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Smita Patil’s portrayal of a flawed, messy actor in Bhumika is fascinating and powerful

Based on memoir of Marathi actor Hansa Wadkar, Smita Patil's Bhumika, a film by Shyam Benegal, is a brutal & unflinching look at the life of a female movie star in Bombay.

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There’s a scene in Bhumika (The Role) in which Usha (Smita Patil) seeks refuge from her abusive, exploitative husband Keshav (Amol Palekar) with her colleague Rajan (Anant Nag). Rajan, who has long been in love with Usha, asks her why, if she’s willing to leave her husband, she won’t just divorce him. He tells her he will wait for her to be ready, should she ever want a relationship with him. She responds that he, Rajan, is the only person in her life who has only given to her, never taken from her — so why would she want to ruin that and lose him?

It’s interesting because Usha is clearly looking out for her own interest, and unafraid of saying so. She is literally telling him she doesn’t want to lose his generosity — nothing else. That unapologetic selfishness is something not many women were given the chance to show, however human the instinct for self-preservation. Women, especially lead actors in movies, were meant to be kind, giving, virtuous — to the point of being unrealistic. So for Usha to be so brutally honest about her choice is welcome even in its flaws.

This is where not only Patil’s performance, but also the sensitive writing (Shyam Benegal and Girish Karnad, with Satyadev Dubey for dialogue) shine through. Based on Sangtye Aika, the memoir of Marathi stage and screen star Hansa Wadkar who began acting in the 1930s, Bhumika offers a devastating look at just how little agency a woman in this profession had; how her every move was dictated, in some way, by a man.

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Escape is available, but at a prohibitive price

The movie opens with Usha on the set of a movie, dancing and gyrating on the floor, wearing heavy jewellery and flowers in her hair. It’s a typical Bollywood musical that she appears to be shooting for (very obviously different from the kind of movies Patil was known for, and from this one, too). But then, once pack-up is announced, she is dropped home by Rajan and enters to find her fuming, jealous husband, just waiting to pick a fight with her. Immediately, the difference between reel and real is made clear. This is a woman whose movies sell to packed houses and whose face adorns every billboard in town, but really, she is one more woman stuck in an abusive marriage. It is also a marriage that she never truly wanted.

Keshav, played to creepy perfection by Palekar (in a role so different from the boy-next-door parts he is known for), is a much older man who has known and lusted after Usha since she was a pre-pubescent girl. When her alcoholic, wife-beating father dies, Keshav takes it upon himself to help the family financially, by getting Usha (who trains daily with her grandmother) into the movies as a singer, despite her mother’s (Sulabha Deshpande) vehement objections. It is obvious that Keshav has an ulterior motive, but the destitute family has no choice.

Keshav sees himself as their saviour and uses this later to ensure that Usha marries him, even raking up the fact that when she was a child, he had coerced her into promising that she would marry him. It is a scene that shows just how deep his sense of entitlement runs, because right before informing her, to her shock, that she is his fiancée (she had, like any normal person, forgotten all about this childhood promise), he attacks her for being unfaithful to him with Rajan.

Anyone would wonder why he is so desperate to marry someone he doesn’t even trust, but Usha is also his golden goose, whom he needs because his own business ventures keep failing. So even though Usha doesn’t want to continue working after she has a daughter, Keshav, who acts as her business manager even though she doesn’t want him to, takes the decision on her behalf that she will continue acting, just not with Rajan.

He is a toxic mix of desire for her, entitlement, resentment at her success, mistrust and suspicion of her faithfulness, and the need for her money — and this only becomes worse after they get married.

Also read: Sharmila Tagore’s Chhoti Bahu gave us a Bollywood rarity — a layered female protagonist

A flawed, messy, complicated, real woman

Using flashbacks, the film charts Usha’s journey from exploited child to exploited woman, but it also doesn’t hide the fact that she is herself a deeply flawed person. Her decision to marry Keshav stems directly from the fact that her mother doesn’t approve of him rather than any real affection for him, and she uses the same trope as in a movie they saw together — about an unmarried pregnant woman.

Later that same night, after a fight with her mother, she goes to Keshav and the two have sex, following which she announces to her mother and grandmother both her pregnancy and her impending marriage.

This is followed by a stunningly shot scene (Govind Nihalani’s cinematography), in which Usha sits and does her riyaaz with her grandmother like old times, while her mother stands a little apart, the damaged relationship shown through the use of doors and partitions in the house.

Later, when the marriage really hits rock bottom, Usha does what she’s been wrongly accused of all this time and gets involved with two men in quick succession — both in their own ways bizarre and extremely problematic.

One is her director Sunil (Naseeruddin Shah), a pretentiously nihilistic man who spouts the kind of clichés about life’s meaninglessness one has not heard since college. The second is Kale (Amrish Puri), who intends to keep her as his caged bird — mistress of the house and caretaker of his bedridden first wife, his mother and son — but barred from ever leaving the house. In a strange Stockholm Syndrome-esque twist, she escapes Kale by writing to Keshav for help.

In all this, she has, of course, abandoned her daughter as well (her mother and grandmother passed on — she had no idea; her daughter got married — she had no idea). It would be difficult for anyone to portray her in a manner that generates sympathy, but there is a reason this is widely considered one of Patil’s finest performances ever.

Of course there is selfishness and a complete lack of ownership and responsibility for Usha’s own actions, but there is also the bitter realisation that her life has never been her own, it has always been controlled by puppeteers concerned with their own interests. So when, at one point, she swears that from now on, she will do exactly as she pleases, you do find yourself hoping she finds her peace.

Interestingly, when Keshav rescues her, he doesn’t force her back into old routines. He, too, seems to have changed. She takes him up on his offer to drop her at a hotel, where her daughter is waiting to surprise her. She refuses her offer to live with her and her husband, instead telling her to come see her often. She ignores Rajan when he calls her. And in the end, when she is finally alone, with no one pulling the strings of her life, it seems like she might finally find her peace.

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  1. There is something special, almost magical, about the first film that introduces an actress to a national audience. Smita Patil’s Bhumika claims that honour.

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