Director: Shyam Benegal
Production: Blaze Film Enterprises; colour, 35mm; running time: 144 minutes.
Producers: Lalit M. Bijlani and Freni M. Variava; executive producers: Silloo Fali Variava and Bisham M. Bijlani; screenplay: Girish Karnad, Pandit Satyadev Dubey, and Shyam Benegal, from the book Sandtye Aika by Hansa Wadkar; assistant directors: Dayal Nihalani, Manohar Ghanekar, Swadesh Pal, and Prahlad Kakar; photography: Govind Nihalini; editor: Bhanudas; art director: Shama Zaidi; sound: Hitendra Ghosh, Robin Chaterjee, Raj Trehan; costumes: Kalpana Lajmi; music: Vanraj Bahtia; songs: Vanraj Bahtia, Majrooh Sultanpuri, and Vasanth Dev.
Smita Patil (
); Anant Nag (
); Amrish Puri (
); Naseeruddin Shah (
); Sulabha Deshpande (
); Baby Ruksana (
Usha as a child
); Amol Palekar (
); Kulbhushan Kharbanda (
Da Cunha, Uma, The New Generation: 1960–1980 , New Delhi, 1981.
The Directorate of Film Festivals , New Delhi, 1981.
Vasudev, Aruna, The New Indian Cinema , Macmillan India (New Delhi), 1986.
Variety (New York), 15 November 1978.
Milne, Tom, Monthly Film Bulletin (London), April 1980.
Vasudev, Aruna, and Philippe Leglet, interview with Shyam Behegal in Indian Cinema Superbazaar , Vikas Publishing (New Delhi), 1983.
* * *
Shyam Benegal's fourth film marks a substantial departure from his first three works. Bhumika is inspired by the autobiography of the 1940s Marathi and Hindi movie star Hansa Wadkar. The book, as told to journalist Arun Sadhu, used the title of her most famous film, the mega hit musical Sangtye Aika (1959), translating loosely as "Listen, and I'll Tell." It caused a sensation and became an instant best-seller, being an extraordinarily candid tale of a young woman who came from a tradition of kalavantins —courtesans from the Goa coastline renowned for their musical accomplishments but considered to be of lowly status. She joined the film industry as a child actress mainly to support her mother and grandmother, acting in stage-derived musicals. She moved to Karachi to do adventure B-movies ( Modern Youth , 1936) before receiving her major break in the Bombay Talkies studio. Wadkar went on to become the foremost Marathi star in two extremely popular but seemingly contradictory genres, the devotional Saint-film and the bawdy folk-derived Tamasha musical: playing the title role in the Prabhat studios' Sant Sakhu (1941) and the role of Baya in V. Shantaram's Lokshahir Ramjoshi (1947). Ramjoshi and Sangtye Aika are among the biggest hits in the history of the Marathi cinema.
Benegal's movie adapts this story into a human interest saga of a traditional courtesan coming to terms with contemporary massculture, and her struggle to find her own individuality in the process. The framing narrative shows Usha, the move star, leave her husband and seek shelter first with her male co-star Rajan, and eventually in the oppressive confines of the feudal landlord of Kale's estate. Her husband arrives with the police to rescue her from Kale. Free once more, she rejects the offers of support from her husband, her now grown-up and married daughter—whose modernity marks a break with the matrilineal tradition—and her former lover Rajan, presumably in favour of the independence for which she craved.
Female protagonists seeking independence through various kinds of social engagements, failing and then "going away," were a common and familiar stereotype in much of the New Indian Cinema of the time. Feminist critic Susie Tharu's remarks about Usha's counterpart Sulabha (also played by Smita Patil) in Jabbar Patel's Umbartha ( The Threshold , 1981) clearly apply to the stereotype in Bhumika as well: "The filmic focus . . . establishes her as the central character as well as the problem (the disruption, the enigma) the film will explore and resolve . . . it is clear that to search herself is, for a woman, a tragic enterprise. An enterprise in which she is doomed to fail, but can fail bravely and heroically" ("Third World Women's Cinema," Economic and Political Weekly , Bombay, 17 May 1986).
The film develops its enigmatic protagonist with a dense overlay of nostalgia, through a series of sepia flashbacks showing Usha's childhood in the Konkan. Undoubtedly Bhumika 's most attractive aspect, these flashbacks show her meetings with her future husband, Dalvi, who claims her in return for helping her impoverished family. The scene showing her entry into the Surya Movietone reconstructs Wadkar's test at the Shalini Cinetone conducted by the framed composer Govindrao Tembe, tabla maestro Tirakhwan, and director Baburao Painter. Showing Usha's early roles in the movies, Benegal lovingly recreates various pre-war genres like the stunt movie, the Mahabharata mythological, and the social reform melodrama. Other flashbacks show her husband as a manipulative opportunist who starts managing her career, and her one major extra-marital relationship, with the poetry-spewing existentialist filmmaker Sunil, who involves her in a romantic suicide pact only to abandon her.
This mode of reconstructing the past to create an idiom of tragic fiction is all the more remarkable because of its startling contrast to Benegal's previous work: political features addressing a rural peasantry in the context of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) "Naxalite" movements in the late 1960s and through the 1970s. Ankur ( The Seedling , 1974) and Nishant ( Night's End , 1975) were set in rural Andhra Pradesh, Manthan ( The Churning , 1976) addressed the struggle of Gujarati peasants to set up a milk cooperative. All three films worked with several young actors and made them major stars, including Smita Patil and Anant Nag who feature in Bhumika. These films' success—especially that of his debut, Ankur — created a commercially viable 1970s trend of a ruralist realism, using accented Hindi to simulate the language of Telugu and Gujaratispeaking villagers, and a naturalist, stage-derived acting style that for many years came to be equated in several Indian cinemas, and later in its television, with a political and cultural authenticity.
Clearly Benegal shifts ground with Bhumika. The film, for one, locates the whole authenticity question into melodrama proper. It was the first Hindi film from the short-lived New Indian Cinema movement designed to reach a large audience and to receive a substantial commercial release. It went a long way in creating for its maker a reputation for providing culturally refined entertainment, in contrast to that churned out by the mainstream Hindi film industry. Until Benegal, it was only his mentor, Satyajit Ray, who was committed to the aesthetic of a cinema of taste, to define an indigenous cultural élite that otherwise sought its referents mainly through seeing American and European films. Unlike the often colonial overtones of Indian upper-class nostalgia movies of the time (e.g., Aparna Sen's 36 Chowringhee Lane , 1981), Bengal's protagonist allows him to explore the enigmas of a specifically indigenous popular culture.
It is arguable that in making the film he saw the two genres, of a frontier ruralist realism on the one side, and of creating the fictions of a collective "past" on the other, as being compatible modes effectively addressing the same problem: of constructing an indigenous authenticity for an audience that would not wish to be a part of the dominant mass-entertainment modes of India's film industry. Certainly this is where Bhumika has proved the most influential, in the way it expanded the thematic repertoire of the New Indian Cinema, and eventually allowed a more sustained engagement with the masscultural idiom itself.