How will it be for an actress to perform the life of another actress? Effortless, one may think. Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika is the tale of an actress, who, in the course of living different roles, forgets to live her life. And by the time she realises it, she has crossed miles in her life, the clock of time being irreversible. Usha is a young, free-spirited girl. Her vocal chords are honed under the strict surveillance of her grandmother, who comes from a family of singers. On the death of her father, a relative Keshav (Amol Palekar) persuades her mother Shantabai to send Usha to the producers to make her an actress. The young Usha soon becomes the acclaimed actress Urvashi (Smita Patil). Urvashi’s growing nearness to Keshav doesn’t go down well with Shantabai as he belongs to a lower caste. But Urvashi is ready to give up all to set up a life with Keshav; even leave her career forever. She even does so, but is pulled back on Keshav’s insistence, who doesn’t want to lose a money minting machine like Urvashi.
Urvashi’s chemistry with her co-star Rajan (Anant Nag) raises smoke in newspapers, much to the jealousy of Keshav. Sparks fly in the household. Usha desperately seeks the joys of a house wife. Her vexation with her marriage leads her into a series of unfulfilled relationships outside marriage. She falls for the pontificating glib talk of a director Sunil (Nasseruddin Shah) and even makes love to him, only to discover later that he is nothing more than a fraudster. She leaves her home and comes across an arrogant businessman Vinayak Kale (Amrish Puri). His irreverence strikes a chord in her heart for he is the first one who is untouched by her stardom. Being at the end of tether in seeking some love, she even agrees to be his mistress in his feudal haveli. Usha effortlessly moulds herself into the new life but soon realises that her rights end within the four walls of the haveli. She moves out of the claustrophobic life with the help of Keshav and returns to Bombay, to find her daughter – happily married and pregnant. She contrasts it with her own cluttered life. She receives a call from her old lover Rajan, who entreats her to enter movies, for she is still in demand. But Usha, in being Urvashi, has played far too many roles for a life.
Playing multiple roles in one life
Shyam Benegal put his rural trilogy on hold while coming out with this landmark in 1977. With Bhumika, the true histrionics of Smita Patil was revealed; she had done 4-5 films before this and was more famous as a news reader in Bombay Doordarshan. Her bravura performance fetched her a well-deserved National award. She was definitely the beacon light, whose screen presence lit the movie, frame after frame. She made this one of the greatest ever performances by an actress in Indian cinema. Sad is the fact that like the character she played on screen, she tragically fell for an already married Raj Babbar and died soon after the delivery of her first child Prateik.
It helped that excellent support was provided by Amol Palekar (in a refreshing role with shades of grey), Nasseruddin Shah, Khulbhushan Kharbanda, Amrish Puri, Anant Nag and Dina Pathak. Amol Palekar brought out with ease the selfishness, insecurity, jealousy and pity that came out of Keshav.
Shyam Benegal intelligently used Black & White, Geva colour and Technicolour to signify the different time periods in this movie, where story goes back and forth in time. Time was also indicated through the use of radio news (through events like the death of Stalin and the coup staged by Ayub Khan.) Vanraj Bhatia’s music, Shama Zaidi’s art direction and Kalpana Lajmi’s costumes were spot on and effectively recreated the 1940s and 50s of Hindi cinema. Bhumika alsc captures the growth of cinema through story of Usha, from the studio system of the 1930s to the era of freelancing star system of the 50s.
Benegal draws a parallel between the characters enacted by Urvashi and her own life to enunciates it further. The movie in which Urvashi is acting – Agnipareeksha– sounds more like a statement on the life of the leading actress of the movie. The lavani, with which the movie opens, sets the tone of the movie to indicate the story of a woman, who has to perform, no matter what. In a the scene before we get to know that Usha is carrying a child out of wedlock, we see her watching Gyan Mukherjee’s 1943 blockbuster Kismet in a theatre with Keshav, where one of the characters relates the news of her pregnancy before marriage.
Usha is a bundle of contradictions, which makes her so real and relatable. She is an actress by chance and not by choice. she makes an attempt to come out of the cine field more than once, but is pulled back into its currents. The names Usha and Urvashi also seem to be well thought out by Benegal. Usha, like the morning sun is pure and bright. But Urvashi is a celestial nymph, meant to please all who come her way, with little say in her life. The only man with whom she is impressed is Rajan as she says in the lines “Ek tum hi ho jisne mujhe sirf diya hai…. tumse shaadi karke main tumhe bhi khona nahi chahti.” Bhumika is a visual treat ,with an avant-garde cinematography by Govind Nihalani. Watch out for the scene where she sits before a multi-framed mirror, reflecting on the umpteen roles she is enmeshed in. Satyadev Dubey’s dialogues were hard-hitting.
The movie ends with a phone call from Rajan which Usha leaves unanswered. A song sung by Urvashi in the movie would perhaps fill in the missing blank.
Yeh tune kaisa dikhaya sapna
Main peeche sab chod aayi apna
Khadi hoon rangon ki ek nagar mein
Badal gayi main toh ek nazar mein
Piya tumse milake ankhiyaan
Tumhare bin jee na lage ghar mein……