(Approx: “With Fire as Witness”, 1997, 135 mins.)
Cast: Manisha Koirala, Nana Patekar, Jackie Shroff, Ravi Behl, and Divya Dutt
Music: Nadeem Sharavan
Director: Parto Ghosh
Agni Sakshi was, upon its release, described as a Hindi version of “Sleeping with the Enemy”. To read the critics is to come to the conclusion that nearly every Hindi picture is, in any case, a “copy” of some American film. To pursue this sentiment to its logical conclusion, the copy can never be as good as the original; some copies are, however, better than others.
A politics and aesthetics of the Hindi cinema cannot be derived from the pathetic “reflections” of reviewers and critics. Agni Sakshi is an immensely interesting, though by no means always aesthetically pleasing, Hindi film. Ravi (Ravi Behl) and his sweetheart (Divya Dutt) cannot be married, since Ravi’s elder brother, Suraj (Jackie Shroff) remains unmarried. No American “original” can be imagined as having this kind of cultural coding, which insists upon the marriage of older siblings before the younger ones are betrothed. Pressure is brought to bear upon Suraj to find a suitable bride. When Shubhangi (Manisha Koirala) rear ends Suraj’s car at a traffic light, the die is cast. Shubhangi gives Suraj the cold shoulder, but an admirable, if ludicrous, act of heroism on Suraj’s part gives Shubhangi a new life. Now pressured by her grateful uncle, to whose care Shubhangi has apparently been entrusted, Shubhangi consents to her marriage. In Indian life, and sometimes in the Hindi film, one falls in love after marriage.
Suraj being the owner of a mighty industrial empire known as Suraj Industries, the honeymoon must transpire in some relatively remote and exotic location. As the Indian diaspora increasingly enters into the consciousness of Indian life, the far-flung parts of the diaspora are also making their way into the modern Hindi film. Suraj and Shubhangi arrive in Mauritius. In their hotel lobby, Shubhangi bumps into a man; they look at each other intently, until Shubhangi backs away without a word. Over the course of the next few days, this man begins to be inescapably present around Shubhangi. At the hotel bar, he eventually introduces himself as Vishwanath (Nana Patekar), and addresses Shubhangi as Madhu. He claims to be married to her. Inviting Suraj to his hotel room, Vishwanath shows him a video cassette of a Hindu marriage that was conducted with Agni as sakshi (“witness”). That marriage was between Vishwanath and Shubhangi.
Suraj and Shubhangi, in an endeavor to evade Vishwanath, flee to a hotel in Goa. They are easily tracked down by Vishwanath. As Shubhangi’s birthday is celebrated in the hotel lobby, a flashback, the first of many where Vishwanath is seen reminiscing over his past life with Shubhangi, takes us back to another birthday of Shubhangi, this one “celebrated” in the presence of Vishwanath. [The flashback is the Hindi film’s revered mode for invoking time past.] Vishwanath was apparently an immensely possessive husband; perhaps most husbands are possessive, but Vishwanath is dangerously adamant that Shubhangi’s movements be severely restricted and monitored. A mild statement from Shubhangi inquiring if invitations were extended at her birthday to his other friends provokes Vishwanath into slapping her. “Am I not enough?”, he asks her. Another flashback: Vishwanath is attempting to teach Shubhangi how to shoot. She is clearly terrified. He places an apple on her head, and from a distance his shot pierces the apple; he then places an apple on his head, shoves the revolver into her hands, and asks her to take aim and shoot. Death does not frighten Vishwanath; pleasure and sadism are inextricably intertwined in his worldview. And when Shubhangi, surreptitiously using part of the day when Vishwanath is at work to practice dancing, is discovered engaging in an activity that, in Vishwanath’s eyes, bring discredit to him, and is likely to encourage the neighbors to think that his house is a den for dancing and singing girls, Vishwanath can only think of flagellating her with his belt. Later that night, as Shubhangi nurses her wounds, Vishwanath arrives at her bedside in an apparently repentant mood. He traces his errant and possessive behavior to his own childhood, when a dancing girl entered into his father’s life and ruined the family. As his story crawls to an end, Vishwanath forces himself upon Shubhangi. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually, Shubhangi has been drained by Vishwanath.
The glass breaking in Vishwanath’s hands bring the flashbacks to an end; the blood oozing out of his hands is ominous of the blood that must surely flow. The status quo must come to a shattering end. Shubhangi has all along professed ignorance, and denies to Suraj that she has ever known Vishwanath; and when Vishwanath attempts to force the issue, he falls over a cliff as Suraj and he exchange blows — though, unknown to Suraj and Shubhangi, Vishwanath holds on to a ledge. At this point, the action moves to Bombay. Over time, through various contrivances, the trajectory of the rest of Shubhangi’s previous life becomes clear; she witnesses, as she thinks, Vishwanath’s death in an accident. But Vishwanath must surely be the proverbial cat with nine lives. As she assumes a new name and attempts to leave behind her past, Vishwanath recovers and so begins his quest for her. Two years later, they run into each other in the lobby.
Suraj puts the police on Vishwanath’s back, on the grounds that he is falsely claiming to be Shubhangi’s husband and stalking the couple. But he “misreads” Vishwanath, who boldly asserts that the law is on his side: he has only to go to court to establish that he is Madhu’s lawfully-wedded husband, and that without a divorce Madhu’s second marriage to Suraj remains illegal. Suraj avers, “In the presence of thousands of people, with Agni as witness, I married Shubhangi.’ Vishwanath retorts, ‘Confiding my belief in that very Agni, long before you I married Madhu.’ Can the sacred fire be witness to two manifestly contradictory facts? Where does dharma reside? Vishwanath’s position is clear enough: a birthmark on Madhu’s body will testify to the truth of his claim, and both Suraj and she will stand discredited.
The “overheard conversation” is one of the Hindi film’s favorite modalities to move the narrative to a decisive conclusion. As Vishwanath methodically relates to Madhu over the telephone the consequences of her refusal to concede that Shubhangi and Madhu are one, she finally relents; but this conversation is overheard by Suraj on the other phone. Suraj hears Madhu tell Vishwanath that he has at last triumphed; but that his triumph will be a shallow one, since she will surrender merely her body to him, everything else having been relinquished to Suraj. “You’re dead to me”, Madhu informs Vishwanath, “but Suraj can’t live without me. I’ll come because I can’t tolerate that the world should say anything bad about him.” Suraj does not construe this as a betrayal on Shubhangi’s part; if anything, he is emboldened by her love for him. In the film’s final moments, with the gun in his hand, and Suraj and Shubhangi in front of him, Vishwanath appears to have the final hand. Yet, when Madhu told him that “you’re dead to me”, and that he could have only her body, little did she realize that Vishwanath had lost the will to live. To Suraj he says, “if I kill you, Shubhangi can’t live without you”; to Shubhangi he says, “If I kill you, Suraj can’t live without you.” He then adds, “I can’t live without Madhu, but she’s dead.” In an instant, Vishwanath places the revolver to his head, and pulls the trigger. Perhaps, being previously dead to Madhu, he now lives for her.
Both Vishwanath and Suraj are possessive about Shubhangi, but possessiveness, too, has its limits. How does one love without encroaching upon others, without violating the dignity of self? Suraj’s character is drawn as though his life were without a flaw, as though he had no stain upon his virtue, and that is precisely why, to the very end, he remains a dull figure. One might say that the cultural logic of the Hindi film clearly dictates that Suraj will triumph. Suraj (the sun) and Agni (the fire) are both sources of light; their complementariness is underscored. And, in a manner of speaking, Madhu went through an “Agnipariksha”, a trial by fire, when she had live through the torments heaped upon her by Vishwanath. With Agni as “sakshi” (witness), Shubhangi committed herself to him; she similarly commits herself to Suraj. Did Madhu die when she engineered her rebirth as Shubhangi? Where exactly does Madhu cease to be and Shubhangi springs forth? In what ways does Agni Sakshi continue the long-standing Indian engagement , in folklore and formal philosophy alike, with the question of identity?