Shyam Benegal’s small office in south Mumbai is every Kindle-phobic bibliophile’s dream. The tables in the unpretentious but busy reception area have books and magazines of all kinds, besides life-size posters of all his famous films: Mandi, Bhumika, Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda, Manthan, Ankur, Zubeidaa, Welcome to Sajjanpur, and a few more.
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His room, next to the reception area, has an antique wooden desk with drawers and a large wooden chair, where he sits. Books nestle in every possible corner—spilling out of glass cabinets, falling off tables. I spotted Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India, plays by actor and playwright Girish Karnad, some American best-sellers, Amitav Ghosh’s Circle of Reason and a biography of Alfred Hitchcock. There’s a professorial air about the room, much like the man himself. Yet, again like him, it also has an endearing sophistication.
Montage: (clockwise from top) Benegal behind the camera. AFP; Boman Irani (left) plays the lead in Benegal’s forthcoming film Well Done Abba. Courtesy Shyam Benegal; Divya Dutta in Welcome to Sajjanpur. Courtesy Shyam Benegal; Naseeruddin Shah in Nishant. Courtesy Shyam Benegal; Girish Karnad in Manthan. Courtesy Shyam Benegal; Benegal’s first film Ankur, starring Shabana Azmi and Anant Nag. AFP; an ensemble cast in Mandi. AFP; and Smita Patil in Bhumika. AFP
Recently, when I met the 75-year-old director in his office, he picked up Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, Museum of Innocence, in the middle of our conversation and said: “Style can’t be bad, but you got to have an individual voice to go with the style. Look at this man, he is an amazing stylist but without his unique point of view and his voice, My Name is Red, or this, won’t be great books.”
Benegal, now also a Rajya Sabha MP, pretty much summed up his own approach to his art: content over style. His corpus, spanning three decades of film-making and some pioneering work in television, rests almost entirely on two things: his engagement with the socially oppressed; and characters—often dark and comic at the same time—that populate this milieu. Visual style, or the gimmicks and tricks of the camera, have never been important indexes of his success barring, perhaps, a couple of his later films such as Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda (1992) and Samar (1998). In some, such as Zubeidaa (2001), some of the visual flourishes look out of place, even sloppy.
Even in the commercially successful Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008), which marks an entirely new phase in his narrative style, Benegal does not desert the two qualities that define his cinema.
Another life: (top) Benegal, a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, outside South Block. Madhu Kapparath / Mint; and with classmates from his school days at Mahboob College School, Secunderabad, in 2007. Noah Seelam / AFP
His forthcoming film, Well Done Abba, is a political satire. In tone and writing, it has similarities with Welcome to Sajjanpur. “It is set in a small place in Andhra Pradesh in the Telangana region,” he says. “A community well is stolen and the story kind of takes off from there. It deals with things like developmental schemes that the government undertakes and how the difference between a scheme and a scam is so very small.”
It is the story of Armaan Ali (Boman Irani), who returns to his work and family after a mysterious, self-imposed, three-month break. His boss demands an explanation, and so begins a story involving his twin brother (Boman Irani), the brother’s wife, his daughter (Minissha Lamba)—and the petty politics and corruption that surround this family. Armaan is caught in a bureaucratic and societal maze. Expect the kind of understated irony, satire and gentle humour that characterized Welcome to Sajjanpur, only perhaps with better lead performances. Irani, who plays the two protagonists, says: “This has to be the most meaningful and the greatest experience I’ve had on a set. When someone like Shyam Benegal takes over, there’s a lot of knowledge that comes on board.” Benegal’s intellect and compassion leave their stamp on his works, observes Irani: “He is a very cerebral person who knows about and understands many things. There’s an unspoken wisdom which is bound to translate into the project. But then, it was also so much fun because he himself is interested in having fun while making a film. He has adapted to changing times without having changed his core beliefs, which is an amazing achievement.”
The intellectual and activist rigour of his early films belies Benegal’s affability. “He is too nice a man,” says Irani. Over the last two decades, Benegal has discovered and rediscovered some of the best actors in Indian cinema. He has the knack of choosing and writing scripts with many characters, each with their own inner dynamics contributing to the story. Like his mentor and biggest influence Satyajit Ray, he is in love with cameos. Over the years, his actors have become good friends and he often has them in mind while choosing a story. Ravi Jhankal, who has acted in all of Benegal’s feature films (he played Munnibai in Welcome to Sajjanpur, the eunuch who fights an election and wins), says: “It’s like a repertory theatre company. When he decides on a film, he wants to keep one role for me, one for Rajat (Kapoor), one for someone else who has worked with him for years. We do what he asks us to do. Before casting for Well Done Abba, he called me and said, ‘You have become a liability for me’.”
In Mumbai’s film industry, Benegal is one of the few directors who engages with issues that affect society, and the city and its people. His belief in the potential of Nehruvian socialism and an inclusive, democratic political system is obvious when he speaks about cinema or books or the deteriorating condition of civic life in Mumbai, the city he loves.
He was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 2006. “Being a parliamentarian has been enlightening, as well as disappointing,” he admits. “Seeing the way politics is done in this country, the kind of people who are deciding what needs to change, makes me more and more cynical. But one breakthrough legislation is passed and I feel there is hope.”
But Benegal has never been a confrontationist or a rabble-rouser. Recently, even as 14 organizations joined the legal battle against the decriminalization of homosexuality, he quietly joined the original petitioner, The Naz Foundation, in support of gay rights in the Supreme Court. Last year, when government authorities in Tehran denied Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi permission to travel to the Mumbai International Film Festival, where he was part of the jury, Bengal wrote to the Iranian government and human rights organizations to help lift the ban.
Most of Benegal’s films—from the darkly serious and self-consciously activist works of the late 1970s and early 1980s to those of recent years—have the same controlled way of speaking against the establishment, and for the marginalized.
But as he says, a film-maker can never be a good politician. He is more enthusiastic about his job as director—constantly in touch with actors much before shooting for a film begins, discussing the details with technicians in advance, eager to watch new films and interact with young film-makers.
Benegal’s transition from an activist film-maker, the most popular name identified with the parallel cinema movement of the late 1970s and 1980s, to that of a practitioner of what can be termed “middle cinema”, was choppy. Many of the films made between 1973 and 1983 were supported by the government’s film-funding organization, National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). “The idealism was contagious. On the one side were the multiple-star films that were feeding the masses and then there was the parallel movement spearheaded by the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) with Ritwik Ghatak at the helm and film-makers like Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul emerging,” says Benegal. For most film-makers of this era, including Benegal, socially engaged cinema was a badge of identity. But progressively, as Benegal worked with actors such as Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Om Puri, Anant Nag, Naseeruddin Shah, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and many others, he became a master of the multiple-character film set in middle-class and lower-middle-class milieus. In 2002, during a retrospective of Benegal’s films at the National Film Theatre, London, Karnad, a close friend and work associate, had a public conversation with Benegal at the venue. An audio recording of the conversation has Karnad observing: “Shyam was more than a director—he was also a friend, a very good host (you got very good food anytime you turned up at his house). Then, apart from that, in those days when actors were impoverished, he was a banker for his actors...and most of all, a father figure...Even though Smita and Shabana have been compared in various ways, I always thought their rivalry was for your affections, actually, as a director.”
By the end of the 1980s, as the Amitabh Bachchan-driven wave of star worship and blockbusters was at its peak, parallel cinema directors jumped ship. “The idealism and heavily issue-based film-making suddenly ended. The NFDC, which funded many of these films, pulled back, there was no distribution system in place and none of us really carried on,” Benegal recalls.
But unlike most of his peers, Benegal immersed himself full-time in television—Bharat Ek Khoj, a history series based on The Discovery of India, and Yatra, a series about the chaotic and heartwarming confluence of community, caste, religion and humanity in the two longest train journeys across the length and breadth of India. These are unarguably the finest works ever made for Indian television. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” Benegal recalls. “Like a madman, I decided to do every chapter of (The) Discovery of India...some 53 hours of footage in 35mm compressed to a series. But that was my only choice because the blockbuster had wiped out virtually everything else, and only those films that could fill the halls got made. I couldn’t fill halls.”
In the 1990s, Benegal made Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda, based on a novella by Dharamvir Bharati, Samar, a lesser-known, stylish film where he used the film-within-a-film format to explore caste prejudices, and then Mammo and Sardari Begum, the first two parts of a trilogy on journalist-filmmaker Khalid Mohammed’s illustrious and complex maternal lineage.
Benegal’s real change in idiom appears in the 2001 film Zubeidaa, which is his most commercial Hindi film ever—it had love songs picturized in lush, undulating landscapes, a prince, a mistress and a queen, and a surprising dose of schlocky emotions. “I had been fascinated by female lead character(s), as I have always been by strong women characters, and it was made distinctly with the idea of entertaining,” he says without any hint of regret or remorse. “You have to entertain an audience. I mean, there is no place for the films of the so-called parallel cinema now; that place has been taken by documentaries. If you can’t adapt to the times, can’t entertain the youth, you are redundant.”
The biopic on Subhas Chandra Bose, Netaji Subash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005), Benegal’s next ambitious project, was not only a box-office disaster, but a film in which he failed to project the historical and personal nuances of Bose’s character. Less a human story than a pastiche of a documentary based on available research material on the Bengali hero, the failure of this film can be seen as another turning point in his career.
During the three years that followed the Bose biopic, Benegal prepared for Welcome to Sajjanpur, and learnt and unlearned things about the film industry. “I was never a pro- or anti-star person. The thing I am concerned most with is performance, no matter who the actor is. That may not work very well for a star,” Benegal says, talking about the “entertaining” mantra he follows. During this time, he approached producers, whom he later fell out with, and finally got UTV to take it up. Jhankal has witnessed changes in Benegal he had not imagined his mentor was capable of. “Many of us who have been working with him since the 1980s had repeatedly told him that he needed to change the way he approached his subjects. And there it was, on the sets of Welcome to Sajjanpur. I saw his ability for humour and a way of working with actors and technicians that I had not seen. On the surface, he was a changed man, but deep down, he was the same. He acted out minute physical details and gestures to his actors.” A new Shyam Benegal brand was born.
Vikas Bahl, chief creative officer, UTV Motion Pictures, which produced Welcome to Sajjanpur, feels Benegal inspires both trust and admiration. “He is the youngest film-maker of India,” says Bahl. “His awareness of what goes around in the world and India keeps him miles ahead of the industry at a safe distance. His interpretation of reality and fictionalizing it for cinema is beautiful. India has just about created the infrastructure that his films required.” The film still has great broadcasting value for general entertainment TV channels.
Well Done Abba will release at an inopportune time: on 26 March, when the Indian Premier League (IPL) hysteria will gain momentum. It will be a fairly wide release—on 400 screens across India—by Reliance Big Pictures, the producer and distributor. Big Pictures CEO Sanjeev Lamba says, “A Shyam Benegal film is made for a discerning audience and with his continued success over the years, his audience base has only expanded. With Well Done Abba, he will transport his audience into a lyrical, farcical, witty world with delightfully hilarious characters.” It will tap the niche market, mostly urban multiplex segments. The director seems unperturbed by either the timing of the film’s release or his marketability. “My job is done when my actors have done their job, and I have the film I wanted.”
Benegal became aware of his love of the film-making enterprise when he was about nine years old. While growing up in Hyderabad as a school-going boy, he regularly visited a small cinema hall meant for screenings for the Indian Army. He befriended the theatre projectionist and watched English and Indian films every week. “It was actually a Cinema Paradiso (the Italian film by Giuseppe Tornatore) kind of a situation,” he says. And then his father, a photographer, acquired a movie camera and made films on him and his nine siblings. “We used to make our guests suffer these films.”
In the 1950s, when he met Ray in Kolkata while staying with his uncle to participate in a swimming competition, the desire to make films turned into a commitment. “I realized that in India too completely unsentimental and crafted film-making was possible.” Years later, when Benegal sent Ray a copy of the documentary he had made on the Oscar-winning Bengali director in 1984, Ray wrote back to him, saying there was too much of Ray and very little of Benegal in the film. “Little did he know that I was emulating or (had) perhaps already internalized his style of maintaining a deliberate distance from my own views and letting the subject show,” says Benegal.
At 39, having spent many years in Mumbai making advertising films, Benegal found a producer for Ankur, his first film, which he wrote in his early 20s. The rest is cinematic history.
Over cups of sweet tea at his office, Benegal says he hardly ever watches his own films. “I will watch them when I stop making films entirely. But the other day, I happened to see a bit of Mandi and I thought it wasn’t bad.”
Well Done Abba releases in theatres on 26 March.
With inputs from Himanshu Bhagat.