“Mere akelepan se mujhe khud hi nipatna hoga”( I need to shred the robe of my loneliness with my own hands). Bhumika released in 1977, a biopic of a Marathi actress, Hansa Wadkar. Bhumika explores how a woman even after being a hardworking, famous, self- independent actress is still dependant on the patriarchal society for her happiness. This film was made in a time when people didn’t even know that feminism is a term and it’s still relevant in different ways.
When most of the filmmakers of Bollywood were busy in making mainstream masala films. Shyam Benegal was making films that mainly depicted the condition and atrocities faced by the women in the Indian society. In the 1940s, when Shyam was a college student in Hyderabad, he witnessed the Telangana peasant uprising against the oppression by feudal lords. That whole incident shaped his ideology as a filmmaker. In an interview, he as a filmmaker addressed himself as ‘a critic of the present times.’
Bhumika intersects the past and present life of an actress named Usha(Smita Patil). She plays different roles in her acting career as well as in her own personal life but her will to be peacefully happy is still controlled by the people around her, especially men. At first, she is controlled by a selfish neighbor, Keshav Dalvi(Amol Palekar), who wants to thrive by handling her acting career. Next, she meets a rising star, Rajan ( Anant Nag), who promises to keep her happy but doesn’t have the courage to actually be with her. Quite late, comes a philosophical director Sunil Verma ( Naseeruddin Shah), who impresses Usha by his opinions on love but leaves her alone when Usha wants him to follow a suicide pact. Then comes Vinayak Kale (Amrish Puri) who gives her the temporary happiness she needed of being a homemaker and proper housewife but she was strictly caged in the royal bungalow. Eventually, she felt suffocated and left the place . She then realizes that the only way to live peacefully in this world ruled by men, is to live alone.
Usha unintentionally follows a cycle of events, she first falls in love with a man then something or the other happens which makes her realize that she won’t be happy with him, and then she falls in love with another man with a new hope until she finally stops one day. This presents the basic nature of humans where we sideline all the troubles and atrocities faced by us each and every time we see a new hope. Men come and go but the impact of all the men stays in her life forever thus the film rightly depicts the honest condition of a woman in a society ruled by patriarchy. Even in one instance, a character also says “Beds change, men don’t” which hits you hard and makes you agree to the point even today after almost 43 years since the release of the film.
In a way, the film looks like a feminine version of Nayak by Satyajit Ray which depicts the troubled life of an actor through the intersection of past and present. But, as the past life of Usha is limited to a small house in a village, shown in the backdrop of black and white, this certainly appears like an ode to Pather Panchali. Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal have always been close friends. So close that according to a telephonic interview with HuffingtonPost, Benegal revealed that Ray had even recommended him for a Homi Bhabha fellowship. Even now at the age of 85, Benegal is still trying to put up a new project.
Cinematographer Govind Nihalani at first wasn’t convinced about the selected contrast of black-white and color depicting different timelines but he ultimately decided to go with it and it definitely worked like a charm. Music by Vanraj Bhatia helps in working as an additional benefit which helps Benegal in inserting the subtle details of filmmaking of that time in the narrative. Performance by Smita Patil was extraordinary, at first she didn’t want to play this role but she somehow agreed and later she won a national award for her performance in the film. Shabana Azmi was first approached for the film but she kindly rejected it saying her dialect will become a problem in portraying Wadekar’s personality, to which Benegal agreed.
Overall, Bhumika is one among the many amazing works of Shyam Benegal and definitely deserves a watch for its authentic screenplay. The film has a brilliant way of being a mirror to the patriarchal society which will remain relatable in some way or the other unless we determine to change the course and abolish the predetermined patriarchal ways.
Director: Shyam Benegal
Cast: Smita Patel, Naseeruddin Shah