Millennials Review Classics: ‘Bhumika’ Unmasks, Lays Bare a Woman
Shyam Benegal’s 1976 classic Bhumika left me with a broken smile.
It traces the life of a Marathi actress, Usha, through a story that catapults one into a whirlpool, chalking out her trials through the foggy lens of womanhood.
Usha is laid bare, but she does not shrink under your gaze.
She is the Gal Gadot to a clunky Aloknath, The Vagina Monologues to present-day consciousness and a burnt bra to the 70s.
The restive little girl grows into a poised woman with tired eyes while generous chunks of fortune are allocated to her, only to be snatched away with great flourish.
Usha, hailing from the Devadasi community, is hurled into adolescent stardom by Keshav, played by Amol Palekar, only to be lured into a lacklustre marriage that banks on her earnings. She soon realises the truth and looks for respite elsewhere. Rajan, a co-actor, played by Anant Nag, provides her a breather every now and then, while Sunil’s nihilism, played by Naseeruddin Shah, takes unforeseen turns. Even level-headed Vinayak, played by Amrish Puri, lets her down, stifles her and leads her to leave his estate and head for Bombay with Keshav’s help.
She keeps flitting about, interspersing the narrative with glimpses of the restive little girl we saw at the beginning.
Usha is not armed with a My Choice billboard that banks on present-day liberties. She is a woman plagued by regressive conditioning, burdened with a fine-grained stamp of the 70s.
She is a mother, a daughter, a wife, a lover and, most importantly, a face that prepares itself to meet the wagging tongues that shove down platitudes like “Stree ka charitra uski sabse badi poonji hoti hain’’ or “apne qaid se samjhauta kar le’’ down her throat.
In one scene, she is reproached by Keshav when she wants to take their daughter away with her. She is arm-twisted into submission, accused of trying to turn their daughter into someone like “her’’. Further into the story, when Vinayak seems to be her final anchor, he tells her that she is restricted from leaving his house, on account of ‘familial customs’.
Wherever Usha goes, she lugs around societal weight.
Her choices are met with repercussions far worse than the ones a woman would face today. Nevertheless, she makes the boldest ones possible, given her means and her times.
She juggles her own needs along with those of others. And she falters every now and then. But you are never made to leave her side because Usha, despite her ‘failings’, never wears a vacant look. When she looks into your eyes, you are forced to hold her crowded gaze. A gaze that is riddled with ‘should-haves’ and ‘could-haves’; one that makes you relate with the woman buried under the dos and don’ts.
Based on Marathi star Hansa Wadkar’s autobiography, Benegal’s narrative keeps taking you back and forth as you alternate between Usha’s past and present. Usha’s past is in black and white and her present in colour.
Strangely enough, neither the pace nor the colour acts as an impediment. You stay hooked to Usha’s story that tugs at your heartstrings and drags you down to reality.
Of the past or the present.
Reality isn’t a brisk swipe or a thumb twiddling on your keyboard. It isn’t a 2-hour thriller, packaged with steroid-riddled bodies and music that unleashes the sentimentalist in you.
Reality is stark, crude, honest and WITHOUT a background score.
Usha refuses to stay with her husband or her daughter at the end. She decides to spend time with herself, hoping to make peace with her ‘loneliness’
Smita Patil unearths a woman in the 70s, frayed and unmasked.
Despite my Tinder-wielding attention span and need for instant thrills, I was hooked to the screen.
Usha is not someone I am going to forget soon.