Usha (Smita Patil), born and brought up in a poor Brahmin family that had seen better days, is trained in classical music by her grandmother. After her father’s death, poverty drives her into the world of Hindi cinema where she rises to be a famous singer-actress, courted by men and revered by her fans. All along she is assisted in her career by her possessive husband Keshav Dalvi (Amol Palekar), her neighbor from her village and a failed businessman who depends on her income for survival. Her marriage is a failure from the word go and she leads a tempestuous personal life and enters into a series of relationships that take their toll on her…
Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika remains an iconic film in the art house/off-beat film tradition of Indian cinema and is still as relevant today as it was when it was first released in 1977 and the period that it depicts, ranging from the 30s to the late 50s. The film is inspired from and is a fictional recreation of the autobiography of the famous Hindi and Marathi screen actress of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Hansa Wadkar. This remarkably candid autobiography, where Wadkar openly wrote about her tempestuous life, was serialised in the popular Marathi journal, Manoos (1966) and later published as Sangtye Aika (1970), causing a major sensation in its time.
Bhumika is a very complex film in terms of its structure and the plethora of themes and issues that it tackles, but this in no way distracts the viewers from enjoying the film as it unfolds to us the story of Usha, aka Urvashi in a seamless blend of past and present. In a wonderful exposition the director introduces the central crises of the film’s heroine that sets the tone of the film and acts as a springboard for the rest of the story. She is dropped home by her co-star, Rajan (Anant Nag), after a shoot. Her husband Keshav (played brilliantly by Amol Palekar) is jealous of her proximity with Rajan and confronts her when she enters the house but she argues back. We come to know that her husband is a failed businessman and a gambler who depends on her earnings to run the family that consists of their teenaged daughter and Usha’s mother who are also introduced in the scene. He rakes up her past with a particular filmmaker; she decides to walk out of the house with her daughter but Keshav taunts her that she will bring up her daughter like herself, who will spend her time in other men’s houses. She cannot take it anymore, packs her bag and walks out of her house alone while her daughter and mother remain silent spectators to the entire unsavory altercation, which must be a regular feature.
As she gets into a taxi, the film switches to a long flashback in black and white that traces her childhood years till her entry into films through the efforts of a young Keshav who always took a keen interest in her since she was a kid; her gradual rise to stardom; introduction of her co-star Rajan who is hopelessly in love with her which she never reciprocates in the entire film though she continues to be warm towards him. When the film switches back to the present we discover that she has come to Rajan’s flat in Mumbai to seek his solace. Under Rajan’s insistence she checks into a hotel so as to avoid giving fodder to her husband’s doubts because Rajan is an honest man.
Amongst the men in her life, Rajan is the only honorable lover who never takes advantage of her but wants to marry her desperately. She refuses his proposals repeatedly because, as she tells him in one scene – “You have always given me, not taken anything from me. I don’t want to lose you by marrying you.” He witnesses her marriage to Keshav, suffers silently, sees her marriage disintegrating, observes the savvy director Sunil (played by Naseeruddin Shah) courting her and sweeping her off her feet and learns of her flight with the feudal businessman Vinayak Kale (Amrish Puri) and her subsequent confinement at his estate. But Rajan continues to love her and remains faithful to her till the end; he never marries anybody else.
Usha/Urvashi comes across as a very complex character. She doesn’t want to act in films but wants to marry Keshav and settle down into domesticity; she is already pregnant with his child, much to the chagrin of her mother who doesn’t quite like Keshav because of the difference in their ages and caste. But Usha is obstinate; she loves Keshav. Keshav forces her into continue doing films for the sake of money. Despite things going wrong with her husband and their frequent quarrels, she turns down Rajan’s marriage proposals repeatedly but doesn’t hesitate to enter into an extra-marital relationship with Sunil, who courts her with glib talk. She is made to go through an abortion by Keshav because he thinks that the child belongs to somebody else. As a rebound, she allows herself to be made love to by Sunil and enters into a suicide pact with him right after they have made love in a seedy hotel room. Both of them swallow sleeping pills, but of course, Sunil is too fake to kill himself so he substitutes the sleeping pills with some innocuous pills; she wakes up on an empty bed to discover that Sunil has left behind a letter and has disappeared from her life.
Urvashi, the star, is aware of her power and aura but the only man who is not impressed by her stardom and tantrums is the businessman Vinayak Kale who takes her up as his mistress in his huge estate and bestows on her all the rights as the woman of the house over his invalid wife. She slips into the role effortlessly, without any inhibition and in fact, bonds with the invalid wife, Kale’s mother and his son who all accept her as their family member. Nobody bats an eyelid as if it were the most natural thing. Nobody is impressed by her filmi background. The yardsticks here are different. We are offered a rare insight into feudal India and its codes through Vinayak’s family. But this is already late 50s India under Nehru, but time seems to have come to a standstill at this estate.
Usha likes it here; she tells Vinayak’s wife that she does not want to go back to ‘that life’ again. Maybe, this is the kind of lifestyle that she always pined for and the security that it offers, without questioning the feudal codes that mark a woman out as a sexual entity whose only role is to tend the kitchen and warm her man’s bed. But Usha also has a fierce rebellious streak in her that we have seen. When Vinayak slaps her and declares that the women of the family have never set foot outside the estate because it is not allowed and so she cannot take the car to go to the mela with his son and thunders “Bombay Jaisi Azaadi Yahan Nahin Milegi Tumhe,” she suddenly realizes that this is not what she bargained for. With the help of a fisherwoman, whom she befriends, she sends a letter to her husband secretly, who rescues her with the help of police.
When she comes back to Bombay, she is still in demand. She is put up in a hotel by her husband because he has realized by now that they can never live together. Plus, his business has ultimately taken off. At the hotel room she meets her daughter who is pregnant now. Usha the mother is shocked: “How could you do this? Don’t you know that a woman’s character is her most prized possession?” The daughter replies, “Oh mother, you still talk the filmi language,” and tells her that she is married.
Usha is a bundle of contradictions. She hates her husband and repeatedly turns down his appeals to return home; but when she is held captive at a feudal estate it is her husband that she writes to. And when she comes back to Bombay, accompanied by her husband she readily agrees to check into a hotel without going back home. When Rajan calls her up at the end of the film, she refuses to talk to him; the only man she respected and loved. This is what makes her character so rounded and curious.
Smita Patil’s essaying of the role is amongst the best performances in not just Indian cinema but world cinema and rightly fetched her the National Award in that year. Within the film, her depiction of different roles in the films that she performs in, not only traces the evolution of acting styles in Hindi cinema over three decades, but also demonstrates her remarkable histrionic ability. She remains amongst the finest actresses of our country despite her untimely death in 1986 when just 31. The complexity of her character in the film and the different roles that she plays, both in her personal life and in the film shoots complement each other in a wonderful play of contrasts and similarities. Just after she walks out on her husband and checks into a hotel we are treated to a montage of roles in black and white: she plays the faithful wife of Satyavan in a mythological who pleads with Yamraj not to take away her husband; then she plays Champabai, a righteous wife who refuses to be sold off to a rich client by her drunkard husband in a social; then a city woman in an urban melodrama where she fights to defend her honour inside a courtroom. Each role brings out the contrast with her real life and serves as a rich subtext to the main plot.
The screenplay reflects an ingenuity in the way it switches between the past and the present (through its use of black and white and colour to differentiate the two time frames) and the amount of issues and information that it packs in without falling into the trap of being verbose or superfluous. It is always a challenging proposition to tackle a bio-pic because it requires to show a character through different stages of his life by selecting the most important elements of his life without being redundant and arranging them in the most effective manner so as not to appear jerky. This film not only traces Usha’s journey through three decades but also represents the evolution of the Hindi film industry in terms of technology, acting and singing styles, transition from black and white to colour and emergence of new heroes (Benjamin Gilani in a cameo role). In one particular party sequence, shot in a very elaborate manner, producer Hiralal (played by Kulbhushan Kharbanda) comments on the impending decline of the studio era and the emergence of the star system where they will receive fat fees and films will be made at the speed of cars! This statement does not come out as a piece of information just for the heck of it because surely in a film party, the state of the current film industry would be discussed along with the usual gossips. The party also throws up a lot of other interesting studies; the tension between Keshav and Rajan for example. Keshav hates his wife’s proximity to Rajan but does not hesitate to call him near and engage in polite conversation with him, with Usha being the silent participant. The subtext is clear: Lay your hands off my wife. But Rajan throws up a challenge to him by politely asking permission to dance with his wife, which Keshav has to acquiesce for the sake of propriety. As the music plays on, Rajan close dances with Usha while a jealous Keshav looks on. Of course, Usha cares a fig. This is great cinema happening.
The radio plays an important role in the complex sound designing in that it indicates the passage of time through which the film moves back and forth in a non-linear structure. The first time we hear the radio, Usha is already grown up and pregnant, but not married to Keshav yet; the radio announces the march of the Red Army in China and the launch of Axis attack on North Africa and we immediately get the period: 1943. When she is staying at the hotel after walking out on her husband, the radio announces the then Prime Minister Nehru’s participation in the Bandung Conference in Indonesia where the Kashimir issue is discussed; we have moved on to 1955. By the time Stalin’s death is announced we have moved back to 1953 and she is about to go for an abortion under the insistence of her husband. By the time she is plotting her escape from Vinayak Kale’s estate, Ayub Khan has already staged a coup in Pakistan and it is 1958. The film ends around at that time.
The time shifts are brought about by sound overlaps that also underline the mental state of the heroine. A shrill bell sound acts as a leitmotif indicating her turbulent mental state during most transitions. In this context, mention must be made of a beautiful song overlap – Tumhare Bina Jee Naa Lage Ghar Mein. The song starts on her face just as Rajan congratulates her on her imminent marriage to Keshav during a break in the shoot and the film promptly cuts to the actual song picturisation where she dances away merrily. It immediately serves as a portent of what is to happen in the course of the film and her life vis-à-vis her relationship with Rajan.
Govind Nihalini’s cinematography is lavish and his use of deep focus and track shots convey the depths of the period locations wonderfully through which the characters move around. The film is shot extravagantly and exudes a richness and warmth that reflect the flamboyance of the setting but it changes its tone according to the mood of the main character. The film strictly falls under the realist cinema tradition that finds its root in Ray’s films and many of the compositions and moods do reflect the influence of the master whom Benegal always held in high regard.
Bhumika is a brilliant piece of cinema and a sumptuous experience that continues to enthrall viewers over the ages and offers new nuggets of film knowledge every time one watches it. There is always so much to learn from it; it never ceases to enchant. It is a full throttled good cinema in all its excellence and marks Shyam Benegal out as one of our greatest filmmakers.
Hindi, Drama, Black & White and Color