In the period between 1982 and 1986 Shabana Azmi did some of her most important work. These included Shekhar Kapoor’s Masoom, Gulzar’s Namkeen, B R Ishaara’s Log Kya Kehenge,Kalpana Lajmi’s Ek Pal and Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth.
These were films that changed the way we defined the Hindi film heroine and also brought a radical reform in the way the new Indian woman is perceived by society at large.
Cinematographer Pravin Bhatt’s first directorial venture Bhavna is a very special film in Shabana’s oeuvre. Playing strong assertive characters who constantly challenged the predominance of patriarchy came naturally to Shabana. But Bhavna occupies a very special niche in Shabana’s glorious unparalleled career.The story of a woman’s journey from a betrayed marriage to a murder convict , Bhavna deals with the protagonist’s journey with tempestuous velocity without losing out on the quality of grace and restrain. Of course Shabana’s ingrained power to convey implosive emotions without toppling into the realm of over-statement went a long way into making Bhavna Saxena a character far ahead of her times.
Bhavna’s journey begins as a starry-eyed girl who falls in love with the rich and suave heir(Marc Zuber) who abandons her after marriage. Left to look after her son(Master Makrand) Bhavna devotes her life to providing her son with the best education.
In the tradition of the Shakespearean tragedies, the plot heaps the heroine with unimaginable calamities. When she is raped by her trusted employer(Saeed Jaffrey) Bhavna decides she has to use the only asset she has to ensure her son’s future. Bhavna becomes a high-class call-girl.
The transition from simple middleclass girl in cotton sarees to this sequined siren serenading pot-bellied clients in 5-star hotels is made with jolting ruthlessness. Bhavna is a gut-wrenching emotional experience. There is no room here for mincing words or softening the blow. Life is hard for a single mother. And the script offers her no respite from the sweat and grind of making something substantial out of her son’s life.
In a very distant and glamorized way Bhavna is a variation on the Mother India theme. But the treatment of the heroine’s catastrophic destiny is never open to moral judgement. Bhavna does what she has to. The circumstances guiding her life are never made into occasions of moral scrutiny. The superbly-scripted narration brings to the screen an alluring synthesis of emotional depth and a surface-level prettiness which ensures that the audience never gets put off by the depths of murkiness that Bhavna’s life touches as she moves from one hardship to another in search of a future for her son.
Indeed the salvation and catharsis when they come is achieved in Bhavna’s death at the end, when old and frail she breathes her last in her son’s arms as Lata Mangeshkar evocative voice sings Kaifi Azmi’s words: Mujhko dasti tthi saanse meri banke naag/Aaj tuney chita ko dikhayee jo aag/Maut mere liye ban gayi zindagi.
What makes Bhavna an immensely moving film and arguably the most underrated masterpiece of Shabana’s career is its mood of resplendent doom. We know Bhavna is fated to receive blows all her life. And yet the structuring of the plot imbues her suffering with great grace. There are no moments of awkwardness in Bhavna’s indescribably pained pilgrimage into motherhood and martyrdom. We come away from her saga after a good cry. Wet handkerchiefs never seemed more desirable.
Shabana Azmi Speaks:
“The scene I remember most clearly is when I die in my son’s arms. We were shooting at a park in Bangalore. There was a crowd of at least 5000 people who were whistling jeering and trying their best to disrupt the shooting. I had to die in my son’s arms in the midst of all this hungama!Stanislavksi the Russian acting guru who is famous for his ‘method acting’ ( whom we followed at the FTII where I was learning acting from Prof Roshan Taneja) used to speak about ‘public solitude’ it was the first time during that scene I understood what that means and brought it to play. With intense concentration I focussed on the emotional undercurrent of the scene and the attempted disruptions faded away. Actors need to have the ability to isolate themselves rather than get affected, by extraneous conditions. I find this tough but over the years have acquired some ability to do this. This gets accentuated in theatre even more….Pravin Bhatt and I have always shared a very good equation. Nobody has photographed me better than him. I was very happy to be in his first directorial venture. I had started my commercial career with Heera Aur Patthar opposite Shashi Kapoor directed by his father Vijay Bhatt and this was turning full circle.Pravin didn’t want Bhavna to be a tame character and both of us agreed that she should turn into a full-blooded prostitute,not the sanitized version you find on screen who does everything short of having sex. As far as I remember I think it was me who suggested the line that I say to Rohini Hattangadi(who played my friend), ‘ kis pe bharosa karoon?Ek ne pati hokar dhokha diya doosre ne bhai bankar.’That’s her raison d’etre to become a prostitute. I was surprised the film didn’t work at the box office. Probably my character’s non-apologetic stance was too much to digest for the audience. Maybe that idea of the heroine opting to be a sex worker was ahead of time. Today it would be accepted. I remember being very fond of the boy who played my son , Makrand Deshpande. He was theatrical in his dialogue delivery.But there was a core to him which was honest and truthful.He keeps in touch with me on and off. Kanwaljit is a classmate from FTII and I had no qualms about playing his mother although I’ve played his sweetheart in other films.Such is the world of acting.. Kanwaljit is an underrated actor who didn’t get his due.I didn’t prepare too much for the part,just went along with Pravin’s vision.It was not difficult to invest in the dramatic scenes because they were substantiated by the script. But I had no doubt in my mind that Bhavna was not a simpering victim. That she was a fighter who struggled within the options available to her. Of course women face sexual harassment, more so if they are single or divorced. We need to implement laws that lead to convictions of the culprits. We need to make the workplace safer for women. I asked my close friend Bhawana Somaya to do the costumes because I wanted things off the rack not especially tailored. The costume I wore when I expose Saeed Jaffrey was bought from the Colaba Causeway! We decided that Bhavna should look out of place in her costumes because she is playing a part far removed from who she is in real life. Later she starts wearing them with greater ease and élan, like the pink chamois satin sari.Lataji’s Tu kahan aa gayi zindagi is a deeply poignant song. I also liked Ashaji’s Dekho din ye na dhalne paye har pal ek sadi ho jaye..
Pravin Bhatt Speaks:
“I am surprised you remember Bhavna so vividly. Everyone has forgotten it. In fact the film’s boxoffice failure disappointed me so much that I next directed a masala dacoit film Khoon Bahaa Ganga Mein. But my heart was not in it.I did it only because I was stamped as an art filmmaker after Bhavna. Even Manmohan Desai made a film from his heart Aa Gale Lag Jaa. When that didn’t work he gravitated towards commercial cinema. I think the girl in Bhavna willingly and voluntarily taking to prostitution was not an acceptable idea to the audience. But the film was based on a true incident.I read this interview with a French woman who said she hadn’t told her son she was his mother because she was a prostitute and that she was funding her son’s education in Switzerland by selling sex since she had no other assets. That’s where the idea for Bhavna was born. In the film Shabana’s character doesn’t tell her son she’s his mother. Rohini Hattangadi brings up the child as his mother.I tried to justify the heroine’s character’s decision to become a prostitute. That twist in the plot became controversial. Maybe today when we talk about rights and privileges for sex workers Bhavna’s bold decision would be more acceptable.You know,Shabana received the best actress award for Bhavna . But I was not invited for the function. That’s show business for you. I had worked as a cinematographer with Shabana Azmi earlier in Arth. We share a warm rapport. While I was doing the cinematography of Masoom she asked me why I didn’t direct a film. I was hesitant to offer her the role of a mother who metamorphoses into a prostitute and an old woman. But she heard the subject and loved it.Shabana had the author-backed role and she took up the challenge. The producer of Masoom Devi Dutt(Guru Dutt’s brother) agreed to produce Bhavna.No leading man was willing to do such a heroine-oriented role. Shabana had earlier worked with Marc Zuber. They were quite friendly. So she suggested him as the husband. We made the film with a lot of passion.Shabana was deeply involved with every aspect of the character including the clothes. I had no problems directing and doing the cinematography. I could do both easily. I knew Shabana’s face very well since I had shot her in so many films.I did a telefilm Jeevan Sandhya with Anupam Kher and Asha Parekh which was more my forte. Now I don’t think of direction.I decided to stick to cinematography. It was more lucrative for me. Re-release Bhavna? I don’t know if that’s possible. I think the producer has given up film business. I do the cinematography for all my son Vikram’s film. We have a great tuning. I know exactly what he wants. I’ve shot three consecutive 3D films for my son.”