Bhumika: The Role
Bhumika is the perfect title for this frustration-filled story of a film actor. Usha/Urvashi (Smita Patil) rises to every cinematic challenge she takes on - we see her on the sets of mythologicals, swashbucklers, period pieces, art films, and loves songs set among the flowers -
but never masters that one assignment that we all face: living our actual lives. Her success in film roles far outshines her success off screen.
Her marriage to her abusive, controlling, insecure husband Keshav (Amol Palekar) is a disaster, one or the other of them constantly screaming and hurling accusations as their horrified daughter looks on. I'm unclear what Keshav's relationship to Usha's family is (either a servant or colleague/friend), and the film implies that their marriage is mostly Usha's repayment to Keshav for taking care of her, her mother, and her grandmother when her father died, including taking her to meet a film producer (Kulbhushan Kharbanda). As adults and spouses, he resents her economic power and she his constant reminder of his role in her success. In their few non-angry moments, Keshav serves as a father-like figure, someone Usha turns to when others, namely her mother, are cruel to her. And in the even rarer moments of real happiness, he is occasionally involved, like in this sweet scene of reading out a good review of Usha's work to her and her grandmother.
It's almost unfair to criticize Usha as a parent because her own mother, Shanta (Sualbha Deshpande), continues the lifelong pattern of belittlement and oppression even as she lives in adult Usha's home and depends on her income.
Here Shanta complains of young Usha's talents to her mother (also Usha's teacher and main support), though she never does anything to find her own way to support the family.
Usha looks for romantic love in at least two other significant sources. Foremost is frequent co-star Rajan (Anant Nag, looking all the world like a dapper 1950s Shahrukh Khan).
It's implied, though never shown explicitly, that Usha and Rajan are as tender off screen as on, even before her marriage to Keshav, and over the years they remain close, his beachfront house a frequent place of refuge for her when things get ugly at home. She tells him he's the only person in her life who never wants anything from her, but we audience members know enough about hero actors to know that cannot last.
Rajan suffers quietly and alone, always in the wings of her life.
"Very Devdas," said my viewing companion Celi.
Later she turns to the ridiculously faux-deep director Sunil (Naseeruddin Shah), with whom she talks through melodramatic options for her problems in the strangest pillow talk I've seen in an Indian film.
My response: "No, girl. Even when you're both dead, and even when he's working the SNAG routine as hard as he can, he's not going to call after you've let him get in your pants and announced you're going to off yourself."
At this point, I wanted to slap them both, but the outcome of this little liaison is actually really funny. It's as though their dramatics are mutually exhausting, so they just exit as quickly as possible. Good call.
Sunil does voice an interesting idea that the film returns to repeatedly: Usha uses other people to see versions of her inanimate self - his actual words are something like "Your lovers' eyes are mirrors, and in them you see a reflection of your own little idol."
That Usha relies on other people to be alive is so obvious once Sunil points it out. She's never had a life of her own, having started to work when still a child and always had multiple adults (all older than she is) - her ancestors, her so-called partner, and even her colleagues in the film industry - depending on her. She is who she thinks they need her to be, even when they clearly do not want her to. She's trapped by responsibilities - roles - that she has assumed without ever really examining or evaluating.
There is also a curious interlude with Vinayak (Amrish Puri), her neighbor at a suite of rented rooms she takes after storming out of her home with Keshav. She is drawn to his apartment by the sound of his phonograph playing one of her grandmother's records. They show each other very little regard; he seems to not even recognizer her and she speaks to him only to request repeat plays of the record. Perhaps the version of the film I saw was missing a key scene with them, because somehow Usha decides to accompany Vinayak to his country home. En route he drops the bomb that not only does he have a son but also a bed-ridden wife, who will be in Usha's care. Usha settles into a very pleasant domestic routine completely unlike the angsty and turbulent life at her own home, tending to both son and wife. Vinayak is just as much of a villain as you'd expect from Amrish: even with a guest from the city, he has no intention to break his family's generations-old tradition of women not leaving the grounds of the house. This is too much for Usha, and she flees back to the city with Keshav.
The uncontextualized episode with Vinayak is the only flaw in this Filmfare- and National Film Award-winning project by director Shyam Benegal and writers Girish Karnad (who also wrote Benegal's Kalyug and his own Utsav) and Satyadev Dubey (who also worked on Junoon and Kalyug). Otherwise, this woman-centered story and project is utterly fascinating and solid. I do not actually like Usha but I love that she exists as a character. She is strong, loud, complex, and not always traditional or respectable by the standards of general society of that time. She is also rewarded for her talents and artistry, something that seems to be a real luxury for female characters from many cinematic cultures. I love that her messed-up personal life is not mirrored by a decline in her professional life. She is a talented professional who is always able to devote the resources needed to her career. Even better, that's not why her non-work life is a mess. Her non-work life is a mess because she had a lousy childhood, abusive people in power over her, and doesn't know how to stop and think about her life. It's not because she's a drama queen who acts like a diva off the sets. I'd also like to know more about the book Bhumika is based on, the memoirs of actor Hansa Wadkar, who worked in Marathi films in the era the film is set. Regardless of how faithful to her memoirs Bhumika may or may not be, there must be some amazing stuff in her life to have inspired this emotional and willful story.
I've never seen a lead female character quite like Usha. Like many Hindi film women, she does a lot more reacting than she does actual choosing. Usha certainly likes to think she's making her own choices, often rashly and in full emotion and drama, but it seems to me that she is just responding boldly rather than actually thinking, measuring, and comparing. Strength and thought, or resolve and understanding, are not at all the same things here. She behaves almost like a self-powered pinball, careening off of obstacle after obstacle, always full of steam and changing course. Or, to use the movie analogies some more, she throws herself into a role for awhile, only to yell "Pack up!" and change projects before shooting was finished. In her off screen life, nothing gets resolved. Contrast these broken bits with her professional world, where we understand that she is well-received as a performer and never short of work. What makes this character so interesting, I think, is that on the surface she has a lot more power than most women - her own home, her own money that is independent of any men, real competence in the world outside the home and for which she is respected - but she repeatedly fails to use it to improve her situation. She's just as trapped, just as bound, as any hand-wringing heroine who marries her parents' choice rather than her true love.
It is not until the very end of the film that Usha realizes and begins to act on the lesson she needs to learn...though why this is her big life lesson, I do not know.
Maybe this is a subtitle problem and instead of "loneliness" the text is something more like "independence," which would make a lot more sense to me. It is true that Usha has spent her whole life surrounded by, and often mired in, other people, so even "solitariness" would work (if in fact that's a word, which I'm not sure it is). Usha has never had room for any other stars in her life, or even true partners, I suppose. And fair enough - it's her life, after all. Costar Rajan, director Sunil, and "civilian" Vinayak are all written out. What Usha hasn't mastered is just being a person making sense of their own reality without a script.
On a lighter note, the scenes of Usha's work life provide wonderful glimpses into 40s and 50s cinema, both on the sets and at meetings and parties.
I especially loved this Fearless Nadia-type role in which she leaps down a big flight of stairs brandishing a foil.
The heartborken hero drinks alone, even at parties launching his films.
Two pictures up: this head shoots flames! Above: it's hard to see, but here Usha is arguing with an oversized deity to let her keep her deceased husband. I loved these recreated special effects.
How glam is she! Who is this actor?
And: the subtitle staff couldn't even break out of SMS speak for a Benegal film? RLY?