When Shyam Benegal was making Bhumika (The Role, 1977), the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act was in effect in India, which made it practically impossible to import film stock from Kodak. Films in production were rationed color film stock and if Benegal was to continue making Bhumika, he would have to use whatever old stock that was available: the East German Orwo, which the director called a “dreadful stock,” that was sold at a rupee; and some tinted black-and-white stock. He promptly changed the whole structure of his film and decided to narrate the life of actor Hansa Wadkar (whose career spanned three decades: from 1936 to 1968) and mark the passage of time with film stocks: black-and-white for the 1930s, Orwo for the 1950s, and Kodak color for the sixties. His cinematographer, Govind Nihalani, was not pleased.
Wadkar’s autobiography, Sangtye Aika (1970), was a collation of a set of interviews that appeared in serialized form in a Marathi film magazine and another set of interviews that were conducted to fill in the gaps. Sadly, those interviews got interrupted by her illness, thereby leaving a few narrative holes in the published autobiography. It is only fitting then that the film Wadkar’s autobiography inspired, Bhumika, is somewhat of a collage of film stocks that come together to create the mosaic that was Wadkar’s life.
“My family is a family of courtesans,” reads the first sentence of Sangtye Aika. Wadkar belonged to a family of devadasis; women who would dedicate their lives to serving a particular deity or temple. These women would be trained in classical dance and music, which would form an important part of their worship rituals. The devadasis were inducted into temples through a ceremony that was akin to a marriage wherein young pre-pubescent girls were “married” to deities and were expected to lead a life of celibacy. These young women, away from parental protection, would be easy sexual targets for kings and priests, the powers that ran the temples, and would often earn a living through prostitution. As women who sang and danced and remained unmarried, the devadasis faced social ostracism in spite of their talents. The yearning of Usha (the protagonist based on Wadkar in Bhumika, played by Smita Patil) and her mother Shantabai (Sulabha Deshpande) for marriage and the social acceptability it brings with it, is, therefore, understandable. “I was the first woman of our family to find a husband and an upper caste one at that,” says the mother, who is married to an alcoholic and abusive man.
In Usha’s family, the knowledge of music is handed down matrilineally; she, her mother, and grandmother form the core of each other’s universe while men come and go. However, all of them internalize the idea that it’s marriage that brings a woman social legitimacy, and desire to escape their subversive family structure. The radio in Bhumika announces the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the event that not only led to World War II but also a new wave of feminism that began as a reaction to the renewed domesticity of women following the war. It is against this news broadcast that Usha asks the much-older Keshav (Amol Palekar) to marry her, hoping to finally stop working as an actor and immerse herself in a domestic life of marital bliss. Much before the term “personal is political” made it into the feminist lexicon, women like Hansa Wadkar were straddling public and personal lives, desperately trying to find a sense of respect and fulfillment both these spaces deny them.
Keshav denies Usha the domesticity she yearns for because he lives off her earnings. He becomes her de facto manager and takes complete control over her career and bank account, all the while manipulating her into submission through blackmail and violence. While her body as an actor was the site of people’s desires and aspirations, and the source of Usha’s financial stability, Keshav overturned her autonomy over it as he forced her to undergo abortions and hit her while constantly suspected her of having affairs. When Usha tries to get herself a separate bank account, he torments her to the point where she leaves her home.
For someone like Usha who became the sole breadwinner for her family and her husband’s at a very young age, giving and providing form the only purpose of her life. When she meets Rajan (Anant Nag), her co-star who is in love with her in spite of knowing of her marriage to Keshav, it is the first time that she knows what it feels like to be desired in a personal and non-demanding way. They’re co-workers and there is a sense of equality between them that she doesn’t want to upset by marrying him. “You’re the only one who has given me love without demanding anything in return,” Usha says to one of Rajan’s many marriage proposals. The power that she enjoys in this relationship is completely lost in her relationship with Kale (Amrish Puri), a wealthy businessman she meets in a hotel. Kale promises Usha everything she has ever wanted—he takes her home and gives her the domesticity she had spent her life pining for. She quickly slips into her role of the eternal caregiver as she takes care of Kale’s son, his mother, and his bedridden wife. It is, however, not long before she realizes the shortcomings of her life-long dream. Like Keshav, Kale encroaches upon Usha’s personal freedom even after she has surrendered her career and all signs of a public life at the altar of his family. As Kale’s wife tells Usha, “The beds change, the kitchens change. Men’s masks change, but men don't change,” Usha realizes that her only salvation lies in surrendering to the power of patriarchy and she asks Keshav to take her away from Kale. Keshav has an ownership over his wife that Kale doesn’t have over his mistress and for the first time in her life, Usha uses it to her advantage.
While watching Usha in Bhumika, it is easy to get caught up in the web of her (and Hansa Wadkar’s) relationships with men and forget her role as a working woman in pre-independence India. Wadkar’s first long-term contract was with Bombay Talkies, one of Hindi cinema’s earliest and best production houses, which produced films made by the likes of Franz Osten. It is here that Wadkar formed life-long friendships and found a community of other working women such as the singer-actor Lalita Deulkar and actor Durga Khote. It doesn’t make it to Bhumika but Sangtye Aika talks of Wadkar’s first tryst with employee cooperative schemes wherein actors would pay in a part of their salaries and the money would be used to invest in gold. Later, Wadkar went on to sign contracts with studios like the historical Prabhat Film Company, National Studios, and Rajkamal Kalamandir. Having started working at the age of ten, Wadkar’s autobiography is both a bildungsroman and a künstlerroman, as her growing up as a human being always runs in conjunction with her role as a working woman-artist. For as long as she has been a woman, Usha (like Wadkar) has been an actor and sometimes the two roles merge indistinguishably. Both Keshav and Sushma, their daughter, tell her that her words of love and anger sound like film dialogues. Recurrent scenes of her taking off and putting on saris remind one of constant costume changes that Usha undergoes before taking on the many roles she plays on and off the screen.
The film is eerily reminiscent of Smita Patil’s own public life that was always blending into her personal life. It was only after winning the National Award for her performance in Bhumika, her fourth film, that she decided to stick to acting as a profession. After her marriage with her married co-actor, Raj Babbar, the media blurred the lines between Patil’s personal and public lives. After struggling through a marriage that played out in front of the whole country, Patil passed away at 31 from complications that arose after giving birth to their son, bringing an end to a mercurial but short acting career.
With Bhumika, Benegal, whose screenplay adapts Sangtye Aika, doesn’t just narrativize a part of India’s cinematic history that remains largely unseen on screen but he also draws attention to a feminist struggle that lies far away from the purview of western Feminism. Usha’s character inhabits the binaries of the home and the world , the public and the private, the sacred and the profane much before they get theorized within the feminist movement. Long after the activism of Margaret Sanger led to the formation of the American Birth Control League in 1921 in the USA, Usha struggles to find an authority over her own body in Mumbai and yet, long before Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women made demands for maternity leave, Hansa Wadkar writes, “While I was pregnant, I enjoyed leave with pay. Suddenly I lost the child and was advised rest for three more months. Himanshu Rai [co-owner of Bombay Talkies —Ed] sanctioned three months’ leave.”
Through Bhumika, Benegal makes a feminist reclamation of the history of the Hindi film industry. As messy and complicated as Hansa and Usha are, they are also the mothers of a history that is equally messy. In their stories, we find a resurrection of the shoulders South Asian film history and feminism stand upon and a resurrection of the many intertwined ways in which these two histories draw from one another.