‘Umbartha’ in Marathi means ‘threshold’. The film is based on Marathi novel ‘Beghar’ penned by Shanta Nisal and simultaneously made in Hindi as Subah with the same cast. The film won Best Marathi film award at National Awards and it is considered as “a sincere cinematic statement on the theme of a woman seeking to establish her identity by pursuing a career, even at the risk of alienation from her family”
The film tells the story and journey of the lady who wanted to step outside of her conventional house wife duty of joint family and wanted to do something with her earned Gold Medalist degree in sociology. She got an appointment to serve as Superintendent in Women’s Reformatory Home in a village, far from her home. Even though she convinced her hesitant husband and beloved daughter, she has to pass through conventional family ordeal of permission from her rigid mother-in-law. The moment she enters the job, she starts facing challenges one after another from all corners. The place is uncontrollable and absolutely undisciplined. The girls keeps quarreling and abusing one another, the things of place are pilfered and sold outside beyond anybody’s knowledge. Everything is under sorry state of affair. It’s shocking for her to know that previous superintendent supplied some of the girls at night to the local corporator/MLA. When she brought the things to the notice of the chairman lady of the trust, she found that she is too unconcerned elite who pretends as social worker but inside she's so selfish and careless and always turned negligible and unaccountable for the state of affairs at reformation home. Infact she has her own tantrums of power to throw at her. She started taking things in her hold without asking anybody’s permission. It’s really shameful affair that in order to shape the society and bring the social change one has to face fight between self and society without any moral or physical support from anybody. The meetings with committee members turn out as ridiculous drama where nobody’s concerned about the changes and relocation of destitute women and what’s worst is they start critiquing and questioning the newly appointed superintendent and her approach.
One can see brilliant feminist text here questioning patriarchal society’s stand and if watching closely one can find it in many of scenes and dialogues. For example, in the committee members meeting scene, the members start ridiculing the woman who wanted to have her pronounce with her father’s name rather than her husband who throw her away. They mock the very idea of it. The lesbian scandal and the reaction to it from other ladies and media adds other dimension to it. The film sincerely tried to brought most of destitute women with their personal stories that reflects how selfish and patriarchal society treated them and still they have t survive in the same society. Even when the film ends it throws a question mark where the husband confessed to her that during her long absence from home, just to fulfill his physical need, he had a short affair with another lady, hope she won’t mind this casual contact. The personal compromise or adjustment has no place for her now after facing and confronting life from such close angles. What we see in final frames is the graceful and independent free spirit of woman contemplating and expecting new hope sitting besides window seat of the moving train reflecting next phase of her life.
I wonder how many Indian films of our time portray a woman in such a powerful lead role with socially relevant and concerning theme like this. And who else then Smita Patil could do justice to the character of Sulabha Mahajan. Like most of her screen characters and performances this is one of her shining best, another learning lesson of acting on all front for any of Hindi cinema actress barring the star heroines. Watch her routine struggle of to handle both home and duty, her fight against rotten system amid the condition that brought her utter frustration and helplessness condition. There are number of moments enough to break her down but it shows the rock solid commitment and concern. This is my second Jabbar Patel film and I must say the man has tremendous capacity to get the best from his lead protagonists. With actress like Smita, the film brought new height to the character. I would like to call her hero of the film, even though there’s presence of Girish Karnad in another refined performance but that would be considered categorical and sexist statement. Watching a film like this, the though just automatically appear in the mind that there is just one Smita in Indian cinema and why on earth she died so young!!!
Jabbar Patel while reminiscing about the film and the sorry state of affair during its release, told in his interview to Jerry Pinto –
“My fourth film was Umbartha (1982), also made in Hindi as Subah (1982). I produced it and it was a maddening experience to try and get a commercial release for it across the country. It was in early 1980s. a terrible period for Hindi cinema. Art house cinema was dead; the middle-of-the-road was road kill. The studios were almost dead; the only ones still operational were V. Shantaram’s and Raj Kapoor’s. It was all about creating proposals and stars. You had to have formula and an agreement from a star. But even then I remember that there were some people in Bollwood who would help me. Prakash Mehra took the Delhi rights to Subah because he knew I was worried.”
(Source: Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood: The Many Forms of Hindi Cinema. Edited by Rachel Dwyer and Jerry Pinto)
The film has fine editing except the initial half an hour which I found quite stretching emotionally showing emotional connection of the family and few songs added to the later part of the film. It could save at least twenty minutes of the films total duration that runs for more than two and half hours. But songs are not just additional burden to the film as other mainstream cinema. Some of the songs are so relevant to the story, especially that melodious and divine prayer rendered by Lata Mangeshkar and composed by her brother Hridaynath Mangeshkar. There’s fine and controlled direction by Jabbar Patel and his collaboration with another Marathi creative genius Vijay Tendulkar who wrote the dialogue and screenplay. But over all this is a film of that one brilliant actress that left an indeliable impression and mark of her own, stamped with Smita.