When Jaya Bachchan played a more talented but subservient wife against Amitabh Bachchan in Abhimaan

When Jaya Bachchan played a more talented but subservient wife against Amitabh Bachchan in Abhimaan

When Deepika Padukone married Ranveer Singh, it somehow became a subject of discussion that Deepika was a much bigger star than her husband, which she clearly was. In the years since, every time either of the two step out to promote one of their films, they are often asked about their real-life partnership and how they manage it all – considering how Deepika is still the bigger star. We are living in 2022 but the age-old notion that a woman is supposed to play a subservient role to her husband is somehow still a part of our system. Of course, we like to call ourselves a progressive bunch and pat ourselves on the back saying that equality should be the norm but don’t we all know that this isn’t how society functions? So when Hrishikesh Mukherjee made Abhimaan 49 years ago, where he spoke about the complex gender dynamics of a married couple, it was seen as a progressive film that dared to speak about the insecurities that a man might face when his wife has the ability to accomplish more than him.

For the unversed, Abhimaan is the story of Subeer (Amitabh), a successful singer who is at the top of his game. He gets married to Uma (Jaya) who is a learned singer but doesn’t like to show off her skills. When Uma meets him for the first time, she confesses that she only likes some of his songs. Subeer, in his defense, says he has to please the crowd which shocks Uma as she asks ‘Aap dusro ke liye gaate hain?’ In this short exchange, Mukherjee establishes the core difference in their value system.

When Subeer and Uma get married, she starts singing with him and eventually becomes a far more popular personality. It isn’t said out loud, but it is evident that Subeer is having a hard time adjusting to his wife’s fame. He starts drinking even more, misses recording sessions, raises his fee to be just a little more than Uma so he can maintain his false stature. Asrani’s Chandu calls out Subeer’s antics which causes him to lash out even more as he can’t accept his petty behaviour. In one of the initial scenes, at their wedding reception, David’s Raisaab makes a precise observation about the couple after he hears them sing. He fears that Uma’s talent might cause trouble for them, but when someone says that she will get chained to domesticity soon, he says “That’ll be even worse.”

Jaya Bachchan in a still from Abhimaan. (Photo: Express Archives)

It was said that Hrishikesh Mukherjee derived inspiration for Abhimaan from the relationship of Pandit Ravi Shankar and his first wife Annapurna Devi, but the director never said it directly. In a 1998 interview with Filmfare, Mukherjee said, “Since time immemorial, we’ve been told that the male is superior to the female. I don’t agree with that at all. The film (Abhimaan) was based on the life of a well-known couple from the film industry, I saw their marriage coming apart because the woman was superior to the man. The man earned tremendous fame. But the woman was far more talented. Ultimately, they divorced.”

Abhimaan released a few weeks after its lead actors Jaya Bhaduri and Amitabh Bachchan got married. This was the era when Amitabh was starting to find his niche in Hindi cinema as Zanjeer had just released but he wasn’t the force of nature that he became later in the decade. Jaya, however, was far more popular. She was an accomplished artist who did not rely on dance numbers or glamorous outfits to attract the audience. Her performances were nuanced and she was known for them. In a 2013 post on Facebook, on the occasion of the film’s 40th anniversary, Amitabh Bachchan wrote that the last shot of the film where his and Jaya’s characters are coming out of a theatre as the audience applauds them was actually done the day after they returned from their honeymoon in London.

Amitabh and Jaya were newlyweds when Abhimaan released. (Photo: Express Archives)

Jaya was an established artist in the 1970s who worked in fewer films after she got married. Her 1981 film Silsila was the last film she appeared in until she returned to the screens with 1998’s Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa. Many have speculated that the fictional relationship of Abhimaan’s characters was an ominous foreshadowing for its lead actors. But, one cannot ignore the fact that not just Jaya, but many female actors from the time either retired, or took breaks after having children, something that has significantly changed only in the last few years.

Abhimaan is a two-hour fast-paced relationship drama that utilises every single second of its storytelling. Even the songs by SD Burman are a part of the film’s narrative. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who had a keen understanding of the subtext in relationships, ended the film by clearly establishing that Subeer and Uma were ready to give another shot to their relationship while also acknowledging that if they want to be happy and cordial, Uma must never forget that she came second to Subeer. There were no sorry attempts at transforming Subeer because perhaps, the director understood that generations of conditioning won’t leave anyone’s subconscious after a monologue. But he did just enough to make his audience think about their prescribed traditional gender roles, and he did that well.

Indianshri

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