I suppose that people who make movies frequently find themselves inspired by the burdens of fame and its handmaiden, narcissism. I often find such movies tedious; the self-indulgent laments of egotists feeling sorry for themselves do not make the most compelling tales. Still, sometimes a film can explore such subjects with enough sensitivity and humanity to overcome the weakness inherent in the theme. Tehzeeb ("culture" or "refinement;" also the name of a main character) is one such film.
Rukhsana Jamal (Shabana Azmi) is a famous and revered singer. Her whirlwind schedule keeps her out late nights, performing concerts, signing autographs, and attending swanky parties, while her husband Anwar (Rishi Kapoor) looks after their two small daughters. Tensions grow between them, until one dark night finds Anwar dead and Rukhsana clutching the weapon that killed him. She is tried for murder, acquitted, and - thanks to the public's short memory for scandal - picks up her career right where she left off. Fast forward some twenty years or so. Rukhsana is as famous and popular as ever, promoting a new album, performing on television, an A-list celebrity estranged from her children. Her elder daughter Tehzeeb (Urmila Matondkar) is married to a sweet and loving writer named Salim (Arjun Rampal), and together they take tender care of Tehzeeb's mentally ill sister Nazo (Diya Mirza). When, out of the blue, Rukhsana clears her busy schedule and shows up for an extended visit, one way or another she and Tehzeeb will finally hash out all the issues that have kept them apart over the years.
I love Shabana Azmi - I adore her beyond all reason - but in some films where she is paired with younger actors, one has the sense of watching her teach a master class to performers whose skills don't quite measure up to her own (I'm looking at you, Morning Raga). Here, though, the cast holds its own, especially Urmila, who shines in the tense confrontations between Rukhsana and Tehzeeb. Indeed, both women excel in these scenes, flowing effortlessly and naturally between anger and sadness, sarcasm and tenderness, and they are the best scenes in the film. Even the pretty-boy model-turned-movie star Arjun Rampal turns in a real acting performance here, not just in his scenes opposite Shabana, but in his scenes with Urmila and Diya Mirza as well, touchingly conveying the tenderness with which Salim looks after his two wounded birds.
Tehzeeb works as an exploration of maternal narcissism and filial bitterness in part because it pays respect to the messiness of these things in real life; it does not try to tie all of its threads too neatly. The origin of Nazo's mental illness, for example, is never explained or even speculated about; it is simply there, and while the possibility hangs unspoken in the air that it was caused by the traumas of Nazo's early childhood, the audience is permitted to make its own judgments as to Rukhsana's culpability for it. Even when the film appears to be moving toward a pat and tidy resolution, it throws the viewer - and the film's principals - a sucker punch; Tehzeeb is very cruel to this family, refusing to allow them more than a few short moments of peace.
Tehzeeb is not without its warts. There is an irrelevant and directionless subplot about a vampish publisher who tries to seduce Salim. And the music straddles the line between forgettable and bad; the songs were composed by the brilliant A.R. Rahman, but he seems to have mailed in this score. Ordinarily I am very frustrated with films about musicians that don't have good music (Morning Raga, I'm looking at you again), but here this was not a fatal flaw, since Tehzeeb was more about Rukhsana as narcissist and mother than it was about Rukhsana as musician. Still, while they did not wreck the film, the songs did not add anything to it either, and the picturizations (apart from a tender song picturized as Rukhsana singing to her family) were jarringly avant garde, like scenes from a Laurie Anderson video compilation. (Here is an example.) So while I will certainly watch Tehzeeb again, I suspect I will skip most of the songs.
Finally, since I never seem content to post only a single screen capture from one of her films, here is a touch more Shabana Azmi, looking as gorgeous as ever.