- Vidyarthy Chatterjee
Bhavni Bhavai will remain special film for me forever for two reasons. One, its first Gujarati film I’ve seen after may be twenty years long gap. Since most of the Gujarati films bears age old and outdated escapist themes of mythology, religious, legendary even today with actor, director and technicians which don’t know even ABC of filmmaking. There are may be handful of meaningful creative Gujarati films made till day. Although Gujarati literature and theatre is so rich that it’s possible to make some of the quality cinema with their screen adaptations. In fact, of the 150 films made in Gujaarati till 1975, only a handful were based on well known literary texts, notably Kanku, written by Pannalal Patel, Prithvi Ballabh by K.M. Munshi and Gunasundari No Ghar Sansar by Goverdandas Tripathi. With utter regret I must say that today the condition of Gujarati films is in the worst stage as far as creativity is concerned. The second reason is quite personal one. The climax of the film was shot at historically significant site of Rani-ki Vav (Queen’s Step well) of my hometown Patan.
Bhavni Bhavai is Director Ketan Mehta’s debut and the only Gujarati film made by him until he was lured to address larger audience in Hindi. It’s a fine adaptation of folk art of ‘Bhavai’ into cinema which in today’s Gujarat becoming extinct art. Along with Bertolt Brecht the film is dedicated to the inventor of the Bhavai art Ashait Thakore, who was a Brahmin outcast and lived among the lower caste communities. His descendants, the Targalas are the traditional Gujarati performers of the plays he wrote. The film is in the form of a story told by a group of migrating Harijans to a city pausing for a night. The plot involves a king who wants his vav (step well) to be filled with water. To get the water, a batrish lakshano (person with 32 qualities) need to be sacrificed. Unfortunately, the young scapegoat belongs to Harijan (lower cast) community sacrificed his life who by chance happens to be King’s own son.
Untouchability may not have the same severe character in Gandhiji's Gujarat today as it existed in earlier times, but it is still there, just as in other parts of the country. The untouchable had to tie a broom behind him which would erase his ‘offensive footprints', wear a third sleeve as a mark of submission, wear only unwoven yarn as headgear, and carry a spittoon round his neck. Bhavni Bhavai narrates how for many centuries the untouchables endured in silence these cruel, humiliating practices. Ketan had made the film with shoestring budget with the help of Government aided NFDC and Ahmedabad based Co-Operative society named ‘Sanchar’ bringing authentic settings of North Gujarat village.
It’s indeed a outstanding feel as being Gujarati to see wonderful performances of Indian Parallel cinema’s doyen actors. Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Smita Patil not only paid their acts but voice in Gujarati and it sounds so natural like their own mother tongue. As imbecile, madcap king Naseer remains brilliant bringing his theatrical actor. Ditto to Benjameen Gilani, who still remains Naseer’s loyal partner in his Motley theatre in Mumbai. Om Puri’s act is the most natural among all and his brilliant act as lower cast father is another proof of his geniusness. Smita looks anything than her traditional character. Same can be said about some other supporting actors like Suhasini Mulay, Mohan Gokhale, Dina Pathak and certain other local artists of Gujarati cinema.
"In Indian films the alienation of the rural poor from the urban way of life has become clichétic. What we require is some kind of synthesis of the two with our past and heritage. The purpose of a film should not be to alienate people. I have chosen a popular form (the Bhavai) so that the people for whom film is made can understand it. My film traces the history of the social evil of untouchability in Gujarat and what it means today,” quoted Ketan Mehta when his first film got so much critical recognition. How rich would have been Gujarati films if Ketan Mehta or likes of him had made some more Gujarati films!!!!
Acnowledgement- Some of the quoted reference in above post is taken from Vidyarthy Chatterjee’s brilliant scholarly article on Dear Cinema. Here’s link for you if you’re interested in reading- http://dearcinema.com/recalling-an-event-called-bhavni-bhavai/