Abandonment is a feminine condition in Hindi cinema

The lament of yearning as a musical centrepiece is shared across extended communities

Published - September 14, 2018 06:26 pm IST

 A still from Mausam (1975).

A still from Mausam (1975).

One of Hindi cinema’s overused paragons has been the tragic figure of the abandoned woman languishing in the deserted detritus of love interrupted. Her great piteous eyes and stricken countenance have certainly lent evocative expression to innumerable love ballads of separation, from village belle Nimmi in Barsaat (‘Jiya Beqarar Hai’) to eternal ghost Dimple Kapadia in Lekin (‘Kesariya Balma’) to divorced wife Shabana Azmi in Arth (‘Tum Itna Jo Muskura Rahe Ho’). In films like Rihaee , abandonment is rooted in the cultural context of the migration of men from villages in search of livelihood.

The folk genre of birha , prevalent in North India, which emerged from these social situations has made the lament of yearning a musical centrepiece shared across extended communities. The poetic allure of abandonment as an essentially feminine condition even in, say, Sufi qawwalis sung by men, has specially allowed this motif to thrive.

Then there is the archetype of the city-slick pardesi babu, to whose ilk countless women have lost their hearts, only to be left behind with empty promises for succour. Of course, some of these men were honourable and it was extenuating circumstances that kept them away — Vinod Khanna in Lahu Ke Do Rang is an INA operative who cannot return to his Chinese concubine (Helen) and the baby they sired because he is killed in combat. Decades later, his lookalike son, from a first wife, surfaces to bring her ‘home’. Others like Prem Nath in Barsaat , Nimmi’s beau, and Rohit Tony in Rangeen Raaten , betrothed to the blind Chand Usmani, could be classified as cads — even if they do repent by the last reel.

In Bandini , Nutan makes much more of her character’s situation than just having her pine away for a man. Her finely-etched Kalyani is a complex psychological portrait, and anchors the film with the compelling interior world of a woman who aspires for much beyond than what her wretched circumstances might dictate. While she continues to love the anarchist (Ashok Kumar) who has ostensibly left her for a rich virago, and even chooses him over the good doctor in the stirring will-she-won’t-she climax, her character is never defined by just this star-crossed situation.

Three times unlucky

A trilogy of films from Gulzar — Namkeen, Khushboo and Mausam — provided abandoned women sympathetic, if romanticised, personal journeys. A common thread was the parts played by Sharmila Tagore in all three films. In a career-defining turn in Mausam , she is a physician’s daughter driven to madness when her doctor paramour (Sanjeev Kumar) disappears. Years later, he atones by taking in her lookalike daughter, a sex-worker, who gradually falls in love with him. In Khushboo , another doctor (Jeetendra) marries an abandoned woman (Tagore) out of compassion, although that leaves the woman he was married to as a child (Hema Malini) in the lurch. In Namkeen , an entire household of women (with Tagore as its centre) come to depend on the security and support of a truck driver (Kumar) whose departure effects an unravelling that the family cannot quite recover from.

By the 1980s, the beleagured wives and ‘other women’ in the semi-autobiographical oeuvre of Mahesh Bhatt were afforded some agency to move on with their lives. Marital estrangement was explored by Bhatt in films like Arth , in which Azmi’s separation from a philandering husband leads to a remarkable self-actualisation; or Zakhm , where the other woman (Pooja Bhatt, playing a character modelled on her grandmother) carves out an independent existence with her son. Although the absent men continued to hold sway over their inner lives, there was hope that the painful shackles of ‘uncoupling’ would soon be shaken off.

The writer sought out cinema that came at least two generations before him, even as a child. That nostalgia tripping has persisted for a lifetime.

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