Shyam Benegal’s mantelpiece has them all: industry trophies, multiple National Awards, citations, the Dadasaheb Phalke award, France’s Legion d’Honor, even the Padma Bhushan.
Four decades after he made his first film, he is considered an institution.
His body of work stretches to include ad films, alternative cinema, mainstream movies, biopics and television serials. A bevy of stalwart actors owe their careers to him. He has been director of the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) and twice chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). He was also a Rajya Sabha MP till 2012.
At 79, Benegal could hang up his boots and soak in the sunset.
Instead, two years ago, he reconstituted his team — among them the ace script writer Shama Zaidi — and set about making a TV series that would bring to life the story of how India’s Constitution was framed.
Making this series called for transforming the formidable Constituent Assembly debates (1946-49) into a story that young India would be interested in.
“It’s an incredible story that hasn’t been told before, one that ought to be widely known,” Benegal says.
The result is Samvidhaan – The Making of the Constitution of India, a 10-part mini-series about how hundreds of Indians with diverse backgrounds and ideological beliefs convened in the Central Hall of the Parliament day after day, for three years, to posit, debate and argue over exactly how to frame the identity of the newly independent India.
“The Constitution is an extraordinary piece of work,” says Benegal. “The challenges for us in making the series were many. I had to get the right ensemble cast, make each person on screen believable because they aren’t fictional characters, the content had to be absolutely authentic yet cinematically engaging…We had to be on the straight and narrow.”
Presided over by Rajendra Prasad, the Constituent Assembly debates were sculpted by men and women such as BR Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Abul Kalam Azad, TT Krishnamachari, KM Munshi, Alladi Krishnaswami Iyengar, Hansa Mehta and Amrit Kaur.
Eventually, 294 representatives presented to the country the book by which it still lives.
The series is shown on Rajya Sabha TV every Sunday. The story has been broken down into 10 hour-long episodes, with actor Swara Bhaskar playing the sutradhar or narrator. The work of dubbing it into 14 Indian languages has begun.
“The concept came from the vice-president of India and Rajya Sabha chairman Hamid Ansari. There are now offers from private channels to buy or show it,” says Gurdeep Singh Sappal, CEO of Rajya Sabha TV.
Though a serial, Samvidhaan is endowed with a cinematic quality. Here, Benegal is doing what he loves most: tell stories of India to Indians. He says Samvidhaan is “an evolution from what’s gone before”. That is his 53-part TV serial Bharat Ek Khoj (1988), based on the Nehru’s book, Discovery of India, and Yatra, based on journeys on the Indian Railways.
“Samvidhaan is in some ways a continuum on that journey,” says Benegal. “India is the most extraordinary, diverse and layered country in the world, with a vast history and historical experiences. All of them need to be introduced and made familiar. To profile India is the most difficult task, but also the most exciting to me.”
In the Constituent Assembly debates, Benegal says he found it all: drama, excitement, humour, tragedy and pathos. “My term as MP helped,” he says. “I was able to see it as an insider too.”
With its structured stories on how various aspects of the Constitution were moulded, Samvidhaan is the “biggest multi-biopic ever made”, says actor Dalip Tahil, who plays Nehru.
“We’ve followed a thread and created a mosaic for the story to come through,” says Benegal. “It should be compulsory for the rambunctious MPs but it’s more important to reach this story to children, our future MPs.”