HT Brunch Cover Story: Over the top and on point with Shyam Benegal
The last door on the second floor of one of those unremarkable old office buildings in Tardeo opens to a time capsule. An unimpressed Smita Patil, wearing a neatly-pleated sari, stares at me from a huge poster of Bhumika. Next to her are three more posters, for Ankur, Nishant and Manthan – the first definitive Hindi-language films of the Indian New Wave cinema that established Shyam Benegal, the director of these films, as the poster boy of the movement.
Today, Hindi cinema is having a renaissance of sorts with realism and content as the new cool. So it makes sense to meet Shyam Benegal, the man who brought us the original content-driven films that were cheerfully thrust into a category named ‘parallel cinema’, to discuss what is happening in Bollywood now.
“I was lucky that those films not only recovered their cost, but also made money,” chortles 84-year-old Shyam babu, as he likes to be called, about his first few films. “Because of that, they got a certain kind of legitimacy. They proved that such films can be commercially viable.”
Ankur (1974) wasn’t the first film to experiment with content and form. M S Sathyu’s Garm Hava (1974), Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Dastak (1970), Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash (1969) and of course Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969) had already gone there and made their mark. But what makes the success of Shyam Benegal and his compatriots so stunning is that their films ran parallel to mainstream masala movies and still did well. Even as the Angry Young Man ruled the box office in films like Sholay (1975) and Deewar (1975), Nishant (1975) made money.
Now, however, more films like Nishant are being made, and it is no surprise that they make money. Benegal, however, does not believe that the ‘parallel’ cinema is becoming mainstream. Instead he credits this apparent renaissance to the advancement of education and technology.
“It is a gradual progression,” he explains. “All these filmmakers are well educated in the art and craft of cinema. I credit the film schools for the positive changes that we are seeing today.” Benegal taught at the Film and Television Institute of India between 1966 and 1973, and has also served as its chairman. “Today, the audiences are much more film literate and educated in audio-visual ways. There is so much material at your disposal that as an audience, you become selective and more discerning. This has a positive impact on the quality of films being made and it helps that the filmmakers are more cinema literate,” he adds.
Again, this isn’t exactly new, Benegal says. The art house cinema of his generation also owed a lot to film schools. “Post Satyajit Ray, there were those like Mrinal Sen who went into different styles and told different stories that were far removed from the song and dance of mainstream cinema,” he points out. “And this started to develop in other parts of India as well. In Kerala with Adoor Gopalakrishnan, in Karnataka with Girish Karnad and K. Shivaram Karanth; Orissa also was making interesting films. And all this was happening because of certain external changes. A major one was the establishment of the Film and Television Institute. In the early ’60s, the first batch of film graduates started making movies armed with advanced technical knowhow and newer reference points from world cinema, Adoor being a prime example, and a new kind of cinema started to develop which we called new cinema.”
Indeed the foot soldiers of the movement were film school students armed mostly with paltry NDFC funds, trying to make cinema that would change society. Benegal had private backers, however. For Ankur , he had independent financing from Blaze Films and funds for Manthan and Susman (1987) were crowdsourced!
Web of content
He was also one of the first directors to embrace television. At the time when the New Cinema movement began to slowly lose ground, India was watching television boom. Benegal directed elaborate serials like Yatra (1986) and Bharat Ek Khoj (1988). And now, in 2019, as web content becomes big, you might see him dabble in that medium as well.
“The cinema experience is also far more satisfying than television or mobile content, but if I get the right kind of subject for the web, why not?” he grins. What he won’t do, however, are YouTube shorts. “Those are really meant for young people to showcase what they can do. It is an exciting medium. But it has to be financially worthwhile as well.” Now he is embarking on a new project, a biopic, and he is still bubbling with new ideas.
Benegal has just watched Article 15 (2019) and is pretty impressed by the new filmmakers. “It is really heartening to see such movies being made. It is almost documentary-like in its approach which adds a lot to the conviction of the story,” he says.
His films had also dealt with real life issues such as caste politics. In fact, Ankur, considered the single-most influential Indian film since Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), dealt with feudal oppression and the sexual exploitation of women in rural India. It was a script Benegal had written while still in college years based on a true incident. His next film Nishant, although not made as sequel to Ankur, saw the fruition of the seeds of rebellion against caste politics sowed in the previous film, albeit in a not-so-subtle way. “Even Arohan (1982). Like Nishant, it was based on a true story. Manthan also had depictions of caste struggle,” Benegal points out adding that even today we need movies denouncing the caste system. “It is still relevant. Caste plays such an integral part in everything from the manner you choose your political representative to the manner in which you choose to live or not live in a neighbourhood. Caste and class and economic circumstance have a tendency to go together. It is not essentially true that a person of a lower caste is economically deprived, but still he might be socially deprived because of his caste. We urban people don’t feel it that much. But in villages it is still important.”
According to him films like Article 15 are important, and films talking about caste issues should show how the class politics is played out today, instead of talking about stories based in the ’60s. But he also admits that it is not easy to talk about caste and it is of utmost importance to decide from whose perspective one is telling the story.
“I loved the movie, but I am not sure if that was the right viewpoint,” Benegal explains. “The story is told from the viewpoint of the natural oppressor. Indeed the upper class is often more articulate and has the cultural and educational advantage, but if I was a Dalit I would have found that viewpoint patronising, even if the story is in favour of the Dalits.”
Even so, class and caste conflicts have their own contexts, and while the class conflict of the Marathi film Sairat (2016) worked because it was a Marathi film set in Maharashtra, it may not have worked in a Hindi film viewed all over India. “What happens in most Hindi films is that in an attempt to make the film relevant and accessible to audiences across the country, the stories are often set in some random never never land. Unless you say that this story took place in Muzaffarnagar or Jhansi or Nanded, you cannot include the local issues, and you need those to add conviction to the story. Sairat is very specific,” says Benegal. “It talks about real problems of a real place. You can never have the same conviction if the story is set in a never never land.”
At the same time, Benegal does not dismiss mainstream masala movies. “One needs to understand that the format of Indian mainstream cinema, with all its song and dance, is rather unique,” he explains. “This is because our reference points when cinema became talkies were from urban theatre, which was very popular at that time. And one of the main features of urban theatre was that they exploited all the devices available to maximise the impact for the audience…and among those elements were songs and dances, which eventually became an integral part of storytelling in cinema. Also, cinema had money. So poets turned into songwriters, authors wrote screenplays, theatre actors left theatre for movies…cinema had the best of the contemporary art world and what it created was unique to the subcontinent. Basically we were serving biryani to the audiences – a dish made with all the best ingredients available!”
And although there was no dearth of reference points for good cinema at home, especially since Benegal had Guru Dutt as a cousin, it is not surprising that Benegal was blown away when he first came across the neo-realistic cinema of Satyajit Ray.
“The release of Ray’s Pather Panchali in 1955 was not only a watershed moment for Indian cinema but it also changed the course of my life,” he says. “My uncle suggested that I watch this newly-released film by Satyajit Ray. Pather Panchali was nothing anyone had ever seen. It was not even neo-realist cinema. It was a distillate of life’s experience. It became gold standard, even in Europe. I always wanted to make movies, but Pather Panchali proved that there was scope for the kind of cinema I wanted to make.”
Trading stars for actors
At 84, Benegal holds the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Dadasaheb Phalke awards, thanks to making path-breaking films that won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi seven times! His films were also the debut vehicles for some of the greatest actors in the country, such as Naseeruddin Shah (Nishant), Shabana Azmi (Ankur), Smita Patil (Charandas Chor), Ananth Nag (Ankur), Supriya Pathak (Kalyug), Deepti Naval (Junoon), among others. In the world of stars, he brought in actors who didn’t care about their image. But that is not to say Benegal intentionally shunned the stars. “Sometimes I also wanted to work with the stars. But slowly I realised that the kind of movies I was making would not attract stars. They were very conscious of their carefully cultivated public personas. This is an image-creating business. Nobody wants that to disappear for a movie that might not even be a box office success. Also, as one of the stars I had once approached pointed out, ‘Why take a star if you can’t take the benefits of a star?’” And it was true! My films did not need the glamour of a star.”
Benegal did make two films with Shashi Kapoor though. “He was doing all those big commercial films and had a chocolate boy image when we did Junoon and Kalyug (both films won Filmfare Best Movie Awards). He had absolutely zero reservations. He was a theatre actor at heart. According to me, those two films saw him at his best, both as an actor and as a star,” he reminisces.
He is excited about the fact that Bollywood is finally getting over the obsession with stars. “There will always be stars, but today the stars themselves are also very good actors! That is a huge change. They are not amateurish, they are trying out new things, and they are not so conscious about their looks.”
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From HT Brunch, October 6, 2019
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