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K.A. Abbas's Anhonee, subverting paradigms by Prof. Rashmi Doraiswamy

“Anhonee subverts many of the paradigms Abbas had set up in Awaara with regard to the ‘genes vs environment’ debate. Nargis is in a double role and it is of importance that Abbas explores this theme through a woman character, where the notion of ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ space has immense significance. Roop has grown up under her father’s loving gaze and is the sole heir to his immense wealth. Raj Kapoor is a struggling lawyer and a tenant in one of the houses she owns. They fall in love. One day he gets a new client Mohini, who is the spitting image of Roop. Mohini is not shy of proclaiming that she has arrived in town from the red-light area of Calcutta and smokes, speaks and behaves with abandon and states ‘Hum bhi to samaj sewa karte hain’ The girls and Raj realize that they are, in fact, sisters, and that Mohini is the daughter by a woman the father used to visit in the red-light area. Mohini asks Raj to fight her case to get her share of the father’s property that is due to her. The narrative thus far, would have sufficed as grist for the popular film. Abbas, however, pushes it further, raising questions that would not set the registers ringing at the box-office.

(Raj kapoor-Nargis scene from Anhonee, 1952)

When Roop offers to share half of the property with her sister, Mohini asks if she will also give up Raj, because she too is in love with him. Abbas then pushes the narrative to another extreme, breaking the boundaries of the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’. The ‘acceptance’ of ‘the other’ by Roop and the sharing of property falls within the discourse of ‘equality’ and ‘justice’ as a way of acknowledging that there are differing worlds and people who inhabit these out of necessity and space has to be made for them. What Abbas does is unique because he introduces a new twist to the story, that the two children had, in fact, been exchanged by the ‘other’ woman as vengeance for being rejected by the father. So it is the ‘legitimate’ child who has actually grown up in the profane space and the illegitimate child who has grown up in the sacred space of the home. Mohini’s demand, therefore, of Roop giving up something as intangible as ‘love’ punctures all the stable identities held so far. Roop’s injunction to her sister “Agar pitaji ke naam ka hakdaar banna chahti ho to uske kabil bhi banna hoga” (“If you want to be a claimant to our father’s name, then you will have to make yourself worthy of it”) gets injected with irony, because it is she who is the illegitimate child. The question that Mohini poses to Roop, thus cannot be easily answered: ‘Had I had your upbringing and you had mine, would he still have loved you and hated me?’ The girl who finally kills herself in front of the father’s portrait, knowing she cannot win in this love triangle, and understanding that she can never gain legitimacy, is actually the ‘legitimate’ daughter by upbringing and the ‘illegitimate’ one by birth. The woman who wins all in the end, is the ‘illegitimate’ one by upbringing and the ‘legitimate’ daughter by birth. Both genes and environment are intertwined and ‘corrupted’ and neither can claim ‘purity’ of any kind. All opposing binaries are thus scuttled by Abbas in this narrative. Raj Kapoor unwittingly says, ‘I cannot love day and night together’ and calls Roop ‘devi’ and Mohini ‘shaitan’, but at the end of the film, Abbas shows that day/night, devi/shaitan are all fluid and interchangeable categories. Subsequent double role films never went this far: Ram aur Shyam (Ram and Shyam/1967), or even those with women in double roles such as Sharmilee (The Shy Girl/1971), Seeta aur Geeta, (Seeta and Geeta/1972), Chaalbaaz (The Streetsmart One/1989) played with the inversion of spaces and characters (country vs city; street-smart vs docile and homebound), were oriented towards humour (and not tragedy as Anhonee was), and never made love the object of the split (each twin found his/her own love-interest, by giving up space to the other double). When there was only one love-interest as in Sharmilee, the narrative was built around the ‘good sister’ and the ‘bad sister’. Abbas, truly modern, kept away from the pitfalls of such easy binaries”.

It is K A Abbas’ birth anniversary today and it was Nargis’ birth anniversary on the first of this month. Abbas directed her in a very interesting film called Anhonee (1952). This is part of a paper Prof. Rashmi Doraiswamy had presented on Abbas in 2014.

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