The Bhavai, a dying form of folk drama in Gujarat, synthesizes diverse arts into socially relevant communication. The film is based on one such ancient Bhavai tale called Achhootno Vesh (Garb of the Untouchable) which tells of the exploitation of Harijans (so low in the caste hierarchy that they were considered Untouchable). In this particular region the upper castes enforced restrictions of dress that marked as well as dehumanized the Harijans. Thus, the Harijan had to wear a broom behind him to erase his offensive footprints; he was required to don a third sleeve as a sign of submission; he had to carry a clay spittoon around his neck; and he could only wear unwoven yarn as headdress.
Bhavni Bhavai tells its story on two levels. One is the present which deals with a poor untouchable community whose huts have been burnt down and who are now desperate and homeless. A minstrel decides to revive their morale with a folk song. As he sings, the film goes into the past, enacting the song itself. The song is a parody, about a foolish king who has two wives but no heir. He and his courtiers exploit the untouchables of the village. One of their many menial tasks is to clean the royal bathrooms. The palace is stinking because the untouchables are away attending a wedding. They are hauled back and beaten to death for this offence. The older queen gives birth to a son, to the chagrin of the younger queen. The latter conspires with her lover to have the baby killed. The courtiers relent and set the baby afloat in a box. The baby is found by a childless untouchable couple.The baby grows up into Jivo, a handsome and carefree youth. He falls in love with a spirited gypsy girl named Ujaan, who signifies the spirit of liberation. She chides him into discarding the demeaning aspects of an untouchable’s garb. She dares him to display his defiance in the town. They run away together. Meanwhile, the younger queen discovers the secret of Jivo’s identity. She bribes the astrologer to warn the kind that a man called Jivo portends death for the king. Spurred on by Ujaan, Jivo strikes a bargain. He agrees to surrender if his people are allowed the dignity of normal attire.The film has two endings. One a happy fairy-tale reprieve; the other, amore disturbing one where Jiva is executed with tragic consequences for everyone. The film moves back and forth between past and present. The same actors are identifiable in both. It tells its story through folk song, mime and dance.
Screenplay & Direction by Ketan Mehta
Produced by Sanchar Film Cooperative
Cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Mohan Gokhale, Om Puri, Dina Pathak, Suhasini Mulay, Benjamin Gilani & others