While Abhimaan asks us to identify where our politics lie, Mili gives Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man a new dimension.
Politics and power is not just coded in the politics of the country, but as much in gender, and personal political. What is gratifying to see in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema, is how the supporting cast often brings his perspective into the film, and defines his personal politics for the viewer. One of these films is set in the backdrop of cinema itself, giving the viewer the feeling that film really is watching us also, as we watch the film. And as the film watches us, it encourages us to ask these questions of the personal political again and again, to identify where our politics lies, who is it to blame for what, divesting our love from the political predicament at hand- and questions on disparities on the basis of gender and class.
Each of these complexities are beautifully unraveled in Abhimaan. Probably one of my favorite films from Hrishida’s repertoire the film is a sharp, brave and intense look at toxic masculinity, away from the physical violence of it all. Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man, gets a new dimension here, as it does with Mili, another Hrishikesh Mukherjee masterpiece that is set in the inevitable sense of impending loss, ideas of love, and societal ostracization for both the key protagonists, both on the back of circumstances that they have no control over.
Abhimaan, the title itself tells us what the film is about and for. The unacceptance & struggle experienced by Subir (Amitabh Bachchan) because of his self-indulgent understanding of his career, talent and privilege of being male. That patriarchal conditioning that makes men believe that the role of their partners is to always be there to serve them, take care of them, and even if they work or are ‘given’ the opportunity to do so, cannot supersede them in any way.
Amongst the early scenes of Abhimaan, this stereotype comes forth in the conversation between Subir and Chandru (Asrani), Subir’s friend and by that love, secretary. They are speaking of Chitra (Bindu in one of her most subtle performances in a wholesome written role, where she is looked at as a human being, and not just an object as in other mainstream films), her freedom, where Asrani tells Subir that she doesn’t fit into his definition of a conformist partner. He then goes on to talk about how Subir’s adarsh for a wife were his Mausi and mother ‘jo teri dekhbaal kar sakein, teri sewa kar sakein’. This itself is a trapping of patriarchy that conforms women and their identities into roles that they must play for men, that are subservient and unassertive.
The most important scene for me in the film, is the one right after Teri bindiya re when Rai Sahab (David) compliments Uma (Jaya Bhaduri) on her talent and training, following which Subir informs him, that he will ensure that he and Uma will sing together. What transpires is this between Rai Sahab and his assistant:
“Itni badi bhool Subir na karey toh accha hai.”
“Kyunki Uma Subir se zyada pratibhashaali hai. Aur itihaas ne sikhaaya hai ki purush naari se sreshth hai. Aur jab uski patni ussey aage badh jaaye toh kya woh bardaasht kar sakega?”
“Uski fikar mat kijiye, Sir. Shaadi toh ho hi chuki hai, saara sangeet rasoi ghar mein aur bacche paalne mein chala jaayega.
“Yeh toh aur bhi bura hoga.”
This exchange for less than 2 minutes shows us the politics of the director, the cast characters and the inescapable patriarchal truththat stares at us in the face and what is yet to come. Several moments in the rest of the film corroborate to this one point, with Subir’s passive aggression increasing as Uma’s popularity and success rise. When he increases his price to Rs 6000 per song because Uma’s is Rs 5000; the subsequent rejection and Chandru’s calling him out on his deep-seated insecurity at her rise – is another specific scene that calls out the idea of women’s freedom. The freedom must be as per what is accepted by the man in her life, the owner or custodian of what is permissible and what is not. And the fact that a woman can be ‘free’ only to the point where it is acceptable by man.
The women in the film are kind, yet assertive. For Chitra, her feelings for Subir take a backseat when she realizes that Uma was a better choice for Subir than her. And when he chooses to take comfort in her friendship struggling with the everyday feeling of inadequacy with Uma’s rising and his dwindling popularity, she provides him that. And yet puts her foot down as she sees him insulting Uma in front of her, asking him to leave. Women solidarities and friendships find a meaning, as Chitra puts Uma at ease by asking Uma if she felt that she (Chitra) was the cause of Subir’s misery and indifference. Uma too walks out of Subir’s home on repeated insults, and returns only when Subir comes to her. This is more out of unhappiness and the sense of not being wanted, yet, she does take the step of walking away. Abhimaan, its deeply mature handling of interpersonal relationships, fragile male egos, and the idea of insecurity is mature, empathetic and real.
A film riddled with pathos, has beautiful subliminal cues of gender, travails of being a woman. The letter from Shekhar (Amitabh Bachchan)’s mother that talks of the trial by fire, and the constant need to prove chastity as a woman, is testimony. ‘Agni pariksha ke baad Sita mayya ko bhi dharti mein samaana pada tha’ – what it means to be a woman, to have to constantly justify oneself and one’s actions.
But what is most critical, is how this letter begins. She writes to her 18-year-old son like an adult, and she articulates that she didn’t offer a justification to his father and neither will she to him. The power of that sentence, and the ability to die as a consequence of her assertion, again brings us back to the consistently reinforced strength of a woman in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema. Mili (Jaya Bhaduri) herself, is a positive, stoic woman, keeping her spirits, her love and joy alive in the face of impending death. Reminiscent of Anand in certain sections, Mili is a lot more vulnerable, real, and has the desire to live. Roma (Aruna Irani), is a firm, articulate woman. And at the same time is immensely caring. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s women characters are seldom unidimensional, and that is where their strength lies. She knows how to make a man speak to her in the tone she prefers, and is able to call him out on his cowardice as he wishes to leave the woman he loves in the face of death, because it is too painful for him to bear.
Shekhar’s transformation in the film, his angst, volatile anger is centered and balmed by the non-judgmental, positive presence of Mili. His toxicity comes from the burden of a past he had no control over, that he is forced to carry. And yet, at the first brush of affection, from children apologizing for hurting him, he begins to soften. His desire to want to run away at the news of Mili’s impending death, and articulating it as much to Roma, shows us how real people, real men, are in pain, and need to be dealt with, with as much softness as anyone else. There are hat tips to Devdas, as he opens a bottle to drink after a particularly traumatic episode, with an edit cut of a train, much like Bimal Roy’s Devdas, edited by Hrishida himself.
A special shout out to the scene where Mili and her father both hear the news of her impending death. Lit beautifully across walls, as both characters hear the news, and then steel themselves up to continue the pretense in front of one another, are what cinematic moments are made of. Ashok Kumar’s interpretation of the father of a dying, loved daughter is heart wrenching. The scene where he attempts to safeguard Shekhar from this pain, by attempting to use his authority, and then succumbing to the truth, has him embrace his vulnerability again and again.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema is full of glorious layers. The characters repeatedly break away from convention to give us glimpses into their real selves. Selves that are away from stereotypes, that feel, that speak. Men and women. Even in films like Bawarchi, Guddi, known as comedies, the underplay of class politics, gender and personal politics is palpable.
Read Part 1 of this 3-part series
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