Thanks to the lockdown due to the corona virus in 2020, filmmaker RV Ramani generously shared the online links of his films for people to view for a limited period of time. It was then that I caught his latest feature length documentary on 90 plus year-old danseuse and actor, Bhanumati Rao, Oh That’s Bhanu (2019). And I’m glad I did. As with many of his films, Oh That’s Bhanu has been produced, directed, shot and edited by Ramani himself. He has even done the sound for the film, helped for one schedule by a colleague from the FTII, Asheesh Pandya. The film has just won Ramani the National Award for Best Director at the 68th National Awards in the Non-Feature section.
Good casting in a film they say is half the battle won. In Ramani’s film, one would say the same with Bhanumati just being there in front of his camera. But, of course, there’s more to the film than that. Oh That’s Bhanu, begun by Ramani in 2014, is a heart-warming, joyride of an experience with a person who not only is full of joie de vivre and energy, but one who is direct, blunt and rather humorous as well. She had me hooked early on in the film itself when she naughtily lets on that she was quite the bully, enjoying teasing people in her day, while her attempt to ‘perform’ a story of a Malayali asking for a room for rent to someone, who doesn’t understand the Malayali English accent, is a riot.
Through several vérité-like filming sessions with Bhanumati in Delhi and Bangalore, as she divides her time between her two daughters, theatre personality Maya Krishna Rao in Delhi and human rights activist, Tara, in Bangalore, Ramani attempts to piece together the life and personality of the Kerala born Bhanumati, a Bharatanatyam and Kathakali dancer, who performed the world over, in her heyday. Quoting Ramani on the Dharamshala International Film Festival website, where the film was screened in its 2019 edition, “I could sense her mind and I wanted to understand and explore this connection. The film, for me, turned out to be an exposition of this connection – a beautiful experience of life, which will allow an audience to connect deeply with their own lives and relationships.”
The connection that Ramani talks about is easy to see. There’s an ease and a high degree of comfort between the two in their interactions in front of and behind the camera that comes out beautifully. The vibrant Bhanumati takes to Ramani warmly, often involving him in their ‘conversation’, while you feel every bit of Ramani’s fascination (and admiration) for her as he shoots with her. However, it couldn’t have been easy for him. Bhanumati, for all her love for life, is battling memory loss and deafness due to age but Ramani integrates this into the film rather effectively. In an interview to film critic Baradwaj Rangan, Ramani elaborated that in any case, he nullified her memories or his search for the so called ‘truth’ while making the film. So he simply lets Bhanumati be in front of his lens observing her, conversing with her when asked, or listening to her stories, made up or otherwise. In a touching moment, she speaks eloquently about her husband’s death ‘recalling’ that she sent him to sleep in the other room that fateful night because she was unwell, running a fever, and the next day morning, her brother-in-law, who was visiting them, had to break the news of her husband’s sudden death that night. He was just 45. If there are moments like this that moved me, I couldn’t help but smile each time the twinkle-eyed Bhanumati, having forgotten he’s filmed her in earlier schedules, asks Ramani if he’s been to her house or what does he do and when he replies each time that he makes films, without fail she pointedly asks him how does he earn money out of this?! A question I’m sure every freelance, indie filmmaker (yours truly included) dreads answering.
While Ramani films Bhanumati interacting with her daughters, Maya and Tara, or follows her going through elements of her daily routine like taking a walk or even following her going to cast her vote in the 2014 General Elections, he also moves a little around Maya and Tara. So one see Maya performing and Tara playing tennis and even as one wonders what was the intent of Ramani to include these obviously tangential bits in the film, he cheekily includes a sequence of a discussion taking place towards the end of the film, wherein Maya wonders among a group of friends as to why are they, the daughters, present so much in the film. Maya, with long white hair herself like her mother, hits the nail on the head when she comments that she’s never seen so much white hair as in the film!
It is said a true artist never ever forgets his or her art. I, myself, saw this years ago (1989) during the filming of an interview, sadly to be her last, with the famed playback singer of Hindi cinema of the 1940s and early ‘50s, Zohrabai Ambalewali. She could remember pretty much nothing of her life and had to be constantly prodded by her daughter, the famous Kathak dancer Roshan Kumari, sitting near her but outside the camera’s frame. But if one gave her just the line of one of her songs, she would hum it instantly. Similarly in this film, Bhanumati might be battling her memory fading and her deafness, but each time she dances – be it at a birthday party that we see through mobile phone footage, or along with a dance performance of some other dancer to a thillana sung by the great ML Vasanthakumari streaming on the laptop – the artist in her comes alive and with such poetic movement and grace! To me, that virtual ‘jugalbandi’ of her dancing in such gay abandon to MLV’s voice, was a defining moment in the film!
All in all, Ramani takes one through a fluid, poignant and stimulating journey that begins from the casual Oh That’s Bhanu to Oh, That’s Banu! But I do have one little, niggling issue at the end. Having seen an earlier film of Ramani’s, A Documentary Proposal, where he tags along with a team from Films Division to Mrinal Sen’s house as they want to make a film on him and shoots them talking to Sen about it, there is a small moment at the end when we see Mrinal Sen, reflected on the lap top screen, viewing the film that Ramani made of that encounter. Perhaps, a similar sequence with Bhanumati – with her memory being what it is – would have been just the perfect cherry on top of Oh That’s Bhanu too.
English, Documentary, Color
Header picture courtesy RV Ramani.