THE LADY WHO STOOD AT THE THRESHOLD AND BEYOND.

Finally, my review of BHUMIKA

Shyam Benegal’s BHUMIKA (1977) gives credence to the apex of the Parallel Film Movement of the nation and not without reason. Its pared down subtlety and unflinching character is as much its director’s hallmark as a triumph of atmospheric exactitude. I have seen it four times now and each time a condensed layer boils to the surface. On my most recent viewing on an inclement day, the rainy backdrop created the correct mood for partaking in its painstaking frames and intense exchanges set to natural sound. The hollowness of the rooms housing these people and the echo of their voices became earnest as the sombre atmosphere outside gave a natural dampness to the room I was in. This is a study of all these complementing human nature. There’s a method to the madness with which cinephiles devour Benegal’s ‘off beat’ corpus and his creative restraint is so down to earth, raw and organic here, it’s almost like being exposed to reels of documentary footage. A higher compliment than this can’t be sought by me.

BHUMIKA fans the flames of legendary Marathi actor – performer Hansa Wadkar’s ascent, in the austere heydays of regional cinema of the 1940s and ’50s. Here, Benegal settles for the pan Indian Hindi script to make it accessible. It helps that the story, written by her and molded to elemental perfection and profusion by such big shots as Satyadev Dubey and Girish Karnad, is largely a cinematic post – mortem of her journey, evinced in her autobiography SANGTYE AIKA ( LISTEN AND I’LL TELL).

In order to merit our rapt attention to details, he exercises not even an iota of complacency to resurrect its period and Konkan set-up. He juxtaposes Wadkar’s (named Usha in the film) beginnings rooted in privation in visually arresting sepia tones by cinematographer de jour Govind Nihalani; a throwback to the supreme black and white frames employed in films of yore. As such, her dilapidated home, a mere skeleton ambushed by wilderness of her village sorroundings, stands as a testament to her family’s woes. Its members’ hand to mouth existence is lit up by a bright spot in the form of her grandmother’s legacy as an accomplished classical singer, a gift inherited by the young Usha. The moment of them singing MOONDAR BAJU RE is an image that has been etched in my mind from the first time I watched it till now.

Baby Rukhsana is exceptional and astute as the village girl running around in pigtails and frocks, making an honest effort to have sense of her innocence and chaotic personal life. A stand out is the scene where her alcoholic father manhandles her mother for roughing her up, beating her with the same sharp stick she used, intimating us of the harsh, hard skin of her rural upbringing and patriarchal ethos. Here is the complexity of the parent – child relationship. Her father dotes on her yet cannot be a full figure in her formative years, consumed by his vice of alcohol and unemployment while the mother’s innate love is cloaked by struggles of survival. So she never gets the best of both. This is particularly realistic, away from tender, kuchikoo portrayals. That’s real life for all fantasizing over this dichotomy. Sulabha Deshpande, a veteran to reckon with, takes centre stage as the embittered woman unable to exhibit maternal lucidity owing to her circumstances. This singular yen for spouting verbal bile and disapproving Usha’s choices follow the latter throughout much of her grown-up years. In true essence, Usha is coerced by abominable hands of Fate to be put in the grip of situations that befall her. These challenging milestones find the depth of their bond reach fruition and make a breakthrough. But it simmers with a hostility not uncommon in filial and conjugal bonds. I know that for sure. Experience teaches us multitudes.

Usha / Urvashi (her stage name) soon expands her horizons, aided by Man Friday and well wisher Keshav Dahlvi (Amol Palekar). Under his guided motivation( and later manipulation), the family goes to Bombay for an audition and the rest, as they say, is history. The scene where a pre – teen Usha succeeds in pulling off a mesmerizing audition is beautiful and for aficionados of classical music, a taste of aural heaven. In the ensuing years, through hard work, diligence of craft and luck, Usha gains the denomination of a doyenne of Marathi art form.

Benegal’s punctilious spirit at nailing nuances of the process is a masterclass in itself. Dim lighting, hand painted backdrops in nondescript studio sets and Govind Nihalani’s usual touch of class bring authenticity to the art of making movies then. I don’t think this aspect of according the script with such veracity and research can be measured by another auteur. I haven’t seen it so far. The same goes to staging movie scenes from Usha’s portfolio in which Smita syncs her tone to intensify consummate but melodramatic propensities of the age. The lavani numbers, true to Patil’s own Maharashtrian heritage, are performed with rare precision and gay abandon here. In fact, BHUMIKA scores majorly as every single gasp, breath oozed by the characters ring true without traversing the path of Bollywood’s lofty escapist patents. It’s deliciously ironic in the film within a film structure, in that beyond the razzmatazz of spotlights and box office openings, real lives are mundane and passionately denuded of bright spots. The technical finesse ultimately is a way for the team to dive into the cesspool of a female pitted against feminine and feminist ideals. Remember this was made in the Golden Seventies when twentieth century was evolving, ebbing and charting in multiple ways and Feminism was instituted at its peak. Patil herself came from a parentage canvassing for women rights and she herself was a staunch vocal compeer in that regard. So she is the perfect fit to handle these worldly ironies.

Her pitch perfect on screen avatar, brooding eyes and vulnerability shadow the burden of a life torn apart by tridents of social expectations in her roles as daughter, wife and mother. Not that she fails on any of these but her status as a star is more estimable perhaps to her fawning fans. As an individual, she achieves happiness on none of these counts.

The various men play games of one upmanship, treachery, passive aggressive control and arm twisting emotional duels, none so much more than the seemingly genteel but complex Keshav. He is a bundle of tenderness, insecurities and egos, nursing his hurt pride as the lesser half of his famous wife with torrents of fluctuating temperaments; not allowing her to either fully fulfill her desires of maternal care for her child or her lack of interest in furthering her career at 30 plus to determine his own means amid a floundering business. He’s honest with her but from being the hand that fed and raised her to this pedestal to lurking in the shadows, it’s a downward spiral. His own ego centric approach ordinarily gets the better of him then. Naseeruddin Shah and Amrish Puri too tackle grey areas of human behavior vis a vis male prestige / uncertainty with impeccable grace, Puri with the cold menace of his commands and Naseer with his convincing pearls of hollow virtues. However, there is no push and shove by them to imprison Usha as she willingly explores her prospects of companionship with them. Yet they reveal their true colors as in her consent they interpret a leeway to tame her. Usha takes her own decisions even if it’s headed for No Man’s Land. If it fails, it will be her own setback to spare. Blame games are not at her threshold.

Kulbhushan Kharbanda then has to eat his humble pie as the producer who empathises with and looks out for her as a true blue confidante. This picture of equilibrium is rounded out by Anant Nag as the genuine movie star Rajan, a picture of humility revelling in the afterglow of his unrequited love for Usha. It breaks your heart to realize that fate had handed these mutually platonic lovers a raw deal in not uniting them earlier, before Usha underwent a gamut of turmoils and frustrations.

Society is the ringleader attempting to stifle the force of a woman rich in material fortunes but bereft of real attachments or a center. Usha is still the trailblazer who refuses to cow down to it with blind eyes, ultimately standing at a precarious crossroad in the film’s climax, open ended as it is. Creative pioneers always have to fall back on open ended revelations, I feel. That said, I reiterate that Patil’s impassioned transformation into Wadkar’s movie portrait is the stuff of legends. Benegal, on his part, is an observant critic of his social structure and takes note of the minutest of gestures and ideas that matter.

Of course, the slack pace befitting its unraveling and gritty embers of this screenplay may hinder its prospects for you on a very first tryst. But as you immerse yourself in his and Patil’s no nonsense approach, BHUMIKA becomes a meditative take on the value of womanhood and the duality of our lives, trading bombast for the price of silence. It’s the kind of silence which leaves us musing about larger truths. It is revolutionary in its inner workings of a life and womanhood as well as individuality. There are no judgements left as a residue but a haunting lull before its internalized storm comes to us.

As a side note, Preeti Sagar’s playback singing here matches claims of versatility we usually bandy about. For this chameleonic voice that adapted a rustic tone for the theme song of another classic by Benegal MANTHAN(1976) and an Anglo – Indian effusion for evergreen English language number MY HEART IS BEATING from blockbuster JULIE (1975), she handles a trifecta here as a Marathi mulgi for the lavani number MERA ZASKILA BALAAM NA AAYA, goes typically love- flushed for TUMHAARE BIN JI NA LAGE and wistful in SAAWAN KE DIN. That’s the gold standard of versatility.

Last but not least : watch out for a young Om Puri, unrecognizable under his mythological get up, in that fascinatingly, realistically shot movie scene being canned in the studio where Usha goes for her first audition. From his diabolical laughter to the use of fire operated by assistants, it stays true to the pitch of the era ( the 1930s perhaps) and workings of a movie set as also the style of genre filmmaking. Puri is spot on even in one scene which is the measure of his legendary status.

** the real Hansa Wadkar, on whom the film is based.

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