A Cinematic Master

With each viewing of Shyam Benegal's Bhumika (The Role), I am filled with a sense of grief that I was not alive during heyday of Indian 'parallel' cinema. Benegal (along with Mrinal Sen, Govind Nihalani, Amol Palekar, and Girish Karnad) is a true cinematic pioneer who moved away from the glamorous commercial musical that has stereotypically come to represent Indian cinema. Bhumika was one of the high points of the parallel cinema movement that favored aesthetic realism, narratives of class, caste and gender inequality, and the (re)building of a postcolonial nation. These politically charged films were acted by a pseudo-repertory company of accomplished actors--among them, Shabana Azmi, Naseerudin Shah, Om Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbandha, Amrish Puri, Smita Patil and Anant Nag.

The national award-winning Bhumika, released in 1978, is the story of film-actress Usha (Smita Patil) and her search for freedom. As in the courtesan narrative, Usha is essentially "sold" to a film studio at a young age, only to become the most popular actress of her time. The film follows Usha through a series of failed romantic and familial entanglements that leave her painfully alone, though ultimately wiser.

Alongside the narrative of the public performing woman's desire for private happiness and social freedom, is the story of Indian cinema itself. Benegal, due to a limited availability of film stock, chose to shoot Bhumika with black and white, sepia, and Eastman color film to reflect the modes of production from the early 1930s through the early sixties--the timeframe of Usha's film stardom. It's a startling effect, and brings a level of visual richness usually absent from commercial films of the time. Further, Benegal exploits the possibilities of the film-within-a-film convention, and allows the viewer to witness Usha's acting prowess first-hand, again commenting on representations ("roles") of women and Indian womanhood in the cinema. We see Usha playing the devoted wife, the sacrificing mother, the sexually suspect economically independent single woman--all loaded figures in the history of Indian cinema.

The film is superbly acted by Amol Palekar, Amrish Puri, Naseerudin Shah, Anant Nag, and the incomparable Smita Patil, who tragically died in her early thirties, long before she reached her true greatness.

Benegal, too, was at the peak of his career as a director. His later work, though still of the highest quality, has lacked the political charge of his early days. Bhumika may well be his masterwork.

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