Over the weekend of the 9th-10th June, the BFI is honouring Shyam Benegal, one of India’s leading directors. Considered one of the founders of India’s ‘New Wave’, Benegal began his film career in the 1970s. From then to this day, his work has successfully trod the line between Bollywood and art cinema.
The Benegal weekend at BFI will present screenings of two of the director’s masterpieces: Bhumika (The Role, 1977) and Junoon (Obsession, 1978). Based on a true story, Bhumika follows the turbulent life of a Bollywood film actress. Junoon is a tale of love between coloniser and colonised during the 1857 rebellion, adapted from Ruskin Bond’s novel A Flight of Pigeons. On both days, Benegal will be present at the BFI, where he will accept an award from the South Asian Cinema Foundation (SACF) and give a masterclass on the making of Bhumika.
I had a chance to preview Bhumika, which stars actress Smita Patil in the lead role of Usha. The film opens with the kind of set piece audiences would expect from Bollywood: a classically-inspired ensemble dance routine, supported by joyful music, vibrato voices, colourful costumes and knowing glances. But there is immediately something strange: the title sequence is superimposed on the dancers, spoiling the spectacle. Then, the camera draws back to reveal the crude mechanism behind the dream: where the tiny set ends is a larger space full of cranes, cameras and lighting equipment. Reality intrudes further as one of the dancers twists her ankle. The recorded music groans to a halt and a businesslike director steps onto the set, calling an end to the day’s shooting.
Usha, the star of the film, is next seen waiting outside for her driver who never turns up, another contrast with Bollywood’s perfectly choreographed world. A colleague drives her home, where her jealous husband immediately picks a fight with her in front of their traumatised daughter. The scene feels like a return to mainstream melodrama, but even this illusion is undermined as Usha’s husband accuses her of talking like she is in a film. Tired of him dredging up her past infidelity, Usha packs her bag and leaves, a familiar course of action in her unsettled life. The film then dips back into her past, not to justify Usha as an entirely innocent victim, but certainly demonstrating that she is a victim of circumstances.
Scenes of Usha’s village childhood seem to contrast with her current life in Mumbai. Most obviously, Usha’s present is filmed with vibrant colour film stock, while her past is bathed in a golden monochrome. Like Apu or Durga in Pather Panchali, Usha is filmed from above as she runs through the forest, and is harassed by a neighbour as she tries to get food for her family. Her home life is also similar to Satyajit Ray’s portrayal: in a modest house, centred around a courtyard, she bonds with her grandmother, is indulged by her father and tries to avoid her bad-tempered mother. As in Ray’s work, death circles the house like an unpredictable beast. When it finally strikes, Usha is pushed into the film business as a way to make money: the great tragedy of her life is that she wants to escape from Bollywood but never does.
It is difficult to know exactly what Usha wants—nobody really asks her. But as she grows up, the audience can see patterns in her decisions. These patterns, combined with the few moments when Usha shares her feelings, suggest that Usha wants a simple domestic life, but she also wants an adult woman’s freedom. Her mistake is in seeing men as potential saviours. As another woman points out to her: ‘men in films are all the same—only the masks change’. Usha never meets a man who doesn’t attempt to control her: pushing her into the limelight, keeping her for himself, or trying to do both at once.
Clearly, Bhumika is still very modern in its portrayal of a woman who rebels (albeit unsuccessfully) against attempts to control her. It also incorporates controversial topics such as premarital sex, adultery and abortion. On every one of its film-set scenes, there are shots of directors unselfconsciously dancing and striking effeminate poses to demonstrate what Usha needs to do. Such blurring of gender roles carried over into Benegal’s later work such as Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008), which incorporated a political party of transvestites in a small village.
Based on the autobiography of Hansa Wadkar, an actress of the 1930s and 40s, Bhumika is no love letter to Bollywood. Scenes of Usha during film shoots form only a small part of the film, and emphasise the industry’s down-to-earth side rather than its dreaminess. Bhumika focuses instead on Usha’s relationships with her family, colleagues and lovers: ironically, all attempt to impose roles on Usha, as if her whole life were a film.
Both stylistically and thematically, Bhumika breaks the Bollywood illusion, most obviously through the contrast between the kitsch film sets Usha works on and the difficulties she faces in her real life. More subtly, near the end of the film when Usha appears to have found her perfect life, there is an inversion of the early scene where she fought with her husband. As though Usha’s real life has finally come to resemble a Bollywood film, a montage sequence presents idealised tableaux of domestic harmony. The tone and style are as clearly artificial as actual film shoots from Usha’s working life, and the audience knows such happiness cannot last. The happy always has its counterpoint in the sad, forming a bittersweet, realistic ending to Bhumika.
Screening schedules for the BFI’s Shyam Benegal weekend can be found on their web site. Details of other Benegal events, including his lecture on ‘New Indian Cinema Circa 2012’ can be found on the web site of the South Asian Cinema Foundation.