Agastya Sen was our first film character who had a secret world of erotic daydreams. He read Marcus Aurelius, smoked pot, listened to Miles Davis, fantasized about his boss’ wife, befriended a pornographer who was also a cop and a pothead-cartoonist and, finally, made it all seem heroic. We saw him in the nude, and watched his most intimate physical moments. It was new.
In Dev Benegal’s first feature film English, August (1994) Sen (played by Rahul Bose) arrived in Madna—a sultry small town somewhere in Maharashtra—for a year’s training after he is recruited as an Indian Administrative Service officer. Released at a time when India’s urban young were convinced that every film that ran in theatres had to be either a Bollywood blockbuster or an art film, and made with a budget of Rs60 lakh sanctioned by the French government, the film—based on the 1989 book by Upamanyu Chatterjee—was the germ of the multiplex film in India.
Benegal’s working on a book of photographs on travelling cinema troupes in Rajasthan
The director—now 47, and about to begin filming his third feature, Road, Movie—says that with his debut, he consciously tried to break away from the parallel cinema movement of the 1970s. With his second film, Split Wide Open, made with Rs8 crore, he figured out what never works at the Indian box office. Eight years later, his two complete scripts—Sacred Numbers (based on the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s life and roots in India) and Road, Movie, the shooting for which begins in March in Rajasthan and Kutch—have found a taker in Ross Katz, a 34-year-old Hollywood producer whose earlier films include Todd Field’s In the Bedroom (2001) and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003).
Most days, Benegal lives out of a suitcase. Om Puri has been signed for a lead role in Road, Movie, Benegal is on frequent recce trips to Erode, Tamil Nadu, for the location of Sacred Numbers, and he shuttles between New York and Los Angeles, sorting pre-shoot logistics. In Mumbai for half a day, he seems blissful with the peripatetic existence, as if he has been waiting for this. “There was a point when I thought I would stop making films. My script for Ravana and Eddie (based on Kiran Nagarkar’s book) was rejected by everyone in India. I wrote Road, Movie in 2004, in times of deep despair. It’s a very personal film; I finished the first draft in 10 days.” In 2006, the script got accepted at L’Atelier du Festival project, which showcases scripts from across the world, and Katz and executive producer Susan Blandau took up Benegal’s story.
Vishnu is a restless young man who wants to escape his father’s faltering hair oil business. He discovers an old, abandoned truck that stores a collection of film reels and a film projector. He embarks on a journey through small towns in Rajasthan, making a business out of the travelling cinema. Into this narrative, Benegal weaves the stories of a young runaway, a wandering entertainer, a stunning gypsy woman, corrupt cops and a notorious water lord.
“The idea came first, then I decided to spend time with a travelling cinema troupe in Rajasthan. In every new village, the 24-year-old owner would shout, “I didn’t show Titanic, my audience has never seen a ship in their lives.” People would start thronging on foot, on bullock carts, motorbikes, or 20 people crushed together in a jeep.” Benegal recalls.
The script, and Benegal’s visual language (the good thing about Split Wide Open was that the grittiest faces of Mumbai appeared in burnt hues of brown and blue, and yet looked realistic), convinced the producers: “Dev shines in his visual style. People are hungry for films about the human spirit,” says Blandau.
For the director, who grew up on Hollywood films in the 1970s in New Delhi theatres, Indian audiences matter the most. His father, a theatre director, didn’t allow him to watch Hindi films, and around the time his son was 18, insisted he watch Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane. Benegal did, 10 times, and decided to become a film-maker. He assisted his uncle, director Shyam Benegal, when he was making his famous documentary on Satyajit Ray (Satyajit Ray, 1984), and in the late 1980s, went to film school at New York University.
His deep-rooted Indianness took shape after English, August . “I now find the West dull and old. The young Indian audience is the most exciting audience in the world today. To reach out to them is my biggest challenge,” he says.