Sunday 8 November 2020

On demand: "Bhumika/The Role"

Inspired by the life of Hansa Wadkar, much put-upon star of Marathi and Hindi cinema, 1977's Bhumika is notable as an example of a filmmaker coming to Bollywood as an outsider, and with zero intention of furthering his status by sucking up. The director is the socially minded Shyam Benegal (Ankur: The Seedling), and the Bombay he sets audiences down in is far from a happy place. In the opening moments, we watch a lavish musical number being shot, only for leading lady Usha (Smita Patil) to turn an ankle mid-song; the pain is compounded when she hobbles home to be thrown out by a jealous husband (Amol Palekar) who suspects her of having an affair with her married co-star. This domestic rupture snaps the film in two. Thereafter, we get the sorry tale of how our heroine reached this breaking point, intertwined with her attempts to move on and heal. In the flashback scenes, shot by Govind Nihalani in a gorgeous, burnished monochrome, Usha is introduced as a simple village girl, a child of another tempestuous-to-abusive marriage, turned over to Palekar's creep after he chases her through the streets. The Bergmanesque cruelty of their marriage is offset (slightly) by her subsequent progression through the movie ranks, but she's forever chasing a happiness that is so much easier to come by on a screen. Gradually, the realisation dawns that Usha has been typecast in the role of victim, and that where the movies routinely provide performers with a choreographer to step in and correct them whenever they make a wrong move, life offers no such safety net.

The setting allows Benegal to have a measure of fun recreating the kind of extravagant shoots he otherwise wouldn't go near (Usha's career trajectory encompasses swashbucklers, swooning melodramas and mythological epics) and to work in the songs his films had traditionally swerved. There are just enough of those for the film to have flirted with a mainstream audience, but Benegal steps onto these soundstages with an eye to investigating how all this spectacle is constructed, and to consider its spiritual cost. He's not a romantic - which is why the movie couldn't be any further from, say, Om Shanti Om - but a realist. That's most apparent from his use of monochrome, which strips the films-within-the-film of their seductive surfaces of colour and glamour, levelling it with the two-dimensional, very real passion and drama being played out behind the scenes. In doing so, Bhumika succeeds in contrasting the shimmering public image of the Bombay dream factory with the messy private lives of its workforce, heroes with the flawed human beings playing them, escapist illusion with harsh, unavoidable actuality. (Note how Benegal leaves a radio on in the background of certain scenes, bringing news of war or the latest from Kashmir: the escapism is allowed to run only so far.) At the heart of it, where Bollywood might slot in a neat love triangle with attractive points, Benegal permits very little romance, not much pleasure. We're mostly watching a woman bouncing back-and-forth in search of a protection and security the movie business - and the men who control it - cannot provide. There is tenderness here, chiefly from a young, playful Naseeruddin Shah as a director who does sincerely care for Usha, but even this couple's pillow talk concerns the pills one of them carries round with an eye to someday snuffing themselves out. That makes for a far tougher sit than that song-and-dance opening maybe suggests - in retrospect, the heroine's turned ankle is but a sign of agonies to come - but I'll wager at least one or two men working in the Bollywood biz of the time saw it and gulped.

Bhumika/The Role is now streaming on Prime Video.

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