The search for Identity and Freedom in ‘Arth’

Today, we see it as one of the classics in Mahesh Bhatt’s filmography but when it released in 1982, Arth was considered controversial for its subversive female characters. Today, it is no longer a radical film but the idealism is just as relevant as it was almost four decades ago.

The search for Identity and Freedom in ‘Arth’ The search for Identity and Freedom in ‘Arth’ Source : Splash

Arth is Mahesh Bhatt's sixth film which he made two years before Saaransh, a widely acclaimed film and India's official submission to 57th Academy Awards. Arth is Mahesh Bhatt's early classic which separated him as a filmmaker from his contemporaries. Apart from Arth and Saaransh, he also made critically acclaimed films like Naam and Thikana. Mahesh Bhatt wasn't a part of the Parallel Cinema movement but he did make serious cinema while working well within the mainstream space.

Arth follows the story of a newly-wed couple, Pooja Malhotra (Shabana Azmi) and her husband Inder Malhotra (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) who have shifted to their own apartment. Inder is a film director who falls in love with the actress in his film, Kavita Sanyal (Smita Patil). When he confesses his affair to Pooja, she is devastated. She goes through a period where she struggles for meaning.

Arth is a film that was ahead of its time when it released. It is progressive and promotes economic, social as well as emotional independence of a woman. It is not just a women ‘oriented' film, it is a feminist film in a true sense. The subject and conflicts that it deals with were very urban and were largely an unchartered territory in mainstream cinema of its time.

Pooja grew up as an orphan. She aspires the middle-class life. She is in love with Inder and a firm believer in the sacredness of marriage and her ‘Grihasthi'. Her world breaks apart Inder confesses his relationship with Kavita. But she doesn't leave Inder's house until she learns that it was bought with Kavita's money. Then onwards, she embarks on her economic, social and emotional freedom.

Arth was a defining moment in Shabana Azmi's career. By her own admission, she says "it changed her life." Pooja is one of her finest performances of all time which also inspired Vidya Balan to pursue a career in acting. Shabana Azmi won National Film Award and Filmfare Award for Best Actress among many other awards. She gracefully embodies her character and fuels her with admirable strength. The character arc is exemplified in two famous scenes: one where she loses total control of the situation in an inebriated outburst at Kavita in a party, calling her a prostitute; in the other one she is calm and dignified, when she confronts Inder towards the end, her stare is sharp but earnest.

Photo Credit: Film Companion

Photo: Film Companion

Rohit Hattangadi plays Pooja's maid for which she won the Filmfare Award in Best Supporting Actress category. Her husband is an alcoholic, keeps a mistress and doesn't do any work. There is a striking resemblance between the status of the two women. Pooja draws inspiration from the sisterhood she shares with her maid.

Inder is self-centered. He knows what he wants, he realizes what he is doing but doesn't have the courage to confront the situation and carries on with his infidelity as long as he could. He stoops so low that he deserves our pity and not contempt for his condition that makes him impervious to love.

On the contrary, Raj (Raj Kiran) doesn't share any similarity with Inder. He is charming and enthusiastic even when he is struggling to make ends meet because he knows that he is talented and success is just one big break away. He extends emotional support to Pooja at a time when she needs it most. He poignantly smiles at Pooja as she left. The acceptance comes from a position of selfless love.

The theme of rejection is dealt by all the characters differently in Arth. Pooja is devastated, she becomes submissive and wants to win her husband back. She puts all the blame on Kavita for ‘stealing' her husband and tries to convince Inder. Kavita has deep-set insecurity. She is alone, having had enough of glamour and materialism and wants to experience true love. Smith Patil plays the characters with high intensity and passion, but that did not compensate for the lack of time that we spend with Kavita trying to know what is it that is driving her toward madness?

Three key instances in Arth make it a landmark movie for its time. Firstly, when Pooja's roommate at the hostel (Kiran Vairale) points out hypocrisy in the society which women are subjected to. Thus, women should feel free to reject the patriarchal notions about women's dignity resting with her body. Secondly, when Pooja asks Inder whether he would have accepted her had she done the same, Inder says no and thus Pooja's stance is justified. Thirdly, Pooja declining the proposal made by Raj when she turns down the lure and security of married life, a new beginning and instead chooses to follow her own path and listens to her heart which wants to relish the newfound independence and the purpose in motherhood by in taking care of her maid's daughter. Pooja is grateful for Raj's countenance and says that she will come back to him when she is prepared for such a life.

There is an ambiguity in Mahesh Bhatt's treatment of marriage. The status of marriage is never really questioned, rather it is upheld by Pooja who comes off as a savior of its sanctity. Even Kavita, by the end of it, becomes tiring and we never understand who she really is when she conforms to the same notions. Arth in retrospect is only mildly radical after all.

The word ‘Arth' literally translates to meaning. At the end, Pooja is legally as well as emotionally free from Inder. She is looking forward to her life as a mother and an independent woman. As Raj says towards the end, "Jo saahas tumhare andar jaaga hai, vahi hai Jeevan ka sahi arth". Indeed, the meaning of life is in the courage in using the freedom to define one's identity by no one but oneself.

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