“Isme tragedy hai, emotion hai, drama hai…” (This story has tragedy, emotion, drama). I am not reminding you of Sholay’s famous dialogue, but actually giving you the example of a film which does have this mix: Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan (1973). The central emotion is, of course, ‘abhimaan’. Some words are difficult to translate, as the exact nuance of its usage cannot be transferred to another tongue. Abhimaan is one of them. It means not just pride, but hurt pride. It is an emotion that has place only in an intimate relationship.
Abhimaan is the story of a singer-couple and their relationship with music. Music brings them together, music draws them apart, and it is music again that reunites them at the end.
Subir Kumar (Amitabh Bachchan) is a popular singer who falls in love with Uma (Jaya Bhaduri), a traditional woman trained in Indian classical music. Subir is drawn to Uma because of her sublime voice, but discovers that they sing for very different reasons – he, to entertain others, and she, only for personal pleasure. She also finds music in nature and awakens him to a deeper understanding of his own vocation.
They marry soon after they meet and Subir insists that she become a professional singer; he also decides to sing only with her. A stalwart, Brajeshwarlal (David), hearing both of them sing on their reception, instantly foresees the problem they will face as a couple, as Uma is a more gifted singer than Subir.
Indeed, Uma soon makes a place for herself in the music industry and overtakes Subir both in popular demand and critical acclaim; getting more assignments and awards, and eventually commands a bigger fee than him.
Uma has so much work that Subir’s friend and agent, Chander (Asrani), is unable to manage both their careers. Subir becomes increasingly jealous of Uma’s fame and stiffens towards her. He also starts to drink and visit his old flame Chitra (Bindu) and hikes his fee so much that no producer can afford him. Uma understands the reasons and decides to quit singing right away, but on Chander’s persuasion, agrees to complete the assignments she had already taken on.
Uma did not want to sing professionally in the first place, and then had wanted to sing only duets with Subir. His jealousy is thus unwarranted. It also demeans their personal relationship, and this hurts Uma the most. Her abhimaan is not the pride of a greater talent, but the hurt pride of a beloved. She leaves the house in silent protest when Subir’s behaviour becomes increasingly insulting.
They separate when Uma is pregnant; Subir does not know this and is informed by Chander. Now he is hurt, and they sever all communication. Uma stays with her father, but she has a miscarriage and is traumatised by the experience. Subir now goes to reconcile with her, but she has turned into a stone, unresponsive to anything or anyone. Brajeshwarlal convinces Subir that singing alone can bring her back. In a function designed to be Subir’s comeback vehicle, that is exactly what happens. He sings a song that he often sung to her before at home – a song of hope about how their love and union would one day bear fruit. The allusion to a child and all that went wrong in their marriage finally makes Uma break down in tears. On Brajeshwarlal’s request, she even sings with Subir in that distraught state, and they are thus reunited.
Abhimaan was partly inspired by the story of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and Annapurna Devi. They were both disciples of her father, the legendary Alauddin Khan, and had a somewhat similar trajectory as Subir and Uma in the film. They married young, Annapurna was the more gifted of the two performers and this caused marital discord. She gave up public performances at a very early stage in her career and focussed her energies on her son, especially after she separated from Shankar. While Shankar became an international celebrity, Annapurni Devi remained a recluse, teaching students at home and leading a simple life. She also taught their son Shubendra Shankar, but he met with a tragic end later in life. Mukherjee’s film thus dealt with only the initial part of their story. Mukherjee apparently went and sought Annapurna Devi’s permission before filming; and he also kept the story discreet by changing the professions of the protagonists, making them singers instead of musicians.
When the film was released, Bhaduri was a more established star than Bachchan, and some speculate that she cut down on her work after marriage because she wanted to avoid Uma’s fate. Whatever be the truth of that, it is a fact that Bachchan was struggling in the industry at a time when Bhaduri was ruling the roost from 1971 to 1973. In fact, Bachchan had reasons to be grateful to both his director and co-star at the time of filming Abhimaan. Hrishikesh Mukherjee had given Bachchan his first big break in Anand, and Bhaduri agreed to work with him in the film that changed his career – Zanjeer in 1973 – when other lead heroines had turned him down.
Though Bachchan’s on-screen chemistry with Rekha and Bhaduri’s with Sanjeev Kumar are more famous, they are a great couple in Abhimaan. Here are two actors in the prime of their powers. His seething impotent rage as the jealous husband is a prelude to the full-blown diabolic anger of his angry young man days. The superstar would soon take over this actor.
Bhaduri’s understated acting has always been her hallmark and nowhere more so than in Abhimaan. She is not given an awful lot of dialogue, nor does she charm the audience with physical beauty. She is wrapped up in a sari, her long hair left in open abandon, tied in a casual plait, or gathered up in a neat bun, making her face even more prominent. There is no way that you can miss that face, as the film is full of her close-ups. Bhaduri’s small, fragile face is invariably framed by the border of her sari in a half-ghunghat, and her big eyes emote all manner of emotions without ever being a notch higher or lower.
Bhaduri could never match the beauty and dancing skills (the two most important assets of a Hindi film heroine) of several of her contemporaries, but as a gold medallist from the Film and Television Institute of India, she was a pioneer in her own right.
As for Hrishikesh Mukherjee, he was already a brand name by 1973, with huge hits to his credit, including Bhaduri’s successful Hindi launch pad Guddi (1971). Drama and situational comedy based on mistaken identities were Mukherjee’s forte, but another favourite theme was also music. Abhimaan is one of the best films in this category, with unforgettable numbers composed by SD Burman.
The film’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it starts and ends with a song. In between, the story also progresses through songs – in the best tradition of Bollywood. The seven tracks take up one-fourth of the running time. Yet, nowhere does it seem intrusive or extraneous. That is because of the editing. Mukherjee was a cameraman and editor before he turned to direction. He edited several of Bimal Roy’s classics and was much sought after as an editor even after becoming an independent filmmaker. Watching Abhimaan recently, I could understand why. The 2 hours of the film were roughly distributed in the following manner – Subir, his fame and loneliness, the first 25 minutes; love/ marital bliss, the next 20-odd minutes; rising tension, 30 minutes; separation/ miscarriage/trauma, 15 minutes; Subir’s reconciling attempts and final resolution, last 15 minutes. Here was one fast-paced emotional drama, if ever there was one.
My only grouse with the film are on two minor points, and both have to do with its music. While Bhaduri lip-syncs Lata Mangeshkar’s numbers, Amitabh Bachhan lip-syncs songs by Kishore Kumar, Mohammad Rafi and Manhar Udhas. How can a singer have three voices?
SD Burman used the tune of a very popular Rabindrasangeet for one of the songs in the film (Teri Mere Milan) without so much as acknowledging the source. Here is the original.