In 1973, a unique film called Abhimaan was released. Directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee the movie dealt with a very peculiar topic: the male ego. The film was a hit, it went on to win many awards and accolades. People were drawn in by the real husband-and-wife dynamics; once the honeymoon is over and real life starts, how does a couple navigate the everyday trappings of life?
The movie begins by establishing Sudhir Kumar (played by Amitabh Bachchan), a famous singer. We dive into his life of fame and glamour and are soon made to realise that even though Sudhir Kumar has everything a man may want, he lacks peace and happiness. His best friend Chandru (played by Asrani), who also happens to be his manager, is afraid Sudhir is falling into the clutches of Chitra (played by Bindu), a high-society girl who is independent. He suggests Sudhir find a nice, simple girl who can serve him and take care of him, just like his mom and aunt did while he was growing up.
Uma (Played by Jaya Bachchan) is the epitome of the girl Chandru describes. She is simple and devoted to her father and music. They encounter each other when Sudhir is visiting his aunt in the village, who praises Uma and her father tremendously. Drawn in by Uma's singing, Sudhir finds her captivating. Her simplicity and knowledge are very appealing, a seemingly far cry from the women he has met in the city.
In the span of a week, Uma and Sudhir get married and move to Mumbai. The initial days are blissful; Sudhir couldn't be happier, Uma is the perfect wife — she's traditional, cultured and submissive. A duet performance of the two at their wedding reception prompts Sudhir to convince Uma to sing professionally. A reluctant Uma agrees on the condition that she will only sing with him and no one else. But as the days go by, Uma's popularity increases and soon she is deemed the better singer.
Sudhir, initially, is very supportive but as Uma's accolades keep rising, so does his insecurity. It reaches a point where Sudhir, upon hearing how much people are willing to pay to hear Uma sing, decides to increase his charges on a whim. It's a decision that backfires. He starts drinking and smoking heavily and spends inordinate amounts of time at Chitra's house. Realising that her marriage is falling apart due to her singing, Uma decides to give it up. This decision is met with derision by her husband; it seems that the damage was already done. Even if Uma stopped singing, Sudhir would always know that she was better than him.
What follows is a series of events that ultimately leads to Uma's mental breakdown. Unable to bear the guilt of destroying her marriage and her husband's silence toward her pregnancy, she eventually suffers from a miscarriage. It is only then that Sudhir realises how far he has taken things. Finally wanting to make amends, Sudhir tries all avenues to get Uma out of her depression. Abhimaan manages to end on a happy note. We are never told if Uma continues to pursue singing as a profession. But in the end, Sudhir redeems himself by correcting his wrongs.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee should be commended as a man who was brave enough to tackle such a delicate topic. It is said that he found the inspiration for Abhimaan in Pandit Ravi Shankar and his first wife Annapurna Devi's marital strife, a story which did not have a happy ending. Wherever the inspiration came from, the 1970s wasn't known for being woman-friendly. So it's surprising that a mainstream director chose such an offbeat topic.
When Sudhir announces that he wishes to sing professionally only with his wife henceforth, Brijeshwar Rai (played by David Abraham) is very troubled by Sudhir's decision. When his assistant enquires why he is worried, he says, 'Uma is more talented than Sudhir. And history has taught us that men are better than women. So how can a husband tolerate it if his wife is more successful than him?' This one line encompasses the movie in its entirety. It is a reflection of the toxic masculinity at play: a man had to be better than his wife — his masculinity depended on it.
For Amitabh Bachchan to play such a flawed character at a time when a 'hero' was supposed to be above reproach is applaudable. However, Abhimaan doesn't paint people as black and white, there is no villain in this story. Just flawed characters, entrapped in society's expectations.
Even Chitra, who at the start of the movie is painted as a slightly negative character, is shown to be a lonely person who is only looking for companionship. Her love for Sudhir is one-sided and she accepts this. When Uma visits her house to bring her husband home, a slightly hesitant Chitra asks her if she blames her for misleading her husband. To which Uma replies she doesn't. There is no malice or anger in this scene, just two women heartbreakingly tied to one man. A man who cannot see beyond himself.
The movie does seem dated in some of its themes: throughout the movie, Uma is never allowed to decide what she really wants, she just goes along with whatever is chosen for her, by her father or her husband. The unappealing light in which modern women and their "insidious" ways are painted are just a few examples. But the movie breaks many more stereotypes than it propagates. It expounds on the idea that a man and woman can be just friends, a modern woman doesn't necessarily have to be a vamp and it is okay if a wife is more successful than her husband.
In the end, Abhimaan is a movie about a husband's redemption. I do not know if redemption comes as easily as it does in the movie or if it's as simple to fix a "broken" person. But Abhimaan can be viewed as a cautionary tale to not let one's own importance get the better of them.