It was my utter privilege to expand my Smita Patil filmography further and I absolutely relished her contributions to the composite cultural whole by watching BHAVANI BHAVAI(1980), a pioneering work from the resplendent West Indian state of Gujarat. But it’s an ensemble piece that is instantly relatable to each and every Indian, language no bar; a treat for any cinephile and lover of cinema.
It’s such a visually appealing experience, drawing from the folk influences and musical-dance storytelling tradition of the native Bhavai form of Gujarat, to craft an immensely palatable universal tale.
The earthy yellow-brown of the location, finery of the king’s palace, the ancient frisson of breathtaking architecture and colourful attires do not, however, blind us with an overwhelming feeling of awe. At the end of the day, the majesty of man made marvels or might of kings and queens hardly camouflage human misery at the root of our existence. BHAVANI BHAVAI, in the vein of some of the best cinema from the parallel movement in the 1970s and 1980s, is a prime example of how to perfectly wed the richness of regional lingua franca and all its particular intricacy with a charging social consciousness. The regional form of the Bhavai, like the puppet form of Rajasthan, the Jatra of West Bengal, and traditional dances like Kathak, Oriya and several others, revels in the uninhibited expressiveness of the Indian ethos. Body language and a characteristic openness to reveal subterranean issues of value by catching attention with the musicality of its content, is attuned to that cultural understanding.
Here, satire and comedy figure in the whole equation to show us the mendacity of those in a position to control and influence the already egotistical ruling classes. This class and caste war then gradually makes inroads for a poignant illustration of suffering brought on by stupefying decrees, influenced, in turn, by conservative values and unruly predictions exploiting those at the lower rungs of the system. Noblemen, sycophants, treasurers, astrologers and priests all participate in this farce in the name of multiplying the royal household’s fortunes.
Nasseeruddin Shah is, per the rule, wonderful as the king who is as much of a victim of machinations by others as those he slams as beneath him, a product of hereditary class consciousness but he’s also a richly comic presence, never actually occupying a real purpose to serve other than be a bad administrator without any outlook of his own. Suhasini Mulay as his wife is also pegged on the same scales though her controlled behaviour divides her from moments of hysteria on his part.
Om Puri, pulling double duty as raconteur of the central folk tale and the father of a son called to give up his life according to the king’s whims within that, is excellent while Dina Pathak is a dignified mix of maternal care and painful vulnerability for the fate of her only child.
Ultimately, Smita Patil and Mohan Gokhale are the heart and soul of BHAVANI BHAVAI, lending it musicality through theatrical style song and dance presentations and the delicate balance of societal conflict with love for each other. A particular highlight is when they escape from the clutches of the king’s henchmen by staging a play at the palace and amuse us wholeheartedly with their comic touch and nimble moves. The folk tradition is very much a part of their act, Bhavai style, as per the title.
Elsewhere, in the staging of the protagonist’s life, I could find traces of Lord Krishna and Moses, especially how he is left to glide by on a river, in a box, as a baby when he is declared persona non grata upon birth by the king’s stooges. Only, he is no Godly figure. Instead, he’s an outcast called for the bidding hands of death. Also, there’s an interesting point about how his good looks make him stand out when his contested identity as the king’s exiled son does the rounds, putting his royal antecedents up for debate regarding the sanctity of looks and appearances. His idling nature also presents a clue to his background especially when he sleeps leisurely while his parents toil hard at the construction site of a stepwell.
Barring Dina Pathak, who is Gujarati herself, none of the other actors originally took Gujarati as their mother tongue and yet they all came together to imbibe its nuances for this multidimensional tale. They come up aces as thorough professionals and consummate artists. Since most of them were products of the distinguished FILM AND TELEVISION INSTITUTE OF INDIA and NATIONAL SCHOOL OF DRAMA, they had prepared themselves for this unforgettable experience. Of course for Smita Patil, this only added to her arsenal of greatest hits besides her affinity for languages other than the pan-national Hindi. Her work in Marathi, Bengali, Malayalam cinema attests to that ethic for a quintessential Indian diversity. I also love how her sculptural, statuesque beauty is one with her ethos, always. She becomes the gypsy calling for freedom for all.
BHAVANI BHAVAI also achieves a contemporary tone along with its timeless folkloric sensibility when the image of churning water coalesces with the archival sea of humanity representing the fight for Indian Independence, positing a legacy for protest against injustice. The final shots of looming factory furnaces further that bleak imagery of a post-industrialized landscape where workers are taken for granted at every step of the way. Royalty and capitalism hence intertwine as one entity with different names, delivering its blows of cruelty against the milling majority. It ends on that sombre note.
Last but not the least, the film’s climactic scene where the lead protagonist is called forth for his beheading was shot in the beautiful RANI KI VAV, now an UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE. The historical touch traces the legacy of class relations in a visually striking manner then.
NOTE: BHAVANI BHAVAI is available on YouTube so make sure you watch it. I have put it up at the beginning of the essay.
The impact of this five hour epic from ace director-cinematographer Govind Nihalani, originally released as a miniseries, is drawn from its auditory invoking of OH RABBA( OH GOD)! at the very beginning. It gives that regional and universal cry of horror a place in the pantheon of works replicating the loss of humanity, during the partition of Indian subcontinent in 1947.
I know I am still haunted by some of its potent imagery after having watched it almost two years ago. It’s a story that Mr. Nihalani and writer of the original novel and a central performer in the series Bhisham Sahni have a personal stake in, both knowing what it means to be uprooted from one’s home. The word Partition for them always reeks of an unsavoury legacy. Of impaired memories of the place that raised them, desecrated by carriers of hate.
For me, TAMAS (DARKNESS) rests in the images of its womenfolk who come to represent the crucial passage of time for unsuspecting individuals, thrust into the center of one of history’s worst pogroms. Its emotional toll is extracted here in these instances.
Like the ones with Surekha Sikri as the woman giving her conscience a chance to shelter an elderly couple, knowing that her fanatical son may spell doom for them yet standing by her guts in the face of his wrath, to defend them, and see them to obscure safety outside her roiling four walls.
Or Dina Pathak beautifully embodying one half of the same elderly couple after losing its home and shop, memories and symbols of a lifetime, not even able to make food for the perilous journey on foot. Her one striking moment of hope is when her beloved pet parrot, whom she had set free, calls out to her in the woods and repeats the religious line of endearment, RAB RAKHA( IN GOD’S NAME), and she is reassured that atleast he is safe and sound, not caged within sectarian considerations, in a world of living beings grappling with mortality. It’s such an evocative, emotional moment, lasting mere seconds but registering its impact for the longest time.
How can I also ever forget the stern, committed look on Uttara Baokar’s face as the young lady singing her impassioned paean to the Lord and her steely resolve as she leads an army of women down an ill-fated plunge into the well. Her own singing voice and expressions still send a shiver down my spine. She martyrs herself along with others, for a lost cause and it’s that poignancy and horror that is so urgently recreated with her presence.
Last but not the least is Deepa Sahi as the pregnant woman whose eyes are vessels, absorbing the social turnaround even as her frazzled husband (Om Puri) searches for a sign of safety for her, himself and their unborn baby within this simmering cauldron of communal tempers.
The sight of the national flag held by one man within a fledgling nation sums up this imagery of darkness seeping into the hearts of a populace waking up to freedom from imperialism, only to be imprisoned in the cross-currents of national disintegration.
A young man’s devotion to a long deceased artistic guru’s words, leading him out of the daily pressures of his own creative pursuits, is captured in swooning slow motion, as he rides his bike across late night city streets of Bombay. It’s a trance like state that is realistically captured by Chaitanya Tamhane on his globally renowned Marathi feature THE DISCIPLE. The protagonist here mirrors the highs and lows of living with the bounty of creativity. It’s one that prefers stark truth over just an idealized fantasy of adhering to one’s instincts.
Whether it’s in the midst of his classical singing or instrumental performance, his focus is on nurturing his craft. Feeling left out and dissonant from a world running on convention, with not enough credit for his hard work and practice, is realistically realized. A single-minded, unwavering devotion to classical singing is his only reality. In a lot of ways, I could see myself in him as a creative individual.
A reality television ala Indian Idol is recreated with painstaking detail to present a contrast with his worldviews. His perusal of the lives of his contemporaries more successful than him. His physical repression. The weight of his own quest for elusive perfection or something close to it all become part and parcel of his journey.
His father’s legacy, too, is captured beautifully, like his interview on Doordarshan maintaining the pristine quality of the backdrop of set, picture quality as shown on television and a general ethos from back in the day. Or the wonderful, unbroken scene in the train with his colleagues who travel with him. As well as the musical convention held in a beautiful lakeside location.
Most of all, Aditya Modak, a real-life musician and trained classical vocalist, gives heft to his vocation and pulls off a staggering feat in self-identification, including but not limited to his physical metamorphosis in a scenario where he touches his 40s. Watch his puzzlement and hurt as a veteran journalist breaks his aura of reverence for greats of the field and his own way of exhibiting rage against these criticisms physically. He is a man living in this cold world and looking to masters of the past to know better about the life-force.
THE DISCIPLE wrestles with the dilemmas of being a student for life while being chased by moving hands of Time. It’s a remarkable feat in veracity and a must watch especially for all creative souls. They will see themselves in this life-script.