Shyam Benegal’s The Role begins with what seems like an excerpt from a typical Indian film melodrama. It reveals itself gradually as one of the film’s many skilful pastiches of this form and an introduction to the film-star heroine (finely played by Smita Patil), whose fortunes we are to follow. She is given to over-dramatisation, resorting to histrionic scenes and filmic dialogue in her private life and much affected by the melodramas she sees on the screen. Slowly her own life begins to follow the form of the film scripts in which she participates, and she finds it difficult to discover the reality of her emotions amidst the illusory nature of her life. At one stage she is described as an idol locked in a mirror.

The image of imprisonment is powerfully present in the film, the woman’s fame giving her the freedom only to be the breadwinner in a male-dominated household and the escape therefore being only into another sort of trap. At one moment
in the film, a cynical director comments on the common propensity of the Indian people to let their heart rule the head and their inability to accept anything unless it’s wrapped in emotion. What distinguishes The Role from a more typical Indian melodrama like Pakeezah (which uninhibitedly underlines the connection between its tragic heroine and the equally tragic actress who played her, Meena Kumari) is the quality of cool and lucid judgement. A tightly structured narrative is adorned by direction of great visual richness, notably in the generic parodies and party scenes that seem an obligatory aspect of films about filmmaking in whatever language and culture.

India, 1977.
English subtitles.
142 min.

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