Dir. Mahesh Manjrekar
I give Astitva full marks for trying. It is courageous in its determination to say things about female desire that are rarely said, not just in the movies but in societal discourse at large. It offers a woman, Aditi (Tabu), neglected by her husband for months on end while he travels abroad for business. Lonely and hungry for contact, Aditi gives in to many months of pent-up desire and sleeps with her music teach Malhar Kamat (Mohnish Bahl). Many years later, Aditi's husband Shree (Sachin Khedkar) discovers this secret that Aditi has kept, and that their son Aniket (Sunil Barve) is Malhar Kamat's, not his. Shree is mortified - his pride assaulted, he perceives his manhood called into question - and he scorns Aditi and and their marriage.
In Astitva, Aditi is the aggrieved party, by far the more sympathetic character. Her tryst with Malhar Kamat is presented as an understandable response to deep neglect by a deeply self-absorbed man, a moment of weakness which she powerfully regrets, and for which she atones with decades of silent and absolute devotion to her family. Astitva does not judge Aditi for having sexual needs or for giving into them. To the contrary, the film's very point is that women, just like men, experience sexual desire, but unlike men, are expected to subjugate that desire to satisfying the needs of men, securing their egos, and keeping them happy at any cost.
The film unequivocally takes Aditi's side. It does so by making Shree a cartoonishly self-absorbed jerk. You can almost imagine how his mother must have doted on him; this is a man who was raised to believe the universe begins and ends with his needs and desires and comfort. There is no doubt that such men exist, but it is narratively lazy for Shree to be quite so repugnant. Astitva also stacks the deck in its portrayal of society at large, which is represented here by an old friend of Shree's, Ravi (Ravindra Mankani) and his progressive divorcee wife Meghna (Smita Jaykar). These two are relentlessly critical of Shree and supportive of Aditi, which is nice, but doesn't seem especially realistic. Wouldn't the society that creates men like Shree be likely to support the worldview it inculcates in him? There could have been someone in the film to take that point of view.
Still, in Astitva's strong moments, it goes places that movies rarely - if ever - dare to go. Aditi's final speech ticks off a list of talking points that become increasingly bold and shocking. She observes that women have desires, same as men. Shree has affairs with women while he is on the road, but expects complete fidelity from her, alone at home for long stretches. So, she asks him in nearly these words, what is she supposed to do when she gets horny? This is already a remarkable acknowledgement of female sexual desire, on par with the Shabana Azmi's speech at the climax of Fire. Aditi goes further, though. She upbraids Shree for satisfying his own needs without restraint and even without consent. "You have raped me many times," she says. The idea that sex within a marriage can be rape is not universally accepted (particularly in India) now, a decade and a half later. It is a very bold position for a movie to take.
It is also Astitva at its best. It takes until these final few minutes for Tabu to wake up from a lifeless, morose performance and finaly bring some energy to the role. It is good, an intense and quiet sort of energy, and it is worthy of Tabu, but it comes at the end of a dull, unsubtle, largely artless film. Despite its courageous and important ideas, Astitva's execution is terribly flawed. The movie beats you about the head with the cudgel of Shree's sexism and egotism. In one scene, Shree belittles Aditi in front of Ravi and Meghna, insists no woman in his family will ever work, and opens and reads a certified letter delivered for Aditi. In the next scene, Meghna, alone with Ravi, exclaims that Shree is "a male chauvinist pig!" Thank you, scriptwriters - I could not have figured that out on my own without Meghna to make it explicit. And who says "male chauvinist pig" anyhow?
It is a mystery why so many movies about social issues - and especially feminist ones - suffer from such ham-fisted execution. From Amu to Lajja, Bawandar to Water, and even, I admit, my cherished Fire, many message films have had righteous intent but been badly miscalibrated. Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal were able to construct delicate narratives, conveying their messages in films like Charulata and Ankur through stories, emotions, and symbolism. Astitiva, though, is stiflingly literal, and suffers from an aggravating excess of exposition. Aditi's relationship with Malhar Kamat is shown in flashback songs and images, but these are narrated by Aditi in voiceover. Instead of interpreting a narrative of loneliness and desire, we learn from Aditi's say-so that she felt lonely and desirous. Similarly, we know of Shree's affairs only because his friend mentions them; this, too, could have been shown instead of narrated. In place of engaging narrative and characters, in place of subtlety and theme, we get bare exposition and bombastic dialogue.
Nor is there much in the way of visual symbolism or artistry. The film is staged like a play, and not a very well-wrought one. One notable exception is a song in which Aditi rolls around in the grass looking very amorous indeed (need it be said that Tabu does this staggeringly well?), and eventually gazes lustily at a hunky Mohnish Bahl, twirling in a rain-soaked white kurta; here, for once, we are invited to share an experience with a character, and are shown rather than told what she feels. Too, the scene is a clever visual turn, upending the customary male-gaze centered rain scene.
Otherwise, though, visual presentation simply seems unimportant to Manjrekar. There is not even an attempt to age the characters, though the film's present and flashback time frames are separated by 25 years. So 50-year old Aditi is indistinguishable from 25-year-old Aditi, except perhaps for the addition of spectacles. While it's true that the aging of characters is rarely convincing, the absence of even a nod in its direction is distracting; Tabu plays the mother of an actor five years her senior (Barve) without so much as a dusting of grey in her hair.
And so, while the message of Astitva is important, refreshing, and brave, it is somewhat lost in the earnest unsubtlety and failure of cinematic craft. I want to love Astitva for even acknowledging that women experience lust, so rare is this basic statement of female humanity. But instead of being a compelling and provocative film, Astitva is an over-eager after school special, a Very Special Episode, but just not a very artful piece of cinema.