In the 70s when the mainstream Bollywood was running on testosterone, Shyam Benegal was busy making a sense of estrogens. “Ankur”, “Nishant” and “Manthan”, all reflected on the state of woman in a patriarchal society but in “Bhumika” she was central to the theme. At a time when the Hindi film heroine is reclaiming her space in the mainstream cinema, let’s hark back to time when her role was put under scanner by Benegal without crying his feminist concerns from the roof tops.
In a society where relationships are measured from the point of view of man, when a woman decides to mould the norm, she ends up being lonely. Trying to figure out who she is and what she is, his protagonist Usha finds herself trapped in unequal relationships only to be told towards the end ‘beds change, men don’t’. It rings a bell more than three decades after “Bhumika” hit the theatres.
Based on the autobiography of the doyenne of Marathi theatre and cinema Hansa Wadkar, Benegal contrasts the filmy fantasies with the stark reality of life. Wadkar was a product of the times when words like feminism had not taken root in India and Benegal doesn’t let the didactics seep into the screenplay either.
Coming from the Devdasi tradition, Usha is exploited from a young age. First by a self-seeking Keshav Dalvi (Amol Palekar), who wants to thrive on her talent by managing her career. When she gets a sense of what he is up to, she finds the shoulder of the reigning star Rajan (Anant Nag) but Rajan doesn’t have the courage that he reflects on screen. In comes a philosopher director (Naseeruddin Shah), who charms Usha with his bombastic theories on love and life before chickening out of a suicide pact. Tired of arch lights and eager to lead a life of an everyday wife and mother, she finds hope in Vinayak Kale (Amrish Puri), a wealthy businessman. He could see the woman in Usha, the star but in his palatial bungalow she is bereft of even elementary freedom.
Every time Usha tries to break free, the patriarchal society tries to chain her either by forcing her to take vows in front of the goddess or by trying to make her feel sorry about her choices. Even if she is the bread earner, she can’t set the rules at home, in relationships. And towards the end when she sees her daughter; she anticipates the cycle is going to repeat.
When Benegal started making movies he had his office in Jyoti Studios, a prominent name behind silent films. In fact the first talkie “Alam Ara” was produced here. Inundated with posters and stocks of films of 30s and 40s, Benegal literally lived with the cinematic history of Hindi cinema and when he got inspired by the life of Hansa Wadkar, he knew where to place her.
So Usha works in mythological and dance dramas where she essays roles of a demi-goddess keen to go through agni-parkisha and taking on the elements of nature for the life of her husband. The film within creates a contrast and provides the much needed layers to the screenplay as Benegal quietly breaks the fourth wall with help of composer Vanraj Bhatia. The pulled ankle of the dancer, the male choreographer enacting the heroine’s part, the curtness of the director, makes the audience realise the mundane aspect of the celluloid fantasies. Interestingly, this is the only time you see Benegal creating something kitschy on screen! And he does it with all seriousness.
Running short of colour stock because of some foreign exchange issues, he decided to shoot Usha’s present in colour and past in black and white. Cinematographer Govind Nihalani was not convinced but had to ultimately give in to the director’s vision carved by necessity. Today people compare the childhood scenes of Usha with Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali” but the influence was more accidental than deliberate. Most of Benegal’s early works were set in Andhra region but here he had to portray the Marathi milieu. So he roped in Girish Karnad and then Satyadev Dubey joined in for dialogues. There were concerns over the non-linear narrative and the film within film device was used so many times that Karnad raised concerns that it might become confusing for the lay audience. But the final result was cogent without Benegal letting his fondness for silence slip.
Then his leading lady was not sure whether she has it in her to portray a complex character. Smita Patil took a long time to realise that she belonged to the cinematic space and it was through the making of “Bhumika”, her fourth film, that she realised her potential. Usha lives many lives within 142 minutes of the running time and Patil peels off numerous layers as the narrative goes back and forth. No wonder she grabbed the National Award for the author-backed role. Palekar was offered Nag’s role but he preferred the greasy Keshav to break his positive, happy image. The jealousy, the frustration, the helplessness, Palekar’s shifting eyes seamlessly reflect a myriad emotions making us feel for the grovelling soul. Nag brings out the shallowness of the star and Shah charms in an effective cameo. The film went on to win the best film award at Filmfare reminding us that there were times when popular awards didn’t eschew craft. Interestingly, Patil lost out to Shabana Azmi who won the trophy for “Swami” giving fuel to gossip mills to generate matter on their supposed rivalry.
Genre : Social drama
Director : Shyam Benegal
Cast : Smita Patil, Amol Palekar, Amrish Puri, Dina Pathak, Naseeruddin Shah, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Mohan Agashe
Screenplay : Shyam Benegal, Girish Karnad, Satyadev Dubey
Story : Hansa Wadkar (based on Marathi novel “Sangtye Aika”)
Dialogue : Satyadev Dubey
Music director : Vanraj Bhatia
Lyricist : Vasant Dev and Majrooh Sultanpuri
Box office status : Average
Trivia : Won National Award for Best Actress and Best Screenplay. The flashback scenes were shot in black and white and the rest in colour.