Age is a number if you keep your mind active. I have only slowed down physically | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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Age is a number if you keep your mind active. I have only slowed down physically

ByMeena Iyer
Nov 05, 2023 05:16 PM IST

Shyam Benegal, the 88-year-old Indian filmmaker, discusses his latest bi-lingual film "Mujib: The Making of a Nation" and his passion for cinema.

MUMBAI: Shyam Benegal will be 89 next month. His latest bi-lingual – ‘Mujib: The Making of a Nation’ is a hit in Bangladesh. Although he has earned many laurels in his time, he is not done.

On a manic work day, between congratulatory phone calls for his latest, Benegal spoke to HT about his relationship with cinema and his pet peeves. (Hindustan Times)
On a manic work day, between congratulatory phone calls for his latest, Benegal spoke to HT about his relationship with cinema and his pet peeves. (Hindustan Times)

Apart from the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, Benegal has over a dozen National Awards under his belt. He is much feted as he is fastidious. The filmmaker who has avant-garde work like ‘Ankur’, ‘Manthan’, ‘Bhumika’, ‘Kalyug’, ‘Junoon’ and ‘Mandi’ has no plans to retire.

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On a manic work day, between congratulatory phone calls for his latest, Benegal spoke to HT about his relationship with cinema and his pet peeves.

What was the genesis of ‘Mujib-The Making of a Nation’?

‘Mujib’ is an event film. It was birthed from a treaty between prime minister Narendra Modi and his counterpart in Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. It was signed in 2019, where issues like border security and management, boosting connectivity by sharing our waters etc were underlined.

Their PM’s brief was to get a film on the Father of Bangladesh -- Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman.

This is not unusual. I recall a similar exercise when Sir Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ (1982) was made. It was first backed by prime minister Indira Gandhi but eventually became a Hollywood production. There were even talks that it could be a co-production between Britain and India.

Likewise, Mujib was first our PM’s idea and Sheikh Hasina later wanted to participate in the production. That’s when the Bangladesh Film Development Corporation (BFDC) and our own National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) funded the project. All the outdoor shoots were on location in Bangladesh, while the inside shots were done in Film City.

As it is a government-funded film, were there any pressures?

Not pressure, but a huge responsibility rested on my shoulders. For Sheikh Hasina, it is a family story – that of her father, as much as it is the story of the father of their nation. As is widely known, only Sheikh Hasina and her sister Sheikh Rehana were overseas when their father and brothers were assassinated.

Rehana was married to an eminent nuclear physicist who worked in Geneva, while Sheikh Hasina was studying in Europe at the time.

As it was a delicate subject for her, I was extra-sensitive and I did not wish to trivialise any aspect. ‘Mujib’ was not just the result of a treaty between two countries.

What was the experience of shooting in Bangladesh? Was it cumbersome because of your age and health?

Bangladesh is a densely-populated country, which led to a few minor challenges. However, we were supported by the government.

Being on the delta of the Ganga and Brahmaputra, Bangladesh is an incredibly rich agrarian land. My observation was that if we had chucked a few seeds out from our hotel window, some crop would have grown there! That is how fertile the land is.

Coming back to the film, I am happy it is a huge hit in that country. However, as far as I was concerned, I was making the film for an audience of just one -- the PM of Bangladesh. I could not have approached the film in any other way.

The pandemic must have caused delays.

Yes, it delayed shooting by two years. The pandemic hit just as I had finished the recce. It was shot after the pandemic. In the interim, we honed the script, before sending it to Bangladesh for approval. I also did the casting etc – my primary cast were actors from there. In fact, my original version was in Bengali. But I also made a version in Hindi.

How did you manage shooting the Bengali version, considering you do not speak the language?

By the excellent support from eminent scholars from Bangladesh. Bengali is such a nuanced language – even if I knew the language a little, I still would not have been able to do a script entirely on my own.

The language has a lot of Sanskrit, and the dialect spoken in Bangladesh is distinct with Muslim influences. Unless you are a scholar, you will not be able to capture the language in its entirety. Pre-partition, the local language in Bangladesh had an influence of Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic and of course Bengali.

How could I even know so many dialects? So, it made absolute sense to have the help of this scholarly bunch from Dhaka University.

At 89, you are as gung-ho about your cinema as you were six decades ago. Is age just a number?

Age is a number if you keep your mind active. I have only slowed down physically. I will be 90 in December next year. I am happy to be just working. I did not give up at any stage. I only get upset if people ask me about retiring. ‘Retire from what?’ is my retort? Even my father would say—you only retire when you die.

Are you up to speed on Hindi cinema. Have you watched anything recently? ‘Jawan’, perhaps?

No, I would rather read a book. Anyway, my interest in cinema is held by filmmakers from smaller countries who attempt to do something different. There is a film made by Aki Kaurismaki (Finnish director) playing at the MAMI festival. He makes films painstakingly; like a watchmaker’s art. That is the kind of the cinema I want to see.

My wife and daughter love watching Shah Rukh Khan’s movies. He has a charismatic screen presence. But their attempts to coax me into visiting a cinema hall have failed. I am fussy, constantly asking them if I will carry a bug back from the cinema halls. I was fussier in the days of the single screens.

This is now. But back in the day were you curious about a Raj Kapoor film?

Never. I do not have anything for or against commercial cinema. However, the cinema that I keenly followed was made by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak.

Your films were referred to as middle-of-the-road cinema.

I hate that term. What is that? I would say my cinema appeals to the urban, middle-class literate audience who do not need to be spoon-fed.

Do you recall when you were first drawn to films?

I was passionately in love with cinema from my childhood. My father, Shridhar Benegal, was an amateur filmmaker and a camera whiz. He made films on his family. We were a large family with 10 children. Every child had a film devoted to them until the next one came along. So, it would invariably mean that from our birth till we were around 2 or 2.5 years old, each of us had a film on us shot by our father. He would invariably lose interest when the next new-born came along.

I have lost my section of the film. I was trying to restore it but the person who I gave it to damaged it instead of salvaging it. Now I have barely got 15 minutes footage left.

Besides my father, my elder brother and I also shot a film called –‘Chuttiyon mein mauj maza’ when I was eight and he was around 12.

Which films impacted you in your growing up phase?

When I was between 10 and 12, I caught up on a lot of cinemas at a hall run by the army in Hyderabad. India was not independent then. This place showed a lot of British and Hollywood cinema – those films influenced me as opposed to Indian cinema.

My go-to film was Vittorio De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’ (1948). I liked the no-make up look and the slice-of-life approach here. This is what I aimed to bring to my films later.

Of course, the strongest cinema influence came from Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’ (1955). I discovered this film quite by accident. I was representing my university at an inter-collegiate swimming championship. On one outing to Kolkata, an uncle who had a studio that made publicity material for Hollywood films, asked me whether I had seen any of Ray’s works. That’s when I was introduced to ‘Pather Panchali’. My life and vision changed that day.

Besides Ray, are you partial only to foreign films?

These days my viewing is restricted to watching foreign films on Netflix, Amazon Prime and these other OTT platforms because they bring in cinema that is barely released in one part of the world.

Till a point, I was an avid collector of music and DVDs from all over Europe and America. But that eventually became cumbersome to store so I had to pass it forward.

What is your view on the Indian filmmakers’ clamour for an Oscar?

To each his own. I have never understood the fuss around the Oscars. They are made to recognise the best talent in American cinema. They have just one foreign film category for which the rest of the world competes. I think we should strive for our own National Awards.

You have been a bit of a recluse lately. Is there anyone from the film industry with whom you interact regularly?

I speak to Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar; they are a very sociable couple and I like interacting with them even if it is over a phone call. We never miss each other’s birthdays. Also, if there is anything professional, we need to discuss, we pick up on the phone. When I need a song for my films, I just ask Javed. He is immensely gifted. Even before I have finished my phone call, he will have some lyrics to read back to me. He is so sharp.

Do you watch your own films?

Never! Once I have made a film, I am done with it. But yes, I may watch a ‘Bhumika’, ‘Manthan’ or ‘Mandi’ if Smita Patil is on screen. It is so long since she has passed on but her void is still there. I feel likewise for my other actors such as Amrish Puri, Shashi Kapoor, Om Puri and the lot who are not around. The feeling is fleeting though.

One hears that ‘Junoon’ is being remastered?

I watched ‘Junoon’ recently because Kunal Kapoor (Shashi’s elder son) is restoring it and he wanted me to check whether we have maintained the texture and the character of the original print. Govind Nihalani had lit the film so brilliantly and I wanted to ensure we had no lost anything in translation.

You had a library of your own films next to your office. Is this correct?

I do not even have a single film of mine. I had a library next door to where we are currently seated where I had kept my prints. Now I have given them to the National Film Archives in Pune. Maintaining films in reels is tough. If you do not look at it regularly, the upkeep is impossible.

Books are easier to maintain. You must fumigate them once in a way and they stay intact.

Any ideas for your next?

I am feeling good because I have just finished a film and I have a germ or two for my next script. I have not lined up anything yet. I am cooking up something. But it is too early to reveal what the subject will be.

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