Shyam Benegal is the Indian villager’s Last Action Hero. Nobody else in Hindi cinema cares about rural India (which officially makes up 72% of our country). And even if some members of Bollywood’s smart set do use the best cinematographers to capture the bleak, ravaged beauty of our villages, in the finished film they feature only as backdrops minus their real inhabitants.
So I shrug when people say Benegal hasn’t made a great film since 1992’s Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda. I never worry about reviews or box office figures when it’s a Benegal film. Instead, I notice that in the week the director’s Well Done Abba—a satire on the government’s pro-poor schemes set in Muslim Andhra Pradesh—releases, the Supreme Court announces it is restoring a 4% jobs and educational institutions quota for backward Muslims in the same state.
Benegal’s always had his hand firmly on the aam aadmi’s pulse. He understands the politics of places and the way people prefer to communicate in these places. Abba is set in Andhra Pradesh, a state with which Benegal has close ties (he was born in Trimulgherry near Hyderabad). The film’s lead character Boman Irani communicates exclusively in Dakhni, that quirky, expressive Urdu dialect of the dusty Deccan. “Language is such an important aspect of human culture,” Benegal tells Sangeeta Dutta in her book Shyam Benegal, pointing out that he has also used Dakhni in Ankur, a dialect of Saurashtra in Manthan, Urdu in Junoon, Konkani in Bhumika and Bengali in Aarohan.
Lounge loves: Shyam Benegal. Madhu Kapparath/Mint
Benegal has devoted a lifetime to recording rural upheaval—c’mon, which other Hindi movie director has made a film about the National Dairy Development Board! It’s easy for him to illustrate how dramatically the rural landscape has changed in recent years.
Even if you’re one of those whose eyes glaze over when new schemes are announced every year in the budget, you’ve surely heard of NREGA, the government’s successful, five-year-old flagship welfare programme that promises 100 days of employment annually to the poor? Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government is working hard to begin a national debate on issues such as poverty, hunger, education and unemployment. In its last budget, the government announced it would spend Rs1.8 trillion to improve the mostly rural aam aadmi’s quality of life.
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Benegal is even more important in this New India milieu where social spending has taken centre stage because he’s the only Bollywood director who can translate the government’s schemes (and scams) into a multiplex film. And, like he revealed after all these years in 2008’s Welcome to Sajjanpur, he’s even got a sense of humour.
Survival has always been a torturous ride for Benegal’s aam aadmi but the director has reinvented his characters along with himself for today’s multiplex audiences. Benegal’s new aam aadmi knows how to fight the system.
Is Abba the second film in the director’s latest trilogy about the modern Indian village, I wondered as I watched Benegal spin a tale about the joys and sorrows of life below the poverty line. “These days everyone wants to be below the gareebi rekha,” a government official tells Irani, who takes the plunge to be eligible for a state-funded well.
Benegal shot his film partly on location in Ibrahimpatnam, outside Hyderabad. In real life, Ibrahimpatnam is the kind of place where a 27-year-old engineering graduate hangs himself because Telangana isn’t happening fast enough.
Benegal had reason enough to set his film in Andhra Pradesh. In real life, 120% of the state’s population lies below the poverty line. This essentially means that there is nobody above the poverty line, i.e., that there are more BPL cards than the state’s population. Benegal’s aware enough to know this about Andhra Pradesh. As they say on Twitter: Respect.
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