Original version with subtitles
Based on the autobiography of the doyenne of Marathi theatre and cinema Hansa Wadkar, Benegal contrasts the filmy fantasies with the stark reality of life. Wadkar was a product of the times when words like feminism had not taken root in India and Benegal doesn’t let the didactics seep into the screenplay either.
Coming from the Devadasi tradition, Usha is exploited from a young age. Every time Usha tries to break free, the patriarchal society tries to chain her either by forcing her to take vows in front of the goddess or by trying to make her feel sorry about her choices. Even if she is the bread earner, she can’t set the rules at home, nor in her relationships. And towards the end when she sees her daughter; she anticipates the cycle is going to repeat.
When Benegal started making movies he had his office in Jyoti Studios, a prominent name behind silent films. In fact the first talkie Alam Ara was produced here. Inundated with posters and stocks of films of 30s and 40s, Benegal literally lived with the cinematic history of Hindi cinema and when he got inspired by the life of Hansa Wadkar, he knew where to place her.
The film within creates a contrast and provides the much needed layers to the screenplay as Benegal quietly breaks the fourth wall with help of composer Vanraj Bhatia. The pulled ankle of the dancer, the male choreographer enacting the heroine’s part, the curtness of the director, makes the audience realise the mundane aspect of the celluloid fantasies. Interestingly, this is the only time you see Benegal creating something kitschy on screen! And he does it with all seriousness.
Running short of colour stock because of some foreign exchange issues, he decided to shoot Usha’s present in colour and past in black and white. Cinematographer Govind Nihalani was not convinced but had to ultimately give in to the director’s vision carved by necessity. Today people compare the childhood scenes of Usha with Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali but the influence was more accidental than deliberate.
Most of Benegal’s early works were set in Andhra region but here he had to portray the Marathi milieu. So he roped in Girish Karnad and then Satyadev Dubey joined in for dialogues. There were concerns over the non-linear narrative and the film within film device was used so many times that Karnad raised concerns that it might become confusing for the lay audience. But the final result was cogent without Benegal letting his fondness for silence slip.
Anuj Kumar, “The Hindu”,
7 July 2014
Cast and Credits
T. int.: The Role. Sog.: dall’autobiografia Sangtye Aika (1970) di Hansa Wadkar. Scen.: Shyam Benegal, Girish Karnad, Pandit Satya Dev Dubey. F.: Govind Nihalani. M.: Bhanudas Divakar, Ramnik Patel. Mus.: Vanraj Bhatia. Int.: Smita Patil (Urvashi / Usha), Amol Palekar (Keshav Dalvi), Anant Nag (Rajan), Amrish Puri (Vinayak Kale), Naseeruddin Shah (Sunil Verma), Dina Pathak (signora Kale), Kulbhushan Kharbanda (il produttore), Sulabha Deshpande (Shanta), Kiran Virale (Sushma Dalvi). Prod.: Lalit M. Bijlani, Freni Variava per Blaze Film Ents █ 35mm. Bn e Col.
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