The upcoming movie Well Done Abba could well have been called Well Done Benegal. Its director, Shyam Benegal, made his first feature film, Ankur, in 1974. The 75-year-old film-maker continues to dream up ideas despite his advancing age and the disappearance of the mini-industry with which he was associated for over two decades.
Safe bet: Boman Irani (left) and Minissha Lamba in Well Done Abba
Ankur was among several Indian art house films made in the 1970s that proved to be as culturally significant as the decade’s Manmohan Desai adventures and the Angry Young Men vendetta sagas. Spectacle and violence continue to exercise the imagination of film-makers in Mumbai, but the concerns of art house cinema, ranging from caste exploitation to gender inequality, sometimes seem as antiquated as LP records.
It is difficult to be objective about Benegal, not just because he has made films for over 35 years and in several Indian languages, but also because he is seen to have survived the excesses of art house cinema more or less intact. Not for Benegal the burning out of talent or the shattering of ideals. Regardless of the critical and commercial reception of his films, he has refused to lose his nerve. Although Benegal’s output has been decidedly mixed, there are more pluses than minuses. The gems (Ankur, Bhumika, Mandi, Kalyug, Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda) out-dazzle the duds (Zubeidaa, Netaji Subash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero). Common to all his films is equanimity, which is unmatched by his unruly successors, some of whom became his contemporaries through the 1980s and early 1990s. They briefly impressed and then noisily collapsed. They are still around today, depressing older viewers who have long and fond memories and puzzling younger filmgoers who wonder what the fuss is about.
Ketan Mehta’s more recent misfires, ranging from Oh Darling Yeh Hai India to the unreleased Rang Rasiya, cause even more distress when you consider the fact that the same director made Bhavni Bhavai, Holi and Mirch Masala within a space of five brilliant years. Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro didn’t make even half as much money as Kya Kehna, but there’s an unbridgeable chasm between the subversive social satire of 1983 and the soppy melodrama of 2000.
Some art house film-makers continued to brave it out in the face of paltry government funding and the absence of widespread distribution. Others simply retreated hurt, upset about the commercial failure of their films and bewildered at the rapidly changing cultural and economic landscape of India. Saeed Mirza resurfaced with Ek Tho Chance last year after ducking out of sight with Naseem in 1995. Govind Nihalani, who brilliantly shot Benegal’s earlier films and contributed Aakrosh and Ardh Satya to Indian cinema, unsuccessfully flirted with populist storytelling modes in Thakshak (1999) and Dev (2004). Sudhir Mishra, who started making films in the dying light of Indian art house cinema in the late 1980s, has had mixed success with adapting his sensibility to contemporary tastes.
Benegal, on the other hand, has always been a safe bet—perhaps too much so for the liking of some critics and cinephiles. His films aren’t as aesthetically pleasing as Satyajit Ray’s creations. Nor do they have the energy and flair of Mirch Masala or Girish Karnad’s Utsav, or the sharply observed social critique contained in the films of Malayali masters such as G. Aravindan or Adoor Gopalakrishnan.
One of Benegal’s biggest virtues is consistency, which has expressed itself in a lifelong commitment to serious-minded, issue-based dramas characterized by realistic acting and believable characters. His continued presence among today’s putative trailblazers proves that the middle path, whether it’s in diplomacy or in cinema, has the strongest chance of survival.
Shyam Benegal’s Well Done Abba releases on 26 March.
Nandini Ramnath is the film critic of Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org