In an episode of Aap Ki Adalat, host Rajat Sharma joked that Begum Akhtar would be appalled at how Jagjit Singh had diluted the purity of the ghazal with his experiments and new takes. Singh laughed and said, “Thank god she’s not here,” Singh joked, adding that he had not changed the format of the ghazal, but only changed how it could be sung.
And while purists may cry foul at the thought of a guitar in a ghazal, one morning spent listening to the soundtrack of Arth (1982) might change their minds.
Arth was a landmark movie for many reasons. The semi-autobiographical film was based on director and writer Mahesh Bhatt’s own extramarital relationship with actor Parveen Babi, which led to the breakdown of his marriage with Kiran (born Lorraine Bright), with whom he has two children, Pooja Bhatt and Rahul Bhatt. “Arth dug into my own wounds, my life burns. I had the audacity to use that as fuel. The emotional truth has been sourced from my life,” said Bhatt in an interview with Filmfare.
Shabana Azmi plays Pooja Malhotra, an orphan who has always dreamed of owning a home of her own. Her husband, Inder (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), who cannot hold down any job for too long, finally manages to make Pooja’s dream come true, except it turns out that the money for the house has come from Kavita Sanyal (Smita Patil), an actor with whom Inder has been cheating on Pooja and for whom he eventually walks out on his marriage. Meanwhile, Pooja’s house help (Rohini Hattangadi), is jailed for killing her abusive, cheating husband who has stolen the money she has painstakingly kept aside for her daughter’s admission to an English-medium school. Pooja takes the little girl home and vows to care for her as her own child.
Many will recall how Arth deepened the existing rivalry between its two leads, Azmi and Patil, both powerhouse performers who worked together in a number of parallel cinema classics. Azmi clearly had the author-backed role in Arth, for which she also walked away with the National and Filmfare Awards for Best Actress, a fact that bothered Patil.
In fact, in an interview after Patil’s death, Mahesh Bhatt recalled that Patil didn’t speak to him for weeks, although she never admitted that competition with Azmi rattled her. Azmi herself was more forthcoming, when she said that while she and Patil were always civil and respectful (to the point where Patil insisted on giving up her much larger hotel room for Shaukat Kaifi, Azmi’s mother, during a film shoot), they were never able to be friends.
And finally, Arth was the first movie for which Jagjit Singh and his wife, Chitra, composed the music together, and he sang every song in it. It is, perhaps, the best movie by which to remember him in the week of his birth anniversary.
The conflict was caused by a man; the resolution came through the women
In one sense, the movie is about Pooja’s transformation. She begins as a meek doormat who oscillates between believing she must have done something to warrant her husband’s adultery and blaming Kavita for taking Inder from her. But by the end, she is a confident, independent working woman who not only rejects Inder when he asks her to take him back, but also rejects her friend Raj’s (Raj Kiran) proposal, saying that she has finally become her own person and a partner would weaken her independence.
Pooja’s journey made Arth a groundbreaking movie, and three scenes, in particular, stand out. The first, when Pooja bumps into Inder and Kavita at a party, downs a drink or two and confronts them. She screams at Kavita for being a homewrecker and delivers one of the film’s most wrenching lines: “Hamare shaastron ke anusaar, patni ko apne pati ki seva mein kabhi ma ka roop dhaaran karna chahiye, kabhi behen ka roop dhaaran karna chahiye aur bistar mein, randi ka roop dhaaran karna chahiye, jo yeh poora kar rahi hai!” (According to our scriptures, to serve her husband, a woman has to sometimes be his mother, sometimes his sister, and in bed, a prostitute, which [Kavita] is doing!). It is a searing indictment of how deep patriarchy runs that Kavita is blamed for what is really Inder’s adultery, his betrayal.
The second, towards the end, is when a mentally unstable Kavita, ravaged by insecurity, paranoia and guilt, begs Pooja to forgive her for breaking her home. Pooja replies that clearly her life with Inder was never her home, so there is nothing to forgive.
And finally, when Kavita tells Inder to leave and go back to Pooja, the latter asks him one question. If the roles were reversed, if she had cheated, would he take her back?
Arth is an uncomfortable watch that raises disturbing questions, raw in how it portrays the fragility of marriage as an institution, the unfairness of loving someone who loves someone else. And the music, too, underscores these questions.
Music only comes into play in the second half, but leaves a huge impact
Bhatt wanted the music to be an exposition on the pain of lost love, to question the meaning of things like relationships and romance, to which we attach so much importance. And Jagjit Singh’s soulful voice and melodies combined perfectly with Kaifi Azmi’s lyrics (only one song was written by Rajinder Nath Rehbar) to create that mood.
Interestingly, music really only makes an appearance midway through the movie, with the introduction of Raj, a ghazal singer who befriends Pooja at a party where he is to perform. The ghazal he sings, Koi Yeh Kaise Bataaye, is an ode to loneliness and the cruel, unfair habit relationships have of changing on us, often without warning.
The most popular song, by far, is Tum Itna Jo Muskura Rahe Ho, which Raj sings to Pooja on her birthday. It’s an odd choice of song for a birthday celebration, but Pooja has just been served divorce papers, and Raj, for all his happy-go-lucky exuberance, notices every unshed tear behind her smile.
Equally beautiful, though, is Raj’s subtle way of telling Pooja he has fallen in love with her, via Jhuki Jhuki Si Nazar. And the ghazal maestro makes liberal, unconventional use of both guitar and violin to beautiful effect. The scene is all the more heartbreaking for Pooja’s discomfort and Raj’s awareness that this is a woman who needs to go through her journey alone, but he wants so much be with her on it.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.