawless rendition.
Surrounded by the microphones encircling Uma as she sings, Uma appears caged and lonely, the tears trickling down her face. Subir sips his drink pensively listening to her voice as it floats through the radio, fighting a turmoil within his own self.
Some notes on the music:
This is a song of pathos and Burman Dada uses the flute, Lata’s aalap, rhythm guitar and maadal to usher in the anguish. Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia’s bamboo flute is the hero in this song, right from the mukhda. It echoes Uma’s plaintive piya bina, heightening the viraha.
Majrooh’s pen cries for Uma whose music is now drying up:
Piya aise ruthe ke hothon se mere
kabhi jab main gaoon,
lage mere mann ka
har geet jhootha
aisey bichhade, ho aisey bichhade
Tar shehnai has been used extensively in songs to convey pain. In Piya bina, the tar shehnai played by Dakshinamohan Tagore (a cousin of Rabindranath Tagore and fondly known as Dukhi Babu) heightens the pathos in the M1 with the cellos, and the way it concludes the M2 amplifies the agony of a woman who is trapped between the stardom she never wanted and her husband’s bruised ego.
When Uma goes to pick Subir from Chitra’s home, the interaction between the two ladies is the most graceful exchange one can witness between the wife and the “other woman”. When Chitra says “kahin aap mujhe…” Uma stops her with the words, “Nahin Chitra ji, jo pyaar karta hai…” and she trails off. The unfinished sentences from both speak volumes. Both the women respect each other’s spaces and do not intrude, in almost a Paro-Chandramukhi way.
The rift between the star-crossed couple widens so much that Uma leaves home without informing Subir and goes back to her father’s home. A hurt Subir does not visit her, not even when he comes to know that he is going to be a father. Uma retreats into a quiet shell and her baby does not survive the birth. A furious Durga Mausi goes to Subir, just to let him know that his heartlessness has killed a beautiful soul and that, for her too, he has ceased to exist. A small cameo by the toddler Master Raju adds a different dimension – coming in as Subir’s inner voice.
Abhimaan – what do you think the word alludes to? Ego, right? And the title alludes to Subir and his ego, right? Spot on!
Can it allude to the quiet, supportive and shy Uma, who never wanted any of that fame and limelight as a singer? Yes, it can. Well, Subir’s illogical outbursts and allegations could have hurt her ego too, no?
And here’s an interesting catch in the title which perhaps only a Bengali can spot. Abhimaan can allude directly to Uma as well, not in terms of ego but in terms of a quiet, simmering hurt and pain, which the word abhimaan means in Bengali.
The last part of Abhimaan is about Uma and her stony silence that caps a mountain of pain under it – that’s her abhimaan (if you refer to the Bengali meaning). If only I could have asked Hrishida one question, I would have asked him, what did he have in mind when changing the title from Raag Ragini to Abhimaan – the Hindi meaning, the Bengali one, or both?
Well, coming back to the story, Subir goes to Uma’s father’s home to bring her back only to be greeted by an Uma who has forgotten how to smile, doesn’t speak and doesn’t react to anything. All attempts of Subir and Chandru to make her laugh or cry as per the psychiatrist’s advice falls flat. Uma remains enclosed in her self-created world of silence.
Jaya’s performance raises the bar for any actress here – her eyes are vacant, and no shade of even the faintest reaction even brushes past her face. She simply walks away from anyone who tries to interact with her.
Brajeshwar Rai’s advice to Subir to resume his singing brings the reluctant couple back to the stage in a musical climax that has become one of the best endings in Hindi films.
The song of their hopes and dreams sung by Subir on stage sparks a cathartic outburst in Uma. Burman Dada’s tune, inspired from a Tagore song Jodi taarey nai chini go shey ki, is beautifully woven with words that speak of the dream they had nurtured of their yet-to-be-born child. The memories come flooding back, drowning Uma in tears. Three instruments – the piano, the organ and the rhythm guitar create a haunting piece of music in that mesmerising prelude to amplify Uma’s deluge of memories.
Some notes on the music:
After much cajoling, a sobbing Uma joins her love on stage once more to sing to the world their unfinished dream, encapsulated so touchingly in Majrooh’s words:
Nanha sa gul khilega anganaa
suni bainyaa sajegi sajnaa
Jaise khele chandaa baadal mein
khelega woh tere aanchal mein
The camera plays along with the tune and Hrishida cuts the shots note by note in sync with the way the interludes flow. Watch the shots and how the music synchronises with each move (from 3.23 in the video below) – the rising pitch of the flute, the glockenspiel, piano and rhythm guitars match the closeup shots of Uma shaking her head in refusal to sing, cutting to Subir lifting her face up with both hands. Abhimaan exemplifies Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s way of editing his songs (credit also must be given to the editor of the film Das Dhaimade) – the shots and the music notes create an unforgettable harmony.
Burman Dada brings in Burjor Lord and his vibraphone – just one bar used with devastating effect after dekho na. The sitar in the prelude as Kishore hums, in the M1, the flute in the M2 and soft but very effective harmonies on violins and tabla create a song that ranks as one of the most popular Lata-Kishore duets ever. If a Kishore song began the film, a Kishore song signs it off as well.
Abhimaan ends with thunderous applause and frantic fans trying to get to their idol singers who had once retreated into oblivion. It’s a new hope, a new beginning for Uma and Subir, perhaps with abhimaan (ego) and abhimaan (pain) safely set aside.
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