In 1974, when the Rajesh Khanna phenomenon had begun to wane, director Basu Bhattacharya’s Aavishkar (Discovery) unearthed a new and older version of the man who once was king. While this Rajesh Khanna still had zits that defied makeup, a spreading girth and bad hair days, he also had the same persuasive smile and the soft voice of his superstar years. The cleft in his chin was still deep and his hands were still the hands of an artist. The difference was that now, for possibly the only time in his meteoric career, Khanna was given the scope to offer more than the signature mannerisms that his audience had once loved and then loved to hate.

Aavishkar also brought to the screen Khanna’s oft-cast screen partner Sharmila Tagore in an older unbelievably uncoquettish avatar, her dimples the only reminder of An Evening in Paris (1967). Nostalgia for the hit film pair of the late 1960s and early ‘70’s (Aradhana, Amar Prem, Daag) is stirred up in the opening credits of Aavishkar. A soulful montage includes the intertwining of their real names and a lilting melody sung by Manna Dey floats over the sequence. We then enter the lives of Amar and Mansi, an unambitious middle class couple once lost in love and now disillusioned in marriage.

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The song ‘Hasne Ki Chhah’ from ‘Aavishkar’.

It is not that Mansi resents picking up her husband’s clothes or that she feels martyred in staying at home to look after their child. It is not that Amar’s involvement with an intelligent female colleague becomes the last straw leading to final combustion. There is a less obvious, intangible gnawing at their innards – the loss of the khwab and the khwaish (dreams and desires) in the daily grind. Astonishingly for an Indian film, there is no appeal made to the audience to love or even like the characters.

The pace of the film is slow, its tone understated, its mood reflective, almost brooding. Sitting up in bed on probably their second anniversary night , Amar and Mansi stare vacantly, at times violently at each other. They remember the poetry of their courtship, the resistance of Mansi’s father to their marriage and the aggression of an earlier anniversary night spent in the same room that now closes in on them.

Ambient sounds are blended into their claustrophobic, insular world. Echoing the couple’s heartbeats, off screen singers (Jagjit and Chitra Singh) tenderly perfect a rendition of the classical song Babul Mora:

O my father! I’m leaving home.
The four (coffin) bearers lift my palanquin.
I’m leaving those who were my own.
Your courtyard is now like a mountain, and the threshold, a foreign country.
I leave your house, father, I am going to my beloved’s country. 

The set design, mostly of interiors, includes props that acquire significance in the course of the film. Simple mirrors reflect complex inner tensions, while the lamp at the door with its inscription Ghar Amar Mansi Ka (the home of Amar and Mansi) and a smiling photograph of the couple mock their current state of disenchantment.

Nando Bhattacharya’s camera lingers over lost yesterdays and ripples over reminiscences in soft focus multiple exposures. Gyandev Agnihotri’s dialogue captures both the gentleness of the not-so-young lovers in the past as well as the bitter arctic of the spouses today. Precious aphorisms find their way into patronising conversations (Amar has all the philosophy and all the answers) but at no time does the film cloak itself in a message for social change.

Artistic editing by S Chakravarty establishes juxtaposition and counterpoint. Mansi cannot concentrate on the book she takes up and tosses it across the bedroom floor. A number of quick shots of the title of the book – Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement – are intercut with detail shots of Mansi’s eyebrows creasing together in disturbed jerks. As she sardonically remarks later to Amar, their marriage is now merely an arrangement of appearances.

Tagore’s eyes, at first glazed with wonder and trust, widen with bewilderment and then anger as she grapples with frustrations fathoms deep. In a seminal scene in which she asks for Amar to explain what it is that he really wants of her, she is simply outstanding.

But Aavishkar is indisputably Rajesh Khanna’s film. Through a fog of cigarette smoke, Amar’s fixed gaze communicates the dullness of fatigue after the shattering of his inner world. When he speaks, his voice is low, and in two confrontational flashbacks with his hostile father-in-law, Khanna’s performance peaks.

The “first superstar of Indian cinema”, who starred in 15 solo consecutive hits between 1969-1971 (an unbreakable record till date), performed as per the demands of the day. He had the charisma to gear up gallants in guru shirts, bring hysteria and heartbreak to swooning girls, popularise the songs of his films and make millionaires of his producers.

There were the litanies of Do Raaste (1969), the last breaths of dying young in Safar (1970) and the exaggerated histrionics of Anand (1971). But Rajesh Khanna’s performance in Aavishkar illustrates his talent at stasis – something that is little appreciated in the super speed of white noise cinema.