Loosely based on the life of the Marathi stage and screen actress Hansa Wadkar, Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika (1977) deals with a woman’s search for identity and fulfillment. Usha grows up in a near destitute family of performers. She learns music from her singer grandmother but is constantly berated by her mother Shanta (Sulabha Deshpande), who has found some respectability in marriage to a drunkard Brahmin (!). She does not want the performer stigma for her daughter and keeps telling her that marriage is the way to respectability.
In this set-up, the man who can and does help them is Keshav Dalvi (Amol Palekar). While flirting with the mother, he also pursues Usha. Eventually he helps the child Usha find a role in cinema, and we see her grow up (Smita Patil) to become the most desired actress of her time. Usha is attracted to the handsome actor Rajan, played by Anant Nag. Her mother continues to restrict her life and in a bold bid for freedom, Usha marries Dalvi. She dreams of giving up cinema to become a full time wife and mother, only to be forced to act in more and more films by Dalvi. Her frequent fights with Dalvi always take her to Rajan’s door but he has commitment phobia. She also meets and gets involved with Sunil Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), a narcissistic writer director. Their relationship leads to a botched double-suicide attempt. Usha then ends up in a near ‘married and stay at home wife’ like situation with the wealthy Vinayak Kale (Amrish Puri) who has a paraplegic wife. Usha stops working and plays housewife all day long, but her dream world is shattered when she realizes that just like the wife trapped in bed, she is trapped in this household and not allowed to leave its confines. She has to seek Kehsav’s help to escape the Kale household. Exchanging one kind of prison for another, she returns yet again to Bombay to billboards splashed with her face.
The music by Vanraj Bhatia is outstanding and beautifully complements the film. Two songs are mainstay of the film and are threaded throughout. Usha learns music from her grandmother to the divine Mondar Baajo, and that is the song that brings back all the regrets and reminiscences in the film. The Lavani style song Ziskila Balam traces the growth of Usha’s career as an actress, and Smita looks and dances like a heavenly creature in this number. Govind Nihalani’s cinematography shows heavy influence from Ray’s Pather Panchali in the sequences where the child Usha is running free in the village in dappled sunlight. The numerous film-within-film sequences make the story more complex but they are germane to the narrative and keep us engrossed in Usha’s tale. A fencing match could rival the modern day Jodha Akbar parry for parry! The screenplay by Benegal and Satyadev Dubey won a National award and rightly so – the narrative is rich, the dialogs are moving and meaningful, and the characters extremely well fleshed out.
The film boasts of an A-list of actors who deliver top-notch performances. The men are led by Amol Palekar who excels as the oily, self-serving Dalvi. He bullies and beats Usha and uses every trick in the book to keep her subjugated so she can keep earning money for him. While we never see any love for Usha in him, in the end there is some measure of redemption as he subtly admits to having subjugated her to his will. Anant Nag is the hero in most of the film sequences in Bhumika – and he is a heart-throb! Whether he is fingering his mustache in the Lavani song, or fencing with the lady on some steps, he is the lady-killer. It is a little unclear if she runs to Dalvi and marries him because Rajan pursues her too vigorously or because he will not commit. Naseer Shah is brilliant as the “romantic” auteur director type – spouting philosophy and poetry at every turn, and in the end betraying Usha like those others who came before. Amrish Puri is the antithesis of all other men in Usha’s life so it is no surprise she falls for him. He is not the villain, but rather a subdued type of autocrat – quite a departure from his usual stuff.
Benegal creates a complex character in Usha – a woman who at the same times wants conventionality and yet is willing to defy every convention. She will be wife/mother/provider but on her own terms. She wants love but again on her own terms. This is not a Madame Bovary like search for romantic fulfillment, but rather a search for a complete life, an ideal life where she can be mother, wife, lover, yet never bound. And Smita performs the role of a lifetime wherein she grows from a vivacious teenager who sets the screen on fire, to an embittered middle-aged woman with a grown daughter. She drifts from man to man in her search, because in that era a woman could try to be what she wanted to be, but still needed a man to achieve that goal. Every time Usha runs away from Keshav, her mother and daughter stay on in his household; for them the respectability is with the man. And even though Usha is the bread-earner, the decisions are made by Keshav. At its core the film is extremely feminist in content – never more than when Kale’s wife tells Usha “Bistar badal jaate hain, rasoi badal jaati hai, admiyon ke naqaab badal jaate hain, par aadmi nahin badalte!”
Bhumika achieves what Zubeidaa fails to do. It makes us emotionally invested in the characters, and spins a complex and moving tale of greed, betrayal, and the pursuit of self-discovery. This is Smita Patil’s best role ever, won her the National Award, and this is the role that makes me sad such grand talent was lost so soon.