That a nation has anointed a female leader or two is in no way a sign that the women of that nation are treated with equality or full respect by either the powerful or the public. The recent revelations by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of her treatment at the hands (literally, sometimes) of certain male colleagues makes that point all too clear in my own country. Gulzar's excellent Aandhi highlights some of the ways it has been true in India, even at a time when the national reins were held by Indira Gandhi, arguably the most powerful woman in that country's history.
The focus of Aandhi, Aarti Devi (Suchitra Sen), is in some ways based upon Indira Gandhi - close enough to have been banned during the Emergency, and to have some scenes reshot before its rerelease. But the film is not about that interesting, polarizing woman. Rather, it is about what Aarti must sacrifice, as a woman and as a human being, in exchange for the power and the privilege of public service.
As the film opens, Aarti Devi is the front-runner in a hotly contested election, and her chief opponent Chandersen (Om Shivpuri) is gaining ground. Chandersen is a self-proclaimed man of the people, whose rhetoric contrasts the wealthy, sheltered, foreign-educated Aarti Devi with his own poor background (though his campaign is backed by an industrialist). Aarti's crafty and not always above-board campaign manager, Lallu Lal (Om Prakash), commandeers a wing of a hotel as headquarters for an extended campaign stop. What Lallu does not know is that the manager of this hotel, JK (Sanjeev Kumar), is Aarti's estranged husband, whom she has not seen in years.
The unexpected reunion rattles both Aarti and JK. They begin to spend time together between Aarti's press engagements and speeches, sharing tea and nostalgic meals poignantly served by Brinda (AK Hangal), JK's servant, who has known Aarti since she was child; she addresses him as Kaka, completing the domestic picture that draws both JK and Aarti in. They clearly still share tremendous affection for one another, made awkward by years of separation. (At one point Aarti goes to call JK in for dinner and hesitates, unsure how familiarly to address him.) But as each of them reminisces about the growth and the souring of their relationship, we see in flashback why these obviously tender feelings were not enough to keep their marriage intact.
These flashbacks, and the response to rumors in the film's present sparked by the couple's late-night strolls, underscore that even the apparently powerful Aarti Devi is contained and owned by the rigid expectations of patriarchy. In Aarti's youth, her industrialist father K. Bose (Rehman) opposes her marriage to JK, because Bose has higher expectations for her than keeping house and breeding children. Yet this is not a sign of Bose's progressivism; he wants her in politics to ensure that he has a politician in his pocket when his business needs one. Aarti's five years at Oxford, which Bose does not wish to see wasted, are an investment in his company's future, not in his daughter's autonomous personhood.
And so Aarti's desire for domesticity, expressed in her marriage to JK, is a kind of rebellion against Bose's control. But when she grows restless in that rebellion and becomes involved in politics, she affronts JK's sense of ownership over her; he declares in so many words that she belongs to him, and must obey his command to quit public life, or cease - almost by definition - to be his wife. To be fair to JK, Aarti is so caught up in her work as to be thoughtless and insulting to him, cavalierly suggesting that he leave the hotel business for a more high-tone job that will make her look better in upper-crust society. But when their interests clash, it is Aarti whose identity is compromised. A woman can be a politician or a wife, but not both.
And in Aandhi's present, simply being seen walking with a man is enough to subject Aarti to public opprobrium and jeopardize her political career. Rallies form at which she is publicly shamed, her morals called into question. No matter that the man is her husband; this fact is unknown and perhaps of little interest to her detractors. There is nothing progressive about voting a woman into power, when in exchange she is held to a standard that would never apply to a male politician, and expected to be pure and superhuman, a goddess. There is a reason they call her Devi.
This push-me, pull-you between the desire for power and the call to service on the one hand, and the simple human need for love, companionship, and family on the other, is an exhausting strain on Aarti, conveyed in a thoroughly masterful performance by Suchitra Sen (notwithstanding a Bengali accent that even my nonnative ear could detect). Her expressive face registers deep intelligence and determined weariness; though Aarti looks tired of the relentless political maneuvering she must perform, there is also an archness to her demeanor, always on the edge of breaking into a wry smile. And the expression of control, the firmness she shows when speaking resolute words in a press conference, seems a willful facade that melts in the gentle warmth of the reunion with JK. Suchitra Sen's performance is a pure conduit for Aandhi's narrative force; even if no words were spoken, you could read from her face the seductiveness of the notion of abandoning the constant labor of public life, and returning to comforting domestic simplicity.
Aandhi's narrative, though, is not so oversimplified; its thoughtful conclusion acknowledges the reality that domesticity would never suit Aarti Devi, while leaving a sense that her estrangement from JK is over, that some kind of tender relationship can survive, even if not a traditional marriage.
As satisfying as this relationship arc is, Aandhi is also a very good story of political gamesmanship. Lallu Lal and his counterparts in Chandersen's campaign maneuver their pieces around the board, manipulating the press, each other, their financial backers, and even sometimes the candidates themselves; Lallu Lal is often cagey with Aarti, keeping her in the dark even as he pulls various tactical strings. Daubed on this cynical backdrop are bits and pieces that might read as satire if they rang just a little less true. In one scene, Aarti Devi inspects an array of campaign posters, and complains that too many of them are printed in English. "There should be more in Hindi," she scolds, in English - crisply expressing one of Aandhi's themes, that leaders proclaiming to be for the people are not necessarily of the people.
Another superb bit of political wryness comes in one of the film's fantastic songs, a qawwali sung at a political rally, in which the assembled rabble offers sarcastic greetings to the politicians who are putting in their appearances: "Salaam kijiye, ali janaab aaye hain/yeh paanch saalo ka dene hisaab aaye hain." This rally does not end well for Aarti Devi.
And so Aandhi is two excellent films in one, loaded with trenchant observations about the nature of politics, sympathetic exposure of the price that women in particular must pay to achieve any kind of worldly power, and a very tender examination of how a couple's relationship grows and changes over the years. It is a tremendously rewarding piece of cinema.