Arth ("Meaning") is a wonderful, understated, brilliant film about marital infidelity. Shabana Azmi gives a quiet and simmering performance punctuated by moments of rage. It is one of the iconic performances of her career, and netted her the second of her five National Film Awards.
When her husband Inder (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), a director of television commercials, presents her with the keys to a gracious Bombay flat, Pooja (Shabana Azmi) believes that her domestic dreams are finally beginning to take shape. As soon as they move in, though, Inder takes off, ostensibly to a shooting in Goa; actually for a steamy interlude at the home of his lover, a film actress named Kavita (Smita Patil). Kavita pressures Inder to leave Pooja for good, and he does; Pooja, learning that her flat was financed by Kavita, rejects it and sets out to find herself work and a place to live. Pooja is gently courted by a sweet ghazal singer named Raj (Raj Kiran), while her friends encourage her to be patient, believing that Inder will come to his senses and return to her. Meanwhile, as Pooja attempts to acclimate to life on her own, Kavita descends into mental illness, fueled by her growing guilt at breaking Pooja's marriage.
The strength of Arth is in the humanity of its characters. Pooja is unquestionably a victim, but she isn't a complete saint - in one powerful sequence, Pooja confronts Kavita in alocohol-fueled anger, battering her with insults. And Kavita is not merely the canonical "other woman," a cartoon homewrecker; she struggles with the consequences of her actions. After Pooja's drunken rant, Kavita tosses and turns as Pooja's accusations echo menacingly in her mind. As the story progresses the two women present an interesting study in contrast; the steadier Pooja becomes on her feet, the more fragile and tenuous is Kavita's mental state. A subplot about Pooja's servant, who is paid under the table to prevent her abusive, philandering husband from drinking away her wages, offers another variation on the theme of female self-reliance; she may be unable to change her own fate, yet she is determined to create elevated circumstances for her little daughter.
Finally, the defining moment of Arth occurs at its bold climax. I don't want to give away the powerful ending (although Shabana herself does so in nearly every interview!), but Pooja's final confrontation with Inder is brilliant and pitch-perfect, and quite set this film apart at its release in 1982. (And, as philip's fil-ums points out, the back of the DVD box describes the entire story right down to its final moments, so don't read it before watching.) Shabana and the film's director Mahesh Bhatt had to fight for the ending when the film's distributors wanted it softened, and I am very glad they did.
Shabana Azmi's performance as Pooja is one of her very finest. It is tender and subtle, shifting and evolving as she moves through something like the five stages of grief for her marriage. Shabana herself regards Arth as a personally pivotal role, marking a watershed in her transformation from "merely an actor to someone with a larger role to play," as I once heard her put it. Shabana's personal redefinition seems to reflect in Pooja's transformation; there is a palpable sense in Arth of Shabana as a method actor, not only playing a character but inhabiting the character fully, empathizing with and even experiencing every nuance of Pooja's story.
Arth's soundtrack is layered with beautiful ghazals by Jagjit Singh that are haunting, sweet, and gorgeous. "Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho," which Raj sings to Pooja on her birthday, is a very famous song, with tender, bittersweet lyrics by Shabana's father Kaifi Azmi; its refrain means "you who are smiling so, what sorrows are you hiding?" It quickly became one of my favorite songs ever, and the other ghazals are lovely as well.