When female actors get married, they are no longer heroine material. At best, a heroine who marries another actor might continue to star opposite her husband. Or she disappears from the scene, and returns some years later for the occasional mother role. At least, that has been the conventional wisdom. Shyam Benegal's Bhumika ("role") turns this conventional wisdom on its head. Usha (Smita Patil) is a movie star who would like to quit the business, take care of her daughter and mother, focus on her home. But her husband Keshav (Amol Palekar) insists that she keep working. Keshav has not had much success in business and he needs the money her work brings in, to enjoy the luxuries he has become accustomed to. And so with each successful movie, Keshav, acting as Usha's manager, negotiates a still more lucrative contract. For most heroines, marriage forces the premature end of their careers. Usha's marriage forces her career to continue.
There is no ambiguity in Bhumika. Usha is a victim from the very beginning, and Keshav is a creep. Flashbacks to Usha's childhood show an angry, drunken father and a mother (Sulabha Deshpande) who constantly scolds her. Keshav teases the young Usha and inists that she will marry him, inappropriate ribbing that clearly makes her uncomfortable. At the same time, Keshav pushes boundaries of intimacy with Usha's mother. Keshav's intervention after the death of Usha's father is nominally benevolent; to help the family make ends meet, he works contacts in Bombay to get her into the movies. But there is a sinister air about Keshav; one has the sense that his plan from the very beginning is to manipulate Usha into stardom and milk her for all she's worth, and as their marriage wears on he seems more like a pimp than a husband or a manager.
And indeed, married to Keshav and working entirely at his demand, Usha comes to hate her stardom. Here, as well, Benegal illustrates another of the many ways that women, and especially female actors, get screwed. Keshav, who forces Usha to work, also suspects her of hanky-panky with her perennial costar, the handsome but somewhat vapid Rajan (Anant Nag). Keshav is no better than the gossip-mongers who make hay out of every rumor. Usha works in the movies only because Keshav forces to, and yet Keshav presumes Usha guilty of the moral lapses imputed by the judgmental janta to any woman who works in the movies. His jealousy and her resentment combine to corrode their marriage.
Usha finally does get fed up with Keshav, but leaving him renders her even more powerless than she was in her home. Rajan has always loved her, but rejects her when she offers herself to him now. Usha finds her way into a sequence of singularly submissive relationships. The first is an intense attachment to a pretentious intellectual art film director (Naseeruddin Shah), which Usha hopes will provide her ultimate escape. Later, she discovers what she believes to be her domestic ideal with Kale (Amrish Puri). Kale's wife (Dina Pathak) is disabled and bedridden, and Usha slips easily into a role that is part second wife, part housemaid, part governess to Kale's child. But Usha soon learns that even the life she has dreamed of comes with a price. In the world of Bhumika, a woman simply cannot win - not too different from the world we live in.
The bleak story of Bhumika is told in textbook Benegal style, with comparitively little dialogue and much meaning conveyed in the grim expressions and body-language of its star. I am about to say something controversial: The more I see of Smita Patil, the less I am convinced that she was as good an actor as she is reputed to be. She is often labeled a "natural" actor, and vocally rejected the studied approach taken by some of her Stanislavsky-esque contemporaries like Shabana Azmi. Her performance in Bhumika highlights both the best result of this approach and its shortcomings. Smita Patil renders well that which she is best at - dejection and suffering - but does not show a tremendous amount of nuance within that. Usha moves through her troubles with an air of contained anger and resentment, a sense of teeth gritted, that is fairly constant throughout the film. When she needs to move away from that space, she - and consequently Usha - seem a little bewildered. It's not at all a bad performance, but it is at times somewhat superficial. It is perhaps why Bhumika is far from my favorite Shyam Benegal movie.
Benegal fills out Bhumika's dramatis personae with many of his regulars, such as Nag and Puri, and Kulbhushan Kharbanda as the producer who makes most of Usha's movies. This crowd is as familiar as a class reunion. This is not a bad thing, as they are all fine actors and Benegal of course uses them very well. But it inspires games, in the same way that Welcome to Sajjanpur made me want Shyam Benegal Bingo. (Anant Nag does something pathetic and impotent - DRINK!) It's also an interesting bit of cognitive dissonance, after a string of Amol Palekar's cutie-patootie movies (like Golmaal and the delicious Chhoti si baat) to see him here as a real piece of work, smarmy and creepy and unredeemable and mean. I am reminded of Khamosh, a very different sort of film in which Amol Palekar's creepiness is, in a sense, the punchline. There's nothing funny about him here, though. He is the avatar of every injustice that is dished out to women in the film industry.