“Isme tragedy hai, emotion hai, drama hai…” (This story has tragedy, emotion, drama) – No, I am not reminding you of Sholay’s famous dialogue, but actually giving you the example of a film which does have this masala-mix – Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan. The central emotion in this film – one that elicits all its drama – 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; and 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 very popular singer who meets and falls in love with Uma (Jaya Bhaduri) – a simple, traditional, village girl, trained in Indian classical music by her father, Sadanand (A.K. Hangal). 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 would face as a couple, as Uma is a more gifted singer than Subir. Indeed, she 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. She has so much work that his friend-cum-agent, Chander (played by Asrani), is unable to manage both their careers. Subir becomes increasingly jealous of Uma’s fame and recognition and stiffens towards her. He also starts to drink, to visit his old flame (Chitra, played by Bindu), and hikes his fee so much that no producer can afford him. Uma understands the reason for all this and decides to quit singing right away – but on Chander’s persuasion, agrees to complete the assignments she had already taken on. She did not want to sing professionally in the first place, and then had wanted to sing only duets with Subir – his jealousy is thus totally unwarranted. It also demeans their personal relationship and it is this that hurts Uma the most. Her ‘abhimaan’ is not the pride of a greater talent, but the hurt pride of a beloved, whose love and devotion is in question. That she finds unbearable, and 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 severe all communication. Uma stays with her father and is looked after by Subir’s aunt (Durga Khote) who is their neighbour in the village; but she has a miscarriage and is traumatized 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 his singing alone can bring her back. In a function that is 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. This 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 again through this song.

Abhimaan was partly inspired by the story of sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar and Annapurna Devi. They were both disciples of her father, the legendary Ustad 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 performance at a very early stage in her career and focussed her energies on her son, especially after she separated from Panditji. While the latter became an international celebrity, she remained a recluse, teaching students at home and leading a simple life. She also taught their son Shubendra Shankar, but the latter met with a tragic end later in life. Mukherjee’s film thus dealt with only the initial part of their story – that of marital discord between a gifted couple owing to the husband’s inability to accept his wife’s greater talent. 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.

It is interesting to note here that when the film was released, Jaya Bhaduri was a more established star than Amitabh 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 Amitabh was struggling in the industry at a time when Jaya was ruling the roost with successive releases and back to back hits from 1971-1973. In fact, he had reasons to be grateful to both his director and co-star at the time of filming Abhimaan. Hrishikesh Mukherjee had given him his first big break in Anand; and Jaya agreed to work with him in the film that changed his career – Zanjeer – 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 ‘jodi’ (couple) in Abhimaan, their pairing made memorable by their performances. Here are two actors in the prime of their powers. His seething impotent rage as the jealous husband in this film is a vague prelude to the full blown diabolic anger of his angry young man days. The superstar Bachchan would soon take over this actor who was now enjoying a foothold in the Hindi film industry. Jaya’s understated acting has always been her hallmark and nowhere more so than in this film. She is not given an awful amount of dialogue, nor does she charm the audience with physical beauty. She is wrapped up, as always, in a sari – her long hair left in open abandon, or tied in a casual plait, or just 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. In these, her small fragile face is invariably framed by the border of her sari in a half-ghunghat (not covering her head but placed gingerly over her bun); and her two big eyes emote all manner of emotions, without ever being a notch higher or lower. Indeed, she seems to emote only with her eyes; hence they stay with you even after the film is over. Jaya could never match either the beauty or dancing skills (the two most important assets of a Hindi film heroine) of several of her contemporaries, but a gold-medallist from FTII, she was a pioneer in her own right. As a film critic has rightly said: “Probably the only actress to make a virtue out of simplicity, Jaya was the first whiff of realistic acting in an era when showbiz was bursting with mannequins.” Perhaps it had something to do with her debut in Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963) when she was only 15.

As for the director, Hrishikesh Mukherjee: he was already a brand name by 1973, with huge hits to his credit – including Jaya Bhaduri’s phenomenally successful Hindi launch pad, Guddi. Drama and situational comedy (based on mistaken identities) were his forte; but another favourite theme with him was also music. Abhimaan is one of the best films in this category, with unforgettable numbers composed by S.D. Burman. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it both starts and ends with a song; and in between, the story also progresses through songs – in the best tradition of Bollywood. There are seven songs in all, and together they take up 30 minutes, or one-fourth of the film-time. Yet, nowhere does it seem intrusive or extraneous. That is because of the editing. Mukherjee, it may be noted, was a cameraman and film-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 on U-tube 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 mins; love/ marital bliss, the next 15+20 mins; rising tension/ abhimaan, 30 mins; separation/ miscarriage/ trauma, 15 mins; Subir’s reconciling attempts & final resolution, last 15 mins. So, here was one fast-paced emotional drama, if ever there was one!

Abhimaan is vintage Bollywood – long before wax statues and IFFA and “overseas audiences” and rapidly mushrooming film institutes made it an international category.

My only grouse with the film are on two minor points, & both have to do with its music:

1) While Jaya lip-sings Lata Mangeshkar’s numbers, Amitabh lip-sings numbers by 3 singers – Kishore Kumar, Mohammad Rafi & Manhar Udhas. How can a singer have 3 voices??

2) S.D. Burman used the tune of a very popular Rabindrasangeet for one of the songs in the film (‘Teri bindiya re’) without so much as acknowledging the source!