Basking in the success of his first comedy, Welcome To Sajjanpur, veteran director Shyam Benegal says he plans to make a political satire before reviving his long pending project Chamki.
Excerpts from the interview:
You are almost 73. And you've made your youngest film to date, Welcome To Sajjanpur?
Today issue-based films are an immediate no-no with urbane audiences. Multiplex audiences don't want to see social issues or films set in villages. Even Lagaan was accidentally set in a village. It was more historical than contemporary. Villages seem to have fallen off our sightlines, gone off the map. If I wanted an audience to come for a film like this, I needed to change my language.
It's like the third world in the eyes of the United States. Urban India reacts in a similar way to rural India. Cities see villages as no-good places. They feel there's nothing of value in the villages. That's not the truth. In cinema, we can look at the truth in so many ways. I decided to look at a village in a light-hearted but compassionate way.
Welcome To Sajjanpur is a satire and a romantic comedy. In a way, this is a film about abuse of power. We also have all kinds of horrific traditions and customs swamping the satire.
Did you feel humour was the right tool for such serious issues?
Oh absolutely. It's what Charlie Chaplin used to do. He made you laugh. But at the end of his films you realised the frailty of human life. I don't think there can be any serious comedy without an underlying reference to Chaplin. I should imagine Sajjanpur is the funniest film I've done.
Some critics have found the dialogues risqué.
Tell me, at the grassroots level, where is the conversation not risqué? Anywhere in rural or urban India you just have to stand on the road and hear people talking to hear risqué words. I didn't flinch from colloquialisms even if they were risqué. No one in our country puts dialogues in Awadhi or Maithili in the Hindi-Urdu literary works. But in English you've regional dialects like Scottish or Irish creeping in. The same is true of Indian cinema. We shied away from colloquialism and regionalism.
Not in your cinema.
I suppose I can take credit for bringing in spoken colloquialism and regionalism in our cinema starting with "Ankur" where the Hyderabadi dialect was used in a non-caricatural form for the first time.
When you made Ankur, you were the only one doing this kind of cinema. Today, a lot of your followers are doing it.
I wouldn't call them followers. I'd call them like-minded people. Companies like UTV are making films like Mumbai Meri Jaan and Sajjanpur possible. They're very astute. They know how to make and market movies.
You had a great deal of problem getting a star into Zubeidaa. Has that changed today?
No, that hasn't changed. There's a direct connection between stars and the budget of a film. Sajjanpur didn't require stars or a lavish budget. If I'm doing a much larger film, I need a much stronger audience magnet to attract audience. And that magnet can only be stars. The stars bring the audience automatically. Naturally, the people in the business of cinema would be worried about their investment. You can't turn a blind eye to it. That would be silly. Today, you either need sound technology or stars to attract large audience.
But Sajjanpur doesn't have stars or great technological skills?
Audiences connected with the characters. Also, the topics that touch our lives through newspapers such as honour killings. Then there're the wonderful actors. I worked with Karisma Kapoor in Zubeidaa and now with Shreyas Talpade in Sajjanpur. Both surrendered totally to the parts. Karisma trusted the director completely. There was no resistance from her.
Do you now find it easier to get the stars?
If the money is right, there's no problem getting them. My film adapting the opera Carmen (called Chamki) will have stars. It's been pending for a while. We couldn't put the project together earlier when it was in other hands.
You mean Sanjay Gupta?
That's right. Now Chamki is with Reliance and we're going ahead with it. But because that requires a longer, deeper preparation and also it can only be shot in winter in the Rajashthan deserts, it can't be done this winter. So I'll make a little political satire again with Reliance, before Chamki.
Tell me about the political satire?
I won't tell you the subject at the moment. It'd be the easiest thing for anyone to start copying. I want it to be funnier and sharper than Sajjanpur.
Will it feature Shreyas Talpade?
I want to work with him again. He's given a wonderful performance.