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Daily RC Article 162

Bhumika: Shyam Benegal's Departure into Human Dram


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Shyam Benegal's fourth film marks a substantial departure from his first three works. Bhumika is inspired by the autobiography of the 1940s Marathi and Hindi movie star Hansa Wadkar. The book used the title of her most famous film, the mega hit musical Sangtye Aika (1959). It became an instant best-seller, being an extraordinarily candid tale of a young woman who came from a tradition of kalavantins. She joined the film industry as a child actress mainly to support her mother and grandmother, and went on to become a foremost Marathi star.

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Benegal's movie adapts this story into a human interest saga of a traditional courtesan coming to terms with contemporary mass culture, and her struggle to find her own individuality in the process. The framing narrative shows Usha, the movie star, leave her husband and seek shelter first with her male co-star Rajan, and eventually in the oppressive confines of the estate of the feudal landlord, Kale. Her husband arrives with the police to rescue her from Kale. Free once more, she rejects the offers of support from her husband, her daughter and her former lover Rajan, presumably in favour of the independence she craved.

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Female protagonists seeking independence through various kinds of social engagements, failing and then "going away," were a common and familiar stereotype in much of the New Indian Cinema of the time. Feminist critic Susie Tharu's remarks about Usha's counterpart Sulabha in Jabbar Patel's Umbartha (1981) apply to the stereotype in Bhumika as well: "The filmic focus . . . establishes her as the central character as well as the problem the film will explore and resolve . . . it is clear that to search herself is, for a woman, a tragic enterprise. An enterprise in which she is doomed to fail, but can fail bravely and heroically".

The film develops its enigmatic protagonist with a dense overlay of nostalgia, through a series of sepia flashbacks showing Usha's childhood in the Konkan. Undoubtedly Bhumika's most attractive aspect, these flashbacks show her meetings with her future husband, Dalvi, who claims her in return for helping her impoverished family.

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This mode of reconstructing the past to create an idiom of tragic fiction is all the more remarkable because of its startling contrast to Benegal's previous work: political features addressing a rural peasantry in the context of the Communist Party of India "Naxalite" movements in the late 1960s and through the 1970s. Ankur (1974) and Nishant (1975) were set in rural Andhra Pradesh, Manthan (1976) addressed the struggle of Gujarati peasants to set up a milk cooperative. All three films worked and these films' success created a commercially viable 1970s trend of a ruralist realism, using accented Hindi to simulate the language of Telugu and Gujarati speaking villagers, and a naturalist, stage-derived acting style that for many years came to be equated in several Indian cinemas, and later in its television, with a political and cultural authenticity.

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Clearly Benegal shifts ground with Bhumika. It was the first Hindi film from the short-lived New Indian Cinema movement designed to reach a large audience and to receive a substantial commercial release. It went a long way in creating for its maker a reputation for providing culturally refined entertainment, in contrast to that churned out by the mainstream Hindi film industry.

Shyam Benegal's fourth film, "Bhumika," marks a significant departure from his earlier politically charged works. Inspired by the autobiography of Marathi and Hindi movie star Hansa Wadkar, the film tells the story of a traditional courtesan, Usha, navigating contemporary mass culture and seeking independence. The narrative unfolds through sepia-toned flashbacks, portraying Usha's childhood in the Konkan. Unlike Benegal's previous political films, "Bhumika" presents a dense overlay of nostalgia and is hailed for creating culturally refined entertainment. The movie represents a departure into human drama within the context of the short-lived New Indian Cinema movement, reaching a broader audience and contributing to Benegal's reputation for sophisticated storytelling.
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