Shyam Benegal's Bhumika (The Role, 1977), like his later Zubeidaa (2001), is about the plight of women in a society where men wield all the power.
Usha is the only child of an impoverished couple. Her father lies in bed unable to work, and so the burden of supporting the family falls on Usha's mother Shanta (Sulabha Deshpande), who is trapped in an unhappy and abusive marriage. Usha's grandmother, a singer, nourishes the growing talents of the young girl, and she is spotted by her predatory neighbor Keshav (Amol Palekar), who has connections in the film industry.
After an audition with a producer, the precocious Usha is indeed hired as a playback singer; some years later, as a young woman (now played by Smita Patil), she becomes a actress. Happiness remains elusive, though--not only do we see the hard, repetitive work involved in filming, we see Usha engaging in a series of troubled relationships with men. Each new relationship holds out the promise of love and freedom, only to wind up in disappointment, bitterness, and confinement (either figurative or literal). Usha can seemingly never escape the roles that others define for her.
The story is told through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. Scenes in the movie's present are in color, while the flashbacks are in black and white. Apart from the film stock and the aging of the characters, we are given cues to the passage of time in occasional snatches of news on the radio, which place the action between the early 1940s and the early 1960s. But the momentous historical events that we hear announced in the background have no direct impact on the lives of the characters; one of the flash-forwards skips right over the moment of India's independence, for example. Instead the focus of the film remains--like its heroine--claustrophobically confined.
Smita Patil gives an extraordinary performance as Usha, who (like Zubeidaa) is far from a perfect heroine: she is thoughtless at times, makes poor choices (from, of course, very limited alternatives), and ultimately abandons her daughter to her parasitic, resentful husband. But throughout Patil makes Usha sympathetic in her pain, anger and confusion. She eloquently expresses the toll exacted by Usha's unfulfilled desires for freedom and for true companionship. Patil is very ably supported by Deshpande, Palekar, and by the actors playing the men with whom she has her unhappy affairs: Anant Nag, Naseeruddin Shah, and Amrish Puri.
Other striking aspects of Bhumika are Benegal's beautifully composed images (and adept suggestion of vintage Bollywood style) and Vanraj Bhatia's music. The music is so good that it makes me regret that Benegal does not let us see an entire production number; instead he interrupts them, or foregrounds the technique of their creation. Both are strategies to insure that we aren't allowed to fully enter into the Bollywood fantasy, as in the opening sequence of the movie (the production number ends at about the 3:50 mark):
Together with Benegal's sensitive direction, Patil's performance makes Bhumika an indelible experience. For an appreciation that places the film in the context of 1970s parallel cinema and illuminates the film's many subtexts, see the essay posted at Philip's Fil-ums: Notes on Indian Popular Cinema.