Arth means different movies to different people. To my adolescent heart, when I first watched it on Doordarshan, it spelt tender, candle-lit romance.
Rekhaon se maat kha rahe ho... Strumming a ghazal about his friend’s helplessness against the quirks of fate, Raj Kiran serenades a wronged but strong Shabana Azmi with Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho, that Jagjit Singh masterpiece. Even today, when a radio jockey wants to convey the fragility of man-woman relationships, Arth’s mellow ghazals find their way into the playlist.
Now, Priyanka Pathak, 27, a director from Delhi’s National School of Drama, is interpreting Mahesh Bhatt’s celebrated 1982 tale about love and adultery. Bhatt was supportive when Delhi-based stage actor and his protégé Imran Zahid approached him with a request to make a play based on Arth. “Its relevance is timeless because a man-woman relationship is an area of mystery and conflict that will always be explored by filmmakers, playwrights and writers,” says Bhatt.
What Women Want
For seasoned actress Shabana Azmi, who played a woman who rejects her straying husband when he returns to her, Arth marked the beginning of her involvement with women’s issues. “It continues to overwhelm me that women are so deeply impacted by the film 30 years later,” says Azmi. When Pathak, chosen by Bhatt to helm the play, watched the film, she was most struck by the scene where Shabana’s character decides against taking her husband back. “That is when she breaks through the web of socio- economic dependence woven around sexuality,” says Pathak. Even three decades after the film was made, the situation of women in urban India hasn’t radically improved, says Pathak. “Today, as the graph of crime against women rises, the time is right to produce something like this on stage,” she adds.
Breaking New Ground
Formidable stage actor-turned-Bollywood thespian Kulbhushan Kharbanda, who played the male lead in Arth, says he welcomes new experiments in storytelling. “I would love to see how they create the cinematic feeling on the stage. It might be difficult to accomplish its tight framing and intimate feel,” he says.
How did Kharbanda relate to the role of a movie director who cheats on his wife and then repents? “I was a bachelor at the time when I played the role. But as a professional actor, I took it as just another character that the director wanted me to essay.”
The rest of the cast (other than Zahid, who will reprise Kharbanda’s role), hasn’t been finalised yet, says filmmaker and theatreperson, Sandeep Kapoor, co-producer of the play, along with Bhatt. “The actors who play Shabana or Smita should have a deep understanding of the emotional layers of urban Indian women. Both characters were undergoing multi-layered oppression,” says Pathak.
The play, which will be staged in December, will be set in an Indian metropolis of 2013. “We won’t digress from the original much. The plot will be the same but the situations and storytelling may be different,” elaborates Zahid.
Zahid, who won critical acclaim playing Muntadhar al-Zaidi in Mahesh Bhatt’s play The Last Salute, about the journalist who threw a shoe at former American president George W Bush, was the right choice for the role that Kharbanda played in the original, says Bhatt. “Although I will okay most decisions, I am not a creative dictator. Arth will entirely be Imran’s interpretation,” says Bhatt. “He needs to unshackle himself from my work and find his own fingerprint. I will leave it to Priyanka and Imran to interpret it according to their fertile imagination. That is the role of a good gardener.”
The characters may hold life-size photo frames as props on the stage to recreate the emotions of nostalgia, loss and longing, says Pathak. If all else fails, the director can always fall back on that unforgettable soundtrack, says Kharbanda. No wonder Bhatt has sought the music company’s permission to use the original songs. “The passion with which Jagjit and Chitra composed the music and Kaifi saheb penned those stirring words, is impossible to replicate,” says Kharbanda.
First cut, priyanka pathak
After graduating in Science from Delhi University’s Maitreyi College, Delhi girl Priyanka Pathak studied Theatre Technique and Design at the National School of Drama (NSD). While at NSD, she designed and directed Oh Shit, a public performance on sewage in urban spaces. In May 2013, Pathak designed and executed scene work in an NSD adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love In The Time of Cholera. “I see Arth as a complex plot which beautifully portrays a woman’s insecurity of being dependent on others. I really like the way the movie ends and would like to see it going a little further in the theatre production.”
Inder, a brilliant but headstrong director, has an affair with an actress. After a messy divorce, Inder’s wife Pooja, an orphan who was financially and emotionally dependent on him, refuses to take him back. She bounces back with the support of a silent admirer, the poet-singer Raj. But she turns down Raj too, saying she has found new meaning in life.
“I was a bachelor at the time when I played a married man torn between his wife and his lover. But the challenge did not daunt me”
Kulbhushan Kharbanda played the film director who strays and wants to come back
“Arth was a watershed event in Mahesh and my life. It marked the beginning of my involvement with women’s issues”
Shabana Azmi, who played the lead role in the film
“Arth remains the most defining Hindi film about women’s emancipation”
Mahesh Bhatt, director and screenplay writer
From HT Brunch, October 13
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