Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Shyam Benegal's 'Bhumika'

After his 'rural trilogy' (Ankur, Nishant, Manthan), Benegal continues his focus on the patriarchy - and the nature of women's choices within it - with Bhumika (1977). But to explore the theme more fully, and with added realism - he creates what would today be called a 'biopic': a movie based on the life of a real person (which he nevertheless unconvincingly disclaims right at the beginning of the movie). Above, a still from 'Bhumika', with Smita Patil in foreground, below, Hansa Wadkar (on whom the movie is said to be based) in a still from one of her movies.

Also, he moves up the class ladder: if in 'Ankur', the woman in question was the wife of a landless laborer, and in 'Nishant' the wife of a schoolteacher, then in 'Bhumika' he focuses on the life of an actress who has achieved career and financial success in her own right. Smita Patil is cast in this role as Usha, (with the screen name Urvashi). Anant Nag, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Amol Palekar, Naseeruddin Shah and Amrish Puri are cast as the various men in her life.

Benegal starts his narrative from the time Usha is just a pre-pubescent girl in mid 1930s rural Maharashtra. He provides a strong mother figure (as well as a grandmother figure) in the family - but a rather weak father and an even weaker 'bachelor uncle' figure (who, much later, actually becomes her husband). Thus, without any oppressive male figures around, Benegal creates a credible environment in which Usha can grow up extremely 'headstrong'. Usha does have a talent for singing, nurtured by the grandmother; but her mother deeply resents this musical talent. Benegal thus germinates via this resentment a mother-daughter tension that recurs in various forms throughout Usha's life.

Usha enters the fledgling film industry of the 1930s as a 'child singing star', and, blossoming into a winsome lass, is rapidly absorbed into leading roles. The bachelor uncle (played by Amol Palekar) who had made her promise to marry him while she was still a child, now comes by to hold her to it, and she, in a fit of rebellion (against her mother who strongly disapproves both of the match and her vocation) seduces the 'uncle' and becomes pregnant. This compels the 'uncle' to marry her on the one hand, as well as her mother to acquiesce in the marriage on the other. Notice that here she is shown to have had it her way - the marriage takes place not so much because she has 'promised' to marry the Amol Palekar-uncle figure, it takes place because her mother disapproves even of her casual flirtation with the Palekar character - so she seduces him to seal the marriage as fait accompli. By this time she has also engaged the real-life attention of the male romantic lead opposite whom she is cast (played by Anant Nag).

Whether she reciprocates that attention is not initially clear - I rather think it is intentionally left unclear - but the interest from her acting colleague makes her husband uncontrollably jealous. This has the effect of driving her into her lover's arms, again, having it her way, as if to say - if you don't like even the thought of it, whether true or not, then that's exactly what I'll do. The male jealousy then goes both ways, but the Anant Nag character is shown to be markedly less possessive than her husband, so that she is moved to declaim that he's the only man who has 'only given, never gotten'.

What Benegal has created here is a situation in which a woman brought up largely outside the clutches of the traditional patriarchy nevertheless becomes trapped in it as she grows in her profession and exercises her 'agency'. He thus locates the motivating force of the patriarchy in male sexual jealousy, and this motif plays out over and over again in the movie.

The other theme Benegal explores at great length in the movie is the extent to which the real lives and 'screen lives' of movie stars become intertwined - Usha becomes romantically involved not only with her male co-star but also with her director and the financier, among others. In this she is simply acting as a woman of her own will, seemingly unaffected by, and independently of any patriarchal norms. Naseeruddin Shah, who we had last seen in 'Manthan' as the rustic, disaffected, 'half-caste', is now cast as a debonair, happy-go-lucky, racecar-driving hedonist director - another role he plays extremely well. Benegal extends the idea of the intertwining of screen and real lives even further - in one of the scenes of 'Bhumika', Usha is shown playing the female lead in a movie titled Agni Pariksha, the classic mythological trope recalling the depredations of male sexual jealousy. Her 'lines' in the movie and in real life thus begin to coincide - and with the male lead involved with her in real life as well, neither the actress (nor us, the audience) can tell any more whether it is the movie, or the movie within the movie that is now playing, till the on-screen Director says 'cut'!

Benegal also stretches his cinematic legs a little in the movie, allowing some song and dance, and melodramatic musical scores to creep in (unlike in any of his previous movies thus far) - but only in the context of showing the movie-within-the-movie. He also uses this device to expose the shallowness of much movie making that had crept in by the 1950s in Indian cinema. Benegal treats the viewer of Bhumika, for example, to a number of 'behind the camera' scenes, especially of choreographers and Directors directing meaningless 'song-and-dance in the rain' scenes - at one point also showing the garden sprinklers that create the 'rain'. This is a huge dig at commercial Indian cinema, and Bhumika also has significant documentary value in tracing the evolution of stylistic, thematic and technical elements of Indian cinema from the 1930s to the 1950s.

The central message of Bhumika is clearly articulated when Usha becomes involved with a much older financier-industrialist, who she later discovers is already married (with a huge estate, his first wife having passed on, a terminally-ill-but-still young second wife, and a son) - but only after having accepted his invitation to join him at his estate. Amrish Puri plays the partriarch-industrialist here - in a reprise of his role in 'Nishant', but with a huge change in the physical scale of his operations, his estate, and his oppressive power.

The strong near father-like, sympathetic, successful, older male figure she was attracted to (perhaps, one can speculate, because her own father was so weak) transforms into a possessive, jealous brute. Or more properly, he was always that, it was a side of him she hadn't seen yet. Or even more properly, he is just being a man, the difference is that he actually has the power to take the instinctive jealousy to a ridiculous extent. Ridiculous, that is, for a middle class woman, but quite the norm otherwise. Having come into the household, he tells her, she can now physically leave the estate only when she dies. Benegal carefully portrays the scale of male power necessary to enforce his jealousy at this extreme. Amrish Puri's line is simple - you were given every opportunity to say no, he tells her, to reverse course and go back to Bombay - but once you agreed and are in the door, you're mine, and you don't go out again. Ever.

Both the ailing second wife and her mother urge Usha (Smita Patil) to reconcile herself to the situation (the same line, in effect, that Benegal had Smita Patil deliver to Shabana Azmi in 'Nishant'): What would you do even if you escaped? It's only the mattresses and pillow covers that will change, the men won't. And by this time in the movie, there is ample evidence in the nature of Usha's involvements with other men to bear this out.

What Benegal thus shows in Bhumika is that even a woman endowed with enormous agency by virtue of her professional and financial standing, and someone, moreover, who grew up in a household without a patriarchal oppressive environment, can nevertheless become trapped in the clutches of the patriarchy. And all she was doing was attempting to solve her 'loneliness problem'.

In a somewhat hopeful ending, Benegal arranges for Usha to escape the industrialist's household - but only through intervention of the police (unlike the case of the schoolteacher's wife in 'Nishant'). On returning to her home, she finds her daughter grown up and pregnant, but is reassured when the daughter tells her that she is also married. In this way, Benegal shows that the patriarchy, through the institution of marriage, has recaptured the daughter, never mind the mother having lived a life seemingly in defiance of it. Not only that, he also shows that Usha is reassured by this fact, demonstrating that, in spite of her own independent life, she prefers her daughter to be married, even though she realizes marriage is just a cover for enforcing male exclusivist sexual jealousy. The daughter plans for Usha to come and live with her and her husband, reducing Usha thus to an appendage - but in a final act of enormous agency, Usha rejects this, preferring to live alone, and deal with her 'loneliness problem' by herself.

Smita Patil excels in Bhumika (literally translated as 'The Role' - but more appropriately, 'The Vocation', 'The Guise', or even 'The Masquerade'). She's only 21 when the movie was filmed - and convincingly plays a woman through the ages of 15 to 45 in it. She really matures as an actress, and like Shabana Azmi before her, is recognized nationally and internationally for her bhumika in Bhumika. Bhumika is a movie with even more complex themes than Nishant - actual physical violence is shown graphically (especially to illustrate the generationally recursive nature of domestic abuse, as a tool of patriarchal oppression). It disturbs on many more levels than even Nishant does, and while the ending is barely hopeful in Usha's personal life, its more general message carries very little hope for women negotiating the patriarchy - more especially the most accomplished and successful among them. Made over 30 years ago in 1977, and referring to the life of someone during the 1930s-1950s (Benegal actually provides snippets of All India Radio broadcasts to frame the movie in time - 'The Second Five Year Plan begins today' [1956]; or 'General Ayub Khan took over as Martial Law Administrator in Pakistan today' [1958] etc), the movie is every bit as relevant today as it was then. For this reason, it should be seen, and seen again, not merely as a period piece or a classic (it is both), but as a compellingly relevant contemporary film.


  1. You have made a detailed review of this movie. I simply love this work of Shyam Benegal. Amazing music, direction and performances. Which are you other favourites.

  2. Well written article on a rarely talked about movie, Smita Patil including all the actors are brilliant. Understandably a biopic and even though the actresses were rebel then, were rich, famous but true independence and mental strength eluded them.

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