Dir. Subodh Mukherjee
(This review is somewhat more spoilery than usual.)
Sometimes it's good to let viewers supply their own ending to a story. An audience won't always agree on the best outcome, and letting each viewer decide for herself what happens after the lights go up can be a nice way of keeping everyone happy. Recently The Lunchbox took this approach. There, an unambiguous result would have required addressing grim realities that would have broken the movie's lovely spell. Leaving the final chord slightly unresolved let romantically-inclined viewers keep their happily-ever-afters intact.
In Abhinetri, though, the unresolved ending is a lame cop-out, a weaksauce attempt at having and eating one's cake. It is presented like a happy ending. Superficially, Shekhar (Shashi Kapoor) and Anju (Hema Malini) seem as the curtain falls to have patched up the rift in their marriage. Anju's friend Ratna (Nazima) conspires with Shekhar's mother (Nirupa Roy) to bring the awkward, angry couple back together, and the film ends with a scene of renewed domestic joy. But the issue that drove Shekhar and Anju apart in the first place remains unaddressed.
Early in Abhinetri, when the romance between Shekhar and Anju begins, Anju is a professional dancer - a hugely talented and popular professional dancer. Shekhar is delighted by this at first, watching Anju perform with the rapture of a child. This is perhaps because Shekhar is a child, an overgrown child still so umbilically attached to his mother that he brings Anju to her for appraisal the very day after they meet, and repeatedly pouts off to her for validation at the slightest sign he might not get his way.
This Shekhar is painfully immature. In one scene, a fan leers at Anju in a restaurant. Anju keeps her cool; one has a sense of urbanity and maturity in her nonchalant poise, and it makes Shekhar that much more of a bumpkin and a child for being so flustered and distraught at the very idea of other men appreciating his wife for her beauty and talent. Anju has no family of her own, and this has taught her how to be a grown-up. Shekhar, in contrast, between his doting, indulgent mother and his patronizing boss (Nasir Hussain), has no idea how to relate to the outside world as an adult.
And so as much as Shekhar enjoys Anju's dancing the first time he sees it, he expects her to give it up when they marry, just as his mother gave up a singing career to devote her life to the care and hand-feeding of the little god to whom she gave birth. At first Anju is on board with this plan, but when her former dancing-master (Asit Sen) comes to her with financial troubles, she agrees to return to the stage. The performance elates her, but the sensuality of it, and the fantasies it inspires in her fans, are horrifying to Shekhar. Shekhar gives Anju a choice: dancing, or him.
Abhinetri should be extraordinary for the gutsiness of Anju's response: She walks away from her marriage, in pursuit of her passion and her very public career. This is a bold move for Anju, and for a movie. But Abhinetri's spineless ending undoes its boldness, sacrificing any merit in the movie's bravery for raising the issue of women working (and especially performing) after marriage. Abhinetri reunites its broken couple but doesn't tell us whether Shekhar will aquiesce, whether the threat of losing Anju makes Shekhar grow up, acknowledge her autonomy, trust her to handle zealous fans on her own. Abhinetri sets the stage for profound debate but bows out without any substantive discussion. It is as cowardly as an internet troll who lobs a conversational grenade and then hides to watch the fireworks.
The result is a deeply frustrating movie, as the audience receives no payoff, no reward for putting up with two hours of Shekhar being a huge, annoying baby. It's a waste of the things that the movie has going for it. For one, Abhinetri is loaded with pretty. Hema and Shashi both look about as good as they ever do, Hema with her gorgeous big eyes and dazzling smiles, Shashi with his snaggle-toothed bashfulness and mile-long eyelashes.
Abhinetri also offers wonderful songs and Hema's marvelous dancing; Anju's professional shows provide all the excuses needed to show off the breadth of Hema's talent, from Bharatnatyam to mujra to a perfectly mod shimmy. And there is a hilarious Bela Bose number featuring a twelve-headed dancing horse - and Shekhar looking profoundly uncomfortable at the very notion of a cabaret performance - which I highlighted in this post on Shashi's 75th birthday.
"Milte hi rahenge hum" - three radically different styles in one song about ageless love.
Nazima provides a stellar exemplar of the saucy-friend archetype, always ready with a sarcastic or off-color remark, the perfect garrulous contrast to Hema's elegant, fresh sweetness. And the scenes in Shekhar's workplace - a chemistry lab - are just plain filmi-science fun.
But all of this potential is squandered in what amounts to a dreary, unsatisfying film about a whiny man-child who can't make room in his navel-centered worldview for a wife who has an autonomous and fulfilling life. At its best, Abhinetri is entertaining enough - it's hard to complain too much about a movie that offers up Hema Malini in a bubble bath - but be prepared to pay the price of annoyance and frustration.