Bhumika

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"I once had a dream, or a vision, and I imagined that dream to be of importance to other people, so I wrote the manuscript and made the film. But it is not until the moment when my dream meets with your emotions and your minds that my shadows come to life. It is your recognition that brings them to life. It is your indifference that kills them. I hope that you will understand; that you when you leave the cinema will take with you an experience or a sudden thought—or maybe a question. The efforts of my friends and myself have then not been in vain…" — Ingmar Bergman

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Bhumika, although not a courtesan film in the strict sense in that the lead character is no associated with a brothel at any time and her sexuality is not potentially for sale, nevertheless deserves to be considered here for a number of reasons. The films raises many of the same issues—about art, entertainment, and female sexuality as economy—as those films in which the central character is a prostitute. (In an interesting link made between acting and prostitution, it might be pointed out that even prostitutes were unwilling to appear in movies of the 1930s, the time-frame of this film.) Based on the on the life of Hansa Wadkar, a famous Marathi stage and film actress of the 1930s, Bhumika explores the tortuous labyrinths of female subjectivity. The film has many explicitly ties to the the generic features we have isolated as specific to the courtesan film: a biographical approach to the subject, an extremely complicated plot structure, a matriarchal setup that is both supportive and oppressive, songs and dances rendered through a female performer-heroine, and the work-money-sexuality nexus.

Moreover, the very title of the film raises intriguing questions about impersonation and identity. Whose “role” is being referred to here? Are we to understand the word in terms of the diverse roles an actress plays in the course of her career? Or is reference being made to a female role, the parameters of which are socially designated and which the heroine rebels against by her “promiscuity” and yet adheres to naively? Or perhaps we are to go further and consider the role of the cinema as a national archive of bygone eras? A self-reflexive film, Bhumika pays obvious homage to the Bombay cinema, recreating the studio atmosphere of the thirties and forties. Its intricate intertextual network provides the proper ground to explore a woman’s artistic and sexual longings. 

Sumita S. Chakravarty
   National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema 1947-1987 

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Although biographical in intent, Bhumika’s structural complexity seems to suggest that the journey of self-exploration undertaken by Usha (and the film’s own exploration of a woman’s consciousness) is circular, full of snares, forever incomplete. Usha’s consciousness is a hall of mirrors where past and present are merely reflections that mock each other. And indeed, the dominant visual motif in the film is that of the mirror, of its proliferating and static images. Usha seems to contest the mirror’s inert reflections by changing her sarees. As she “peels off” one identity to take on another, she is both asserting her will to change and capitulating to the mirror’s ability to make of it yet another image. For an entertainer, the public and private selves cannot be differentiated.

The motif of travel underscores psychological exploration as well as a the biographical mode Usha is shown constantly moving, and there are excellent traveling shots which present landscape as visual metaphors for the protagonist’s inner state. Three such shots appear at key moments: in the childhood segment, Usha running with Dalvi in pursuit, a scene with heavy symbolic overtones; Usha in a taxi speeding along the streets of Bombay after she has left her husband, the city and herself aligned in their alienation; and again, in the final flashback, the openness of the countryside provides visual and narrative relief from the claustrophobic site.sight of hotel rooms and confining living spaces, yet it is an ironic prelude to the more hellish claustrophobia she is to experience as the feudal landowner’s mistress. Movement in the film suggests a world in flux an autonomy just beyond the protagonist’s grasp.

Sumita S. Chakravarty, “Woman and the Burden of Postcoloniality: The Courtesan Film Genre; Body/Transgression/Nation” 

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Hansa Wadkar (originally named Ratan Salgaokar) was an actress of the 1930s and 1940s whose autobiography Sangte Aika (roughly “Listen while I recount”) is the basis for the film Bhumika. From a family of singers (and in the fashion of the time promptly dubbed the Joan Crawford of India), her life was a bit of a roller coaster to say the least. Though it appears she was entirely serious about her acting career.

Given her alcoholism it didn’t end happily but her autobiography I believe is quite upfront about her men and the alcohol - the movie is considered a bit of a watered down version.

[X]

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بھُمِکا भुमिका Bhumika, The Role (1977)

Written in the seventies, the autobiography deals primarily with Hansa Wadkar’s life in the forties and fifties. Her yearning for a relationship in which she is valued as a person remains unfulfilled, for each man in her life—her uncle, her husband, and the lovers in whom she places her hopes—relates to her ultimately in a script that is endorsed by tradition and has no room for her new, individualist requirements. When she eventually manages to bring a pregnancy to term and have the baby she has not for many years been allowed to have (since her career would be interrupted and her figure affected), there is no social space in which she can relate to her child as she wants to. Her aspirations for independence and for some control over the money she earned leave her, toward the end of her life, lonely and isolated in a world that seems to have no other way of acknowledging or addressing those desires.

 If the social Imaginary comes together and holds secure around Shivani’s uppercaste family women, for Hansa Wadkar, who speaks from outside that architecture, nothing holds together, not even herself, and sometimes not even her story. The nation has no space in its centers for such women, no patience with their dreams.

Women Writing in India: The Twentieth Century by Susie J. Tharu & Ke Lalita