The ugly truths of manual scavenging

A mirror unto her own life

stark contrast:Usha Bane laughs a lot in person, unlike the grim, timid widow she plays inCourt— Photo: Rajneesh Londhe  

Usha Bane is like an excitable teenager, giggling away, perhaps taken by surprise by the interview for her one and only, unlikely run in with the film world. As Sharmila Pawar, the widow of the manual scavenger Vasudev Pawar, whose death is the pivot for Chaitanya Tamhane’s film Court (2015), Bane turned out to be the show-stealer. This, despite the fact that she appears just twice in the film in back-to-back scenes, which are largely static, like much of the film.

Apart from Narayan Kamble, the accused poet, Sharmila is the other character caught in a legal battle in the aftermath of her husband’s death. The prosecution asks for another date for her to appear in the court because she seems too nervous in the one hearing we see in the film. The judge and the two lawyers speak to her as if explaining things to a child. However, in the car ride, she emerges as the adult who knows she has to fend for herself and her daughter; the court hearings will keep coming in the way and will have to be just taken in the stride.

Sharmila’s testimony brings to life Vasudev Pawar, the “gutter cleaner”, who is an abstraction for most of the film. He went drunk to clean the gutter so he could tolerate the stench, he would test the safety of a gutter by throwing rocks and watching for cockroaches to crawl out. He did hit his wife sometimes and had never hinted at committing suicide. When asked about his mental condition, a puzzled Sharmila responds with the vernacular, “ Mhanje (meaning: what)?” The widow and single mother estimates her age to be 30, since birthdays are not a concept in her world. The absurdity of the courtroom proceeding is ruptured by this telling of a timid, illiterate, lower-caste woman’s tale. The subaltern speaks through her and is the reason why she is the most interesting character in the film.

Surprisingly, 34-year-old Bane had never acted before and she isn’t even a big film watcher (she prefers movies that have to do with life —“ saansaarik ” — not the heavily produced, high-budget, action or romance films). Yet, she put out a performance underlined with a vacuous brilliance. Compliment her on it, and she sports a wide smile: “I was only being myself”.

Interestingly, the film cast the entire Bane family. Her own daughter, Mayuri, is the one who tags along with her into the filmi court. And most ironically, the photograph of Vasudev Pawar seen in the film is of Bane’s own deceased husband, Dilip. It hangs on the wall of her little kholi, where she has been living with her daughter. When I realise that, she laughs. In person, she laughs a lot, a stark contrast to the grim, timid widow she plays in the film.

Bane has had a similar experience in life as her Court character, but she doesn’t seem too caught up in that. Not anymore. She doesn’t bring it up at all, until I ask her squarely about her husband’s death. She says her husband, an ambulance driver, fell from a train and died, while she was left alone to care for her then 11-month-old daughter. This was in 2004. Five years later, she had to appear in the court. She recalls how lawyers scared her with their forbidding uniform, and how that fear, coupled with her grief and struggle to cope, was at its peak when she had to go to court, leaving her five-year-old daughter alone at home. She was instructed by her lawyer not to cry under any circumstance because if she got emotional, the case may go against her. The first time she read the lines for her character in Court , Bane felt like she had been transported back to that intimidating moment again.

In the aftermath of her husband’s death, Bane did several odd jobs to provide a good life for herself and her daughter. The acting gig came as a total surprise. She had taken her daughter for what she believed to be an audition for children, where she ended up auditioning too. She was accompanied by Sreeram Redkar, whom she regards as her brother. She played a halwai in the first audition and he, a dissatisfied customer. Three to four months after that she got a call that left her stunned, but also puzzled. She wasn’t sure if it was for real or if someone was playing a prank on her: “They said I did it well. In my head, I was like, ‘Really? Are they lying or telling me the truth? Did I really do it well?’”

A non-actor, she struggled with the dialogues initially, because she had to switch from Marathi to Hindi. Though she is not too good at remembering things, she memorised her lines, out of the sheer terror of forgetting them in front of the whole set. She would practise her lines with Redkar at home, once their children had finished their homework and gone off to play.

What of the crowds and the experience of shooting itself? “I was quite nervous but Tamhane sir would say, ‘No madam you can do it! Don’t be nervous. Bindaas karne ka ’. The atmosphere at the shoot was very friendly, everyone spoke and behaved nicely, I didn’t feel like those people were strangers.”

Bane talks about the premiere and says how good it felt to see herself on screen. The excitement of it blurred out the rest of the film for her. She especially liked being referred to as “Usha madam”. She felt like she had achieved something in life. “My daughter was very happy... she was introduced to everyone as Usha madam’s daughter. She was happy that people were calling her mother ‘madam’. I felt the same way, zindagi mein koi toh mujhe madam bol raha hai (at least some people are calling me madam),” she laughs. “When I was younger, I would play ‘madam madam’ with the children in my village. But now, after many years, I was being called madam again.”

For now, Bane is not actively pursuing acting. She had auditioned for a Marathi film and had been called back, but hasn’t heard further since June. She, along with Redkar, had also auditioned for a Bhojpuri and a Hindi film, but nothing came of the two either. She goes for auditions when she hears of them, but that’s the extent of her chasing the acting dreams. She has her daughter, and her day job — packing bangles for a small business in Dahisar — to take care of.

The author is a freelance writer

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2020 11:49:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/A-mirror-unto-her-own-life/article16439624.ece

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