In Bhumika, a 70's biopic - loosely based on Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar's memoirs - Smita Patil playing the role of Usha, pays the price of choosing one role over the other. She chooses to be a mistress, but not a wife; she is open to love, but not ready to be consumed by relationships. In Benegal's film, Smita, the actress, playing the role of another actress, shows her journey as life reaching out to the unreachable, the unspeakable and the undoable in its effort to be art.
Patil's career, which coincided with the most robust moment of India's parallel cinema movement in the '70s, and even the '80s, seemed to embody a decision to seek work outside the star system of mainstream cinema. Her roles of a dairy farm worker (Manthan, 1977), a reformatory home superintendent (Umbartha, 1982), a prostitute (Mandi, 1983), a spice factory worker (Mirch Masala, 1987) - all evoke the everyday in a manner that makes her films public histories of ordinary people as they come up against society, structures and institutions dealing with issues of employment, housing, eating, drinking, loving, and in short - living. Such depictions, of course, went against the grain of Bollywood.
In the world of industrial cinema, it is mandatory for subjects or characters, especially in a biopic, to be monumental - meteoric rises and meteoric falls; great loves, greater betrayals - without trying to show the many turns a human being takes to resist being cast in the general mould. In Bhumika, Benegal draws on the iconic status of Wadkar and projects that through an image of ordinariness, that was Smita's. On the other hand, Dirty Picture, a biopic on Silk Smitha, the star of Tamil pulp in the '80s, in true Bollywood fashion, relies on a star, Vidya Balan, to build her up and discover her hidden feminist, after death. All that Silk Smitha wanted - and many women do - was a conventional life. She wanted to marry, raise children, be a devoted wife. But she also chose - so says the film - to be an adult entertainer. So, we do not owe it to Smitha to dignify her after death. But we do owe it to her not to bring her life in line with audience tastes and morality.
If Smita belongs to the world of art and reflection, Silk Smitha, as imagined by Milan Luthria and played by Balan, is self-conscious mythmaking that supposedly aims to be a critique of pornography but ends up reinforcing the same. Films that allow us to gaze at stars are ticketed pornography, they consolidate the image of the star as a thing to be gazed at. A woman's 'uncontrolled sexuality' has always made good cinema just like Saddam or Gaddafi's homes made good television, exposed at the point of their surrender.
If Bhumika were to be considered Benegal's Dirty Picture - and certainly one way of looking at it is it is about sexuality - it is an example of how the idea of a star and her 'image' can be the very ground for questioning the culture of stars and their production. When Smita's character in Bhumika, talks of being afraid, another character tells her: "Your lovers are like your mirrors, you are an idol locked in the mirror, the breaking of that image, of that you are afraid…." Smita's body of work has always been a challenge to the ethos of the culture industry and now with the extinction of the parallel cinema movement, it will always be considered 'difficult' to make a biopic on her than on Silk Smitha.