Bhumika, although not a courtesan film in the strict sense in that the lead character is no associated with a brothel at any time and her sexuality is not potentially for sale, nevertheless deserves to be considered here for a number of reasons. The films raises many of the same issues—about art, entertainment, and female sexuality as economy—as those films in which the central character is a prostitute. (In an interesting link made between acting and prostitution, it might be pointed out that even prostitutes were unwilling to appear in movies of the 1930s, the time-frame of this film.) Based on the on the life of Hansa Wadkar, a famous Marathi stage and film actress of the 1930s, Bhumika explores the tortuous labyrinths of female subjectivity. The film has many explicitly ties to the the generic features we have isolated as specific to the courtesan film: a biographical approach to the subject, an extremely complicated plot structure, a matriarchal setup that is both supportive and oppressive, songs and dances rendered through a female performer-heroine, and the work-money-sexuality nexus.
Moreover, the very title of the film raises intriguing questions about impersonation and identity. Whose “role” is being referred to here? Are we to understand the word in terms of the diverse roles an actress plays in the course of her career? Or is reference being made to a female role, the parameters of which are socially designated and which the heroine rebels against by her “promiscuity” and yet adheres to naively? Or perhaps we are to go further and consider the role of the cinema as a national archive of bygone eras? A self-reflexive film, Bhumika pays obvious homage to the Bombay cinema, recreating the studio atmosphere of the thirties and forties. Its intricate intertextual network provides the proper ground to explore a woman’s artistic and sexual longings.
—Sumita S. Chakravarty
National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema 1947-1987