Dir. Hrishikesh Mukherjee
As with Silsila, it's been said that Abhimaan hews uncomfortably close to real life for Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri. That is likely an instance of the usual difficulties that the general movie-watching public has separating actors from the characters they play. Either way, it is a credit to Abhimaan, and its actors, that it rings so real.
The movie starts slowly, establishing the fame and position of the singer Subir Kumar (Bachchan) and his relationship with Chander (Asrani), who is part valet, part manager, part friend to Subir. The film does not take off until Subir meets Uma (Bhaduri); when Jaya enters, the story begins. Subir is taken with Uma and with her singing, which is strictly amateur; their romance proceeds apace, and after marriage Subir urges Uma to take her lovely voice to the public. Before long, Uma's popularity outshines Subir, and the marriage falters.
Abhimaan is remarkable for its wonderful nonverbal expression, the details that convey the passion between Subir and Uma. The newlyweds lounge in bed, Uma's bindi smeared, smudges of her makeup staining Subir's kurta. Later, when Uma rouses Subir from sleep, his hair is suggestively mussed; Uma's is damp and freshly combed, irresistible to Subir's hands. These scenes are creative and just plain sexy vignettes that impart the tenderness of their desire.
Is it hot in here or is it just me?
As Uma's star rises and Subir's jealousy grows, he does some reprehensible things. This is compelling in the same way that Amitabh's character in Saudagar is compelling; it is a treat to see pre-stardom Amitabh, before he became the people's greatest hero, comporting himself in a decidedly unheroic manner. Unlike Saudagar, though, Subir is sympathetic and afflicted, not calculating and preadtory. The overall impression is of a good man, confused and undone by his envy. Subir is like a little boy; he has never been challenged. He is profoundly out of touch with his feelings, denying his envy when Uma confronts him but offering no alternative explanation for his rage. He jacks his booking price up to Rs.6000 as soon as Uma gets a Rs.5000 for her performance, even though this costs him work - yet even as he does this he seems not to understand why. Amitabh's character in Saudagar is Machiavellian; his cruel decisions are taken deliberately. Subir is much more sympathetic, and therefore redeemable.
There is certainly an implicit element of sexism in Subir's discomfort. But it is not the jealousy of possession that Shashi Kapoor's character feels over Hema Malini's in Abhinetri. There, Shashi can't bear the gaze of other men upon his wife, can't bear her being on public display. Subir's anguish is envy of success, a different animal from personal, possessive, sexual jealousy. Subir perhaps wants to be the top breadwinner in the family for reasons of manly pride, but far more dominant is his need to be the top singer in the country, the best and most in demand over all. It seems likely that Subir would suffer exactly the same sort of envy if Uma were his little brother rather than his wife. The issue in Abhimaan is, as that very title suggests, one of pride, rather than regressive values about what is and isn't proper for a woman to do. After all, Subir pushes Uma into a performing career after marriage, rather than forbidding one that she had enjoyed before marriage.
The result, of course, is similar to that in Abhinetri - Subir makes the marriage unbearable, and Uma leaves. But the film is far more satisfying, and its resolution feels more like a caesura for the characters after genuine growth and change, rather than the reset-button copout of Abhinetri's finish. Abhimaan does get a bit bumpy approaching its conclusion, sagging under the weight of psychobabble around Uma's post-miscarriage depression and the rather filmi prescription by a rather filmi psychiatrist that Uma can be cured of this if she can just be made either to laugh or to cry. But the film also provides an opportunity for Subir to pull up his big-kid chaddies, to take some responsibility for Uma's suffering, and display his tenderness in his efforts to break through her melancholy.
And it also provides a showcase for Jaya's superb range as an actor - if Abhimaan was imitating life in portraying Jaya's character as a greater talent and bigger star than Amitabh's, it's not without merit, because Jaya is a tremendous actor. Hrishikesh Mukherjee lets her look awful when she should look awful, and Jaya is unafraid of being unglamorous. Her sobs are real sobs, not overwrought filmi sobs. I love Jaya's gravitas in these early movies. She is an anchor that fixes films in the real; stories seem to condense around her. Few young actors have that kind of presence.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee's movies are always delightful for the way they balance their deft and delicate narrative style with generous applications of filmi entertainment. Abhimaan is no exception. It is seasoned with some beautiful and memorable S.D. Burman songs - when I tweeted that I was watching it, many a nostalgic response praised these. Its supporting cast includes a basketful of favorites: Durga Khote, A.K. Hangal, David Abraham. Also remarkable is a rare non-vamp and even very touching appearance by Bindu, as Chitra, a would-be lover of Subir who graciously steps aside when he falls for Uma, and returns to offer sincere friendship when Subir's troubles overtake him. Chitra is a kind of Chandramukhi to Devdas's Paro; the film makes this comparison explicit. Package all of this up with the intensity of Jaya and the long, tall handsomeness of youthful Amitabh, and the result is a film that, in its quiet way, is pretty much terrific.