In Richard Connell’s short story, The Most Dangerous Game, a decidedly sociopathic former army officer, General Zaroff, forces hapless men to run through a maze of his own creation on a Caribbean island in order to hunt, aka, kill them so as to enjoy the thrill of a chase. Written and published in 1924, this is a work of fiction.
In Omung Kumar’s new film, Bhoomi, a decidedly sociopathic local politician, Dhauli, forces hapless women to run through the ravine mazes of nature’s creation in the UP badlands in order to hunt them down to rape them, for his goons’ and his own thrill. Filmed and released in India in 2017, this work of fiction is mired in grim reality.
Bhoomi has been getting a lot of media attention given that it is the comeback vehicle for Sanjay Dut, who was last seen on the big screen in 2014’s PK. And what a comeback it is. Instead of the brash action hero romancing women younger than his own daughter, Dutt plays a father who simply dotes on his daughter. Not that Bhoomi (Aditi Roy Hyadri) needs much doting on, being a self-sufficient working girl with her own business, who organizes weddings for the young brides of Agra. And while this means Bhoomi stays out late on working nights, his daughter’s enterprise is a source of pride for Dutt’s Arun Sachdeva, rather than ire, making him a pretty sensible man in a pretty conservative society. He’s a shoemaker with his own store, a fact that will be relevant a few paras down.
Bhoomi’s life, indeed, seems a bed of roses -- and we mean that literally – as, apart from her bustling business, her love marriage with a handsome, if insipid, doctor is also in the offing. Alas then, a spurned suitor, Vishal (Puru Chibber), is the worm in the bed of roses. What Vishal lacks in spine he makes up for with incessant whining, mostly to his older cousin, our acquaintance from the second paragraph, Dhauli (Sharad Kelkar). Apparently bored of rapine in the ravine, Dhauli convinces Vishal (who doesn’t need much convincing) to abduct and have his miserable way with Bhoomi, an act made all the more contemptible when Dhauli and a henchman join Vishal in his sordid deed. All of this, by the way, takes place the night before Bhoomi’s wedding.
After the deed is done Bhoomi is sent home, with Dhauli reasoning that no bride-to-be will spoil her chance at marital bliss, or embarrass her father by reporting rape a day before her own wedding. He’s wrong. As the baraat enters her crumbling old haveli and her doctor fiancée sneaks by her room to say hey, a clearly shattered Bhoomi tells him all. And in the proud old tradition of the Indian mard, Doctor Neeraj (Sidhant Gupta, who’s effective at playing an ineffective young man) promptly breaks off the wedding and he and his family leave en masse. A long shot of Dutt standing alone and abandoned in his haveli, surrounded by the hundreds of pairs of shoes he had crafted for his prospective in-laws is poignant in a movie that anyway has no shortage of pathos. We told you the shoemaker thing is relevant.
Bhoomi’s ordeal is far from over, one that entails a murder attempt, a public shaming and an infuriating court scene. Infuriating because the filmmakers don’t pull any punches, providing a searing visual commentary on how women who are victims of assault are treated in this country. Shades of Pink? Assuredly, but still no less relevant. Indeed, you can’t help but loathe the defendants’ female lawyer and her frequent bandying of the term “characterless.” That anger and loathing, however, gets some release as we follow the revenge and havoc Bhoomi and her baba proceed to wreak on the rapists’ lives.
Not that you can call Bhoomi a revenge flick in the purest sense of the term. It’s more an unflinching look at the hostile environment Indian women are forced to live in every day in this country, and a society that really doesn’t care, no matter how many ‘woke’ statuses one posts. Has this kind of film been done before? Absolutely. Has the message sunk in? Absolutely not. And until it doesn’t this kind of cinema is still utterly, desperately relevant.
What makes Bhoomi stand out though is excellent acting, whether it’s an extra or the leads (special shout out to Hyadri and Kelkar, the latter having some of the most entertaining, if sinister, lines in the film), some gorgeous set-pieces and cinematography that is on point. This is an excellently shot film. We do wish that there wasn’t an item number, though, especially right between two emotionally-wrenching scenes. All due respect to Sunny Leone, of course, but this wasn’t the time or place. Perhaps the filmmakers realized this as well, given that in the film the song is less than a minute long, far shorter than its YouTube video that that went viral.
All said and done, though, Dutt owns this movie, with every scene he’s in. Whether he’s getting sloshed with his best friend, Taj (an excellent if under-used Shekhar Suman) and trying to unsuccessfully hide it from his daughter, or denouncing the hypocrisies of Indian society in a local court, or just beating up the baddies, it is good to see Dutt on-screen again. And the beating up here is minimal; indeed, except for the last half hour, Dutt seethes and simmers, but keeps his anger and anguish in check. When he finally does explode, it’s short, brutal and violent, and a bunch of people die. Stay volcanic, Mr Dutt.