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Shyam Benegal & Smita Patil's best perhaps:O.P. Srivastava takes a look at Bhumika(The Role).

Smita Patil in Bhumika(1977).

Bhumika (The Role) is a 1977 Hindi film directed by Shyam Benegal. The film’s ensemble included Smita Patil, Amol Palekar, Anant Nag, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Amrish Puri, Sulabha Deshpande, Mohan Agashe, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Dina Pathak and BV Karanth. Lalit Bijlani and Freni Variava of Blaze Enterprises produced and distributed the film, which is 142 minutes long.

The story of Bhumika is based largely on the memoirs of the well-known Marathi stage and screen actress of the 1940s and 50s, Hansa Wadkar, who led a flamboyant and unconventional life. The film captures a woman’s struggle to create an identity of her own and live life on her own terms in a patriarchal society. The book, as narrated to journalist Arun Sadhu, used the title of Wadkar’s most famous film, the mega-hit musical Sangtye Aika (Listen and I’ll Tell You). The book was a sensation, being an extraordinarily candid tale of a young woman from the tradition of kalavantis, courtesans from the Goa coastline renowned for their musical accomplishments, but considered of low caste.

Govind Nihalani did the cinematography, and Bhanudas Divakar and Ramnik Patel edited the film, while Vanraj Bhatia composed the music with Majrooh Sultanpuri and Vasant Dev providing the lyrics.

The heavily atmospheric film draws you in with its mesmerising magnetism. The Indian film industry, from the 1930s to 1950s, serves as a fascinating backdrop, and radio broadcasts capture milestone events of changing times from the pre-war period to the post-Independence India of the Bhakra Nangal Dam. The flashbacks and melodious soundtrack create captivating imagery, which is hard to forget.

The film takes the audience on the undulating journey of its enigmatic protagonist Usha (Smita Patil), with an ethereal overlay of nostalgia through a series of sepia-coloured flashback sequences.

Undoubtedly the most striking part of the film, these sepia sequences give the audience a peek into the initial phase of Wadkar’s pre-war film career, which included stunt movies, mythological features and tear-jerking social dramas. Usha’s audition in Bhumika at the Surya Movietone premises is a reconstruction of Wadkar’s audition at Shalini Cinetone Studio, which was conducted by the famous composer Govindrao Tembe, tabla maestro Tirakhan and director Baburao Painter.

These ‘film within film’ glimpses create a contrast and provide a diaphanous layer in the melodramatic screenplay as Benegal quietly breaks the fourth wall with the help of composer Vanraj Bhatia. The dancer’s strained ankle, the male choreographer enacting the heroine’s part, the director’s curtness, the dozing light men and the electric apparatus spewing fire on the makeshift film sets all take the audience into the world of sweat and drudgery behind celluloid fantasies – they are mere trivia on the screen but add a deeper meaning to the storyline.

One of the major contributors to creating the atmosphere of the film was Vanraj Bhatia’s music, which added another layer to the film, enhancing its authenticity and emotional, melodramatic mood.

Bhatia, a composer largely influenced and trained in Western classical music, had also composed for Ankur and Nishant. Unlike other composers of his time, Vanraj Bhatia arranged the orchestration of the score for all his songs himself and brought new singing talents like Preeti Sagar into the film industry. When Sagar recorded her song ‘Tumhare Bin Jee Na Lage’ for Bhumika, she was 14 years old and had already won a Filmfare Best Female Singer Award for ‘Maro Gaon Kathiawar’ for Manthan (1978) and a special Filmfare Award for the hit ‘My Heart is Beating’ (1975).

It is believed that, during production, the crew ran short of colour stock due to foreign exchange issues. To overcome this shortage, Benegal decided to shoot Usha’s present in colour and past in black and white. Cinematographer Govind Nihalani was not convinced, but had to give in to the director’s vision due to necessity rather than any artistic consideration.

Talking about Bhumika, which he considers his best work with Benegal, Nihalani mentioned that a lot of research was done to understand the cinematic style of the four distinct phases of India’s film industry that the film was to cover, by watching the films of these periods at the FTII archives.

Smita Patil, 22 years old and still new to cinema, initially found her role daunting. Yet, as shooting progressed, Patil gave a strong performance of the multi-layered character, transforming from a vivacious teenager to a wiser but deeply wounded middle-aged woman who was always only half-sure of what she was doing with her life.

With this stellar performance, Patil not only found her space in the film industry but also went on to win the National Award for her performance. Amol Palekar had been offered Anant Nag’s role, but he preferred to play the greasy Keshav to break his positive image. The jealousy, frustration, greed and, at times, the helplessness – Palekar’s shifting eyes seamlessly reflect all these emotions, making us feel for the grovelling soul. Nag brings out the insecurity of a star, and Naseeruddin Shah played the role of a pseudo-intellectual with finesse.

Amol Palekar with Smita Patil in Bhumika(1977).

Bhumika was set in Maharashtra’s Konkan region, whereas Benegal’s previous films were based in Andhra Pradesh, and he was unfamiliar with the cultural nuances of the region. Thus, Benegal invited Girish Karnad, who had acted in his films Nishant and Manthan, to co-write the script. Karnad was born in Matheran in Maharashtra, and his father, Dr Raghunath Karnad, a doctor in Bombay Medical Services, was a Konkani speaking Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin. Another noted theatre director and playwright, Satyadev Dubey, wrote the ‘chipchipe’ and ‘liplipe’ dialogues for the film.

Naseeruddin Shah with Smita Patil in Bhumika(1977).

The film won two National Awards in 1977, one for Smita Patil as Best Actress and another for Best Screenplay and Dialogue. It also won the Filmfare Award for Best Film in 1977 and was invited to the Chicago Film Festival, where it was awarded the Golden Plaque in 1978.

Bhumika was a path-breaking film, the first of the parallel cinema movement to reach a wider audience and receive a substantial commercial release – it ran for 50 days in a mainstream theatre like Mumbai’s Eros. It stood out in the Hindi film market against Bollywood films like Amar Akbar Anthony (Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Mehra and Rishi Kapoor), Dream Girl (Dharmendra, Hema Malini), Dharm Veer (Dharmendra, Zeenat Aman) and Hum Kisi Se Kam Nahi (Rishi Kapoor, Zeenat Aman).

The film created a new genre of Hindi films which developed a reputation for providing culturally refined entertainment in Hindi cinema in contrast with Bollywood masala films. Bhumika was indeed a major milestone in the history of parallel cinema.

OP Srivastava is a career banker, writer of Pillars of Parallel Cinema: 50 Path breaking Hindi films and filmmaker. spent 35 years in public and private sector banks in India. His first feature documentary, Life in Metaphors, won the National Award for Best Biopic in 2015.

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