Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika is a vivid, complex and ambiguous portrait of an actress who finds great success playing various characters on-screen but fails terribly at playing a few off-screen. This actress, Usha, is portrayed by none other than Smita Patil – one of India’s most unique, eminent and distinguished actresses. Apt casting, I must say. It’s as if she was born to play this role. Bhumika is not only one of Benegal’s most important films but also Patil’s and belongs to India’s “New Wave” cinema or “parallel cinema” (a term which Benegal disliked).
The screenplay, loosely based on the autobiography of another veteran Indian actress called Hansa Wadkar, was written by the trio of Benegal, Satyadev Dubey and Girish Karnad (a renowned actor, writer, playwright and director). The novel approach (for its time) they employed to narrate her story has influenced screenwriters from both India and abroad. Usha is an unconventional, fiercely independent and feisty young woman who sought companionship in all the wrong places. This is a woman whose real-life runs in complete contrast to her silver screen life.
She finds out, painfully, that she isn’t cut out for long-term commitments. The atmosphere of every household she ends up in is stiflingly restrictive and patriarchal. She fails to find in other men the happiness and fulfillment that she so desperately seeks. Every experience she undergoes is both extremely humiliating and frustrating. This is one of those films where most of the characters we come across are quite unpleasant, starting with the very first man in her life, Keshav Dalvi (played by Amol Palekar) who somehow gave her the impression that she is going to have a wonderful life with him.
Dalvi is unattractive and way older than she is. He’s been chasing her ever since she was a small child. He is annoyingly clingy, controlling, abusive, manipulative, and extremely possessive. When it becomes too unbearable, she is forced to leave. Benegal shot Usha’s past sequences in black-and-white and those of her present in color. However, this seems to have been a result of timely decision-making on the part of Benegal when enough color stock wasn’t made available to him on time. This film is a classic illustration of “Necessity is the mother of invention.” This limitation actually worked in the film’s favor.
I’m not sure if I want to judge Usha and call her an unpleasant character. She was born a free-spirited girl and happened to grow up with an overbearing mother, who initially objected to Dalvi’s suggestion of getting Usha to act in movies when she was only a teenager. The only person who was able to comfort her was her father who, surprisingly, was abusive towards her mother but partial towards her. There is a pattern here: Every time she escapes from one controlling character, she runs into another. Anant Rag plays the second man in her life, Rajan – an Errol Flynn-type heartthrob – who is clearly in a one-sided love affair with her, and who managed to make Dalvi terribly insecure.
Naseeruddin Shah plays the third man in her life, Sunil Varma, a film director who seduces her with his hippy philosophical garbage and almost gets her to commit suicide one fine day. This affair is a short-lived one. Next comes along Amrish Puri’s Vinayak Kale gentleman, who she believes is her knight in shining armor – a man who can finally give her the quiet and stable family life that she desperately yearns for. But she soon finds out that he is a different kind of autocrat in disguise, whose primary intention seems to be to turn her into a domestic aid who can take care of both his young son and his bedridden first wife (who tells her: “The beds change, the kitchens change. Men’s masks change, but men don’t change.”).
Left with no other option, she goes back to a now middle-aged and visibly changed Dalvi, who doesn’t have any hope of setting things right with her. When we see Usha’s slightly grown-up (and equally free-spirited) daughter waiting for her at home, and who happens to be both married and pregnant at such a young age, we get the uneasy sense that she too is going to experience everything that her mother had. I couldn’t help but think of Ruskin Bond’s short story Susanna and her Seven Husbands because Usha’s life moves in a similar trajectory as Susanna’s – except here the husbands don’t end up dead.
There are few things that are left open-ended, like for instance the extent of her relationship with Rajan. As I’ve already mentioned before, except for Usha and the children that we see, most of the characters are unlikable. I didn’t find Usha sympathetic at first because of the questionable choices she makes (well, we all make them at some point, don’t we?) but found so much to admire in her (her strong-headed nature, for one). Maybe some people are not meant to be “caged” – maybe they are meant to lead a lonely existence for the rest of their lives. How can you force them to change?