Love, Lost: Revisiting Basu Bhattacharya’s Marriage Trilogy

The 70s and the 80s were a vibrant time for Hindi cinema, with Bollywood churning out action-and-adventure-packed blockbusters of glitz and glamour with tales of characters who were very distinctly in the black or the white, the growth of the parallel cinema movement in sync with the cinema of other Indian languages like Bengali or Malayalam which had realistic, politically and socially relevant tales to tell, and the likes of Hrishikesh Mukherjee or Basu Chatterjee enamouring their audience with fresh, relatable stories of the wins and woes of the Indian middle class. Amid this, Basu Bhattacharya carved out a niche for himself as he explored a new kind of storytelling, both in terms of content and technique, with a focus on the lives of the urban Indian. Watching his films, especially if one does so in the chronological order of their making, one notices how this was a filmmaker who was continuously trying to improve by way of exploring newer techniques and exposing himself to contemporary cinema across the world. The fact that he was trying to establish a style of his own is evident from his very first film – Teesri Kasam (1966). The storytelling, especially the presence of actors like Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman perhaps highlights his work as an assistant director to Bimal Roy over a couple of years, but the films that followed were unique in their own ways, often dissecting man-woman relationships – looking at them through a lens that wasn’t rose-tinted, unlike the norm of his time. Three of his most famous films, Anubhav (1971), Aavishkar (1974), and Griha Pravesh (1979) are popularly clubbed together as the ‘marriage trilogy’, as they explore the theme of marital discord. Each of the three tells stories of urban Indian couples navigating through the beautiful-turned-ugly side of marriage, and it is interesting to note that the names of the men in the three films remain the same – Amar. Their characters, too, are quite similar at some level if one doesn’t disregard their inherently patriarchal and sometimes deeply problematic thoughts as a result of their times. The names of the women are different, but similar – Meeta in Anubhav, and Mansi in the other two films. Even at the risk of reading too much into it, these three stories might be considered as one – each a continuation of the other, as if a part of an unending cycle. These films highlight the fragility of marriage, the complexities that arise between the husband and the wife, and yet, the beauty of finding their way out of the darkness, hand-in-hand.

Tanuja and Sanjeev Kumar as Meeta and Amar in Anubhav

In two films out of the three, it is an external influence that disrupts the lives of the married couple. But when such is the case, one also wonders if it is indeed a disruption, or a stimulator that opens up an already disturbed relationship, edging it towards a conversation between the two parties. As Sanjeev Kumar’s character says in Anubhav – ‘Beeta hua kal, aaj humare beech tab hi aata hai jab hum aaj ko poori tarha jee nahin paate’ (‘The past interferes with our present only when we are incapable of living the present to the fullest’). One might argue that it is also the other way round.

Amar (Sanjeev Kumar) and Meeta (Tanuja) in Anubhav are an upper-class couple who, at the very outset, are unhappy. In over half a decade of married life, they remain distant individuals who do not have much to do with each other, even though they live under the same roof. ‘Yeh ek aur ek toh ek hi hona chahiye tha, lekin do sahi. Tumne to ek aur ek to iss dhang se rakha hai, ke gyaara dikhai dene lage’ (‘You and me should’ve been one, but let that be two. You’ve kept one and one such that they’ve begun looking like an eleven’). Meeta decides to take things under her control to make her home feel less like a hotel, and we witness the emergence of a loving relationship as they spend days of happiness and laughter. Complications arise when Dinesh (Dinesh Thakur), Meeta’s former love interest arrives, and begins working under Amar. The opening credits give us a hint of Anubhav’s storyline – the names of Sanjeev and Tanuja approach each other from two ends of the screen, while Dinesh’s name rolls up and freezes in between the two. The film begins with the scene of a party which, as we understand, is hosted by Amar and Meeta. The camera merely brushes past the extravagant glamour of high-class society, and instead chooses to focus on a child. A young boy who appears to be lost in the party, wanders through the excesses of food, drink, and conversation – and even before the film has begun, we sense a feeling of urban loneliness beginning to wrap itself around us, although we do not yet know of the lonely lives of Amar and Meeta.

Sanjeev Kumar and Sarika as Amar and Sapna in Griha Pravesh

This feeling of loneliness in a relationship is a common theme that runs through all the three films of the trilogy. In Griha Pravesh, Amar (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mansi (Sharmila Tagore) are a couple who are very much in love. We understand they do not have a lot, for they are struggling to save up for a house of their own. ‘Har makaan ghar ho sakta hai, lekin hota nahin,’ (Every house can be a home, but isn’t) a friend (Gulzar in a cameo) explains to them, but they know with conviction that theirs is, because they love each other – which is expressed through little things like their everyday conversation over a cup of coffee, or even the monotonicity of running a household together. Yet, deep down, Mansi is lonely – the dream of a house that she harbours turns out to be hers alone. Amar, too, is lonely – and he discovers this when Sapna (Sarika), a young, attractive woman joins his workplace and both of them are drawn towards each other. Griha Pravesh almost becomes Amar’s helplessly surprised journey into discovering that he perhaps doesn’t love his wife, that his life and his love till then were perhaps meaningless.

While both Anubhav and Griha Pravesh establish the presence of an external influence to lay bare the problems in a relationship that had seemed perfect, this isn’t the case in Aavishkar. Amar (Rajesh Khanna) and Mansi (Sharmila Tagore) had fought against family to get married once upon a time, when they were a couple deeply in love. ‘Kyunki tum, tum ho,’ (Because you are you) Amar had once replied to Mansi when she had asked him why he loved her. The film never really tells us what happened, or if it indeed had been a single incident that led to them growing farther and farther away from each other. It tells a story of the night of their marriage anniversary – a date Amar seems to have forgotten – and shuttles back and forth between the past, when they shared the strongest bond, and the present, when they couldn’t hold a conversation without fighting with each other. While the ticking of a clock gets used as a metaphor in Amar and Meeta’s empty flat in Anubhav, and the cacophony of middle-class urban life is felt through recurring sounds like popular film songs from a radio in Griha Pravesh, the background score of Aavishkar is unusually silent. One feels the emptiness between Amar and Mansi where words should’ve been – their memories are intact, and even when both of them want to reach out to each other, to speak – they fail.

Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore as Amar and Mansi in Aavishkar

The women as portrayed in the trilogy are often dangerously close to becoming the conventional, submissive female characters who succumb to regressive societal ideas on what their roles should be in a marriage. All three of them are housewives, thus their world remains confined between the four walls of the home. Only a few scattered scenes stand out, where the women seem to have agency, strongly asserting their opinion and speaking out their thoughts and feelings.

Despite the trilogy portraying marriage in all its ugliness, which was extremely rare in Indian cinema at the time, each of the three films ends with a thin ray of hope. The husband and the wife reveal their darkest sides, and one understands that things shall perhaps never be the same as they had once been – but there remains scope, a possibility that they shall pick each other up, find the remnants of the love that had once been, and try to walk side by side, if not hand-in-hand, one more time.

Gulzar in a cameo in Griha Pravesh

Every story about relationships is an exploration of human psychology, thus dialogues play an important role. With the likes of Sagar Sarhadi or Gulzar, along with Bhattacharya himself contributing to the script, the dialogues are written with care and often border on philosophical discourse. Kanu Roy is the music composer for all three films, and beyond an exquisite soundtrack, the use of sound doesn’t go unnoticed. Bhattacharya had returned to stories of married couples in films like Panchavati (1986) and the controversial Rekha-Om Puri starrer Aastha (1997), but what keeps the trilogy separate is the subtlety with which he handles marital discord. In a country where the institution of marriage continues to be held in the highest regard, such films had opened up the space for conversation – probing the Indian movie-goer to reflect upon their own lives and the relationships they shared. Bhattacharya had himself had a troubled relationship with marriage, with his wife opening up about domestic violence much later. Despite the brilliance of the three films, once again, we fail to unite the art with the artist.

From the ind.igenous desk

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