He’s a multiple award-winner, gazed at with awe. But director Shyam Benegal has never liked what he’s done, so he never looks back, by Udita Jhunjhunwala.
His Sahyadri Films office is unassuming, just like the man himself. And I wonder when the poster of Shyam Benegal’s latest film Welcome to Sajjanpur will join the roster of acclaimed works. Filmgoers who usually associate Benegal with socially relevant movies will be surprised that his next will venture into the comedy genre.
But followers of the Shyam Benegal school of movie making will recall Charandas Chor (1975) and Mandi, which he describes as a ‘black comedy’. So in effect, Welcome... is Benegal’s return to comedy.
The Hyderabad born Benegal moved to Mumbai to pursue a career, and in the first 26 years of his professional life he had already made 21 features, 45 documentaries and 1,500 ad films.
His early films (Ankur, Nishant, Manthan and Bhumika) created a sub-genre – ‘middle cinema’. Since his last film, Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005) he has seen his passion project Chamki Chameli (based on the musical Carmen) slip through the hands of two producers, announced that he will helm the film adaptation of the book The Spy Princess and has directed Welcome to Sajjanpur.
“It took me two years to make this film, and there were others in the pipeline. Chamki Chameli has suffered having passed through the hands of two producers unsuccessfully. Lord Meghnad Desai and his wife Kishwar have written the script of The Spy Princess. The film will be in English, French, German and Urdu,” says Benegal. “At the other end of the spectrum is Welcome to Sajjanpur which takes a compassionate look at today’s village and the foibles, politics, gender dynamics, superstitions and influence of urban India on rural India.”
The movie revolves around a fictitious north Indian village (Sajjanpur) which has a low literacy rate and where an educated person can still earn a livelihood by being a letter writer. “Such a person becomes privy to many confidences and hence has a great deal of power. Did you know the last letter writer, sitting outside the Mumbai GPO, retired just two months ago?” asks Benegal. Trust him to know.
Benegal believes that people mistake him for a sombre person because of his films. “I am not like my films. I can be, but I am not. There are subjects to be taken seriously and there are others you take with a pinch of salt,” he says.
So what makes him laugh? “All sorts of things, from a description in a newspaper column to some of the scenes I witness in Parliament.” His favourite style of comedy is satire, which he says “is the only way to make people laugh at themselves. A filmmaker cannot take him/herself too seriously when making a comedy. Actors are vital but eventually the film will work depending on how the director has worked out the mis-en-scene.”
Thirty-five years of filmmaking and numerous awards – what does Benegal see when he looks back at his career? “I don’t look back,” he says. “I have never felt satisfied with any of the work I have done. There is a Spanish word ‘duende’, which means a transcendent moment which is very sharp and clear to you but difficult to articulate. It’s the feeling you get with great work – whether art or music or even movies. But not a single film of mine has done that for me.”
Younger directors who think that film making gets easier with time will be disappointed to note that the endeavour to make your kind of cinema does not necessarily get easier. As Benegal says, “It is still hard and always has been difficult to make my kind of films. I was lucky early in my career to have two producers, Mohan Bijlani and Freni Variava, who let me make my films my way. Today it is easier to make a film, but it is much more difficult to make it the way you want to. I am learning to reconcile myself to that.” Be that as it may, Benegal’s fan club will be waiting for his next release with bated breath.