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Benegal's Carmen set for take-off

Shyam Benegal has found his Carmen in Urmila, writes Saibal Chatterjee.

entertainment Updated: Sep 21, 2005 20:09 IST

Septuagenarian filmmaker Shyam Benegal, coming off the box office debacle of the historical biopic, Bose - The Forgotten Hero, is all set to branch out into a new creative terrain with a Bollywood musical adaptation of the story of the classic coquette, Carmen.

The character is the female protagonist of what is arguably the best-known opera ever composed, Georges Bizet's Carmen. The story has been filmed and staged on numerous occasions all over the world.

Benegal's version, tentatively titled Chamki, will however not be based on the popular opera. "My inspiration is the novel (by Prosper Merimee) on which Bizet's famed opera is based," he reveals during an informal chat in New Delhi.

It has already been reported that A.R. Rahman will compose the music for the film. According to Benegal, Chamki will be a musical in the Bollywood/Hollywood sense of the term, and "not in the operatic sense". He says: "Indians do not relate to opera."

Chamki

will be bankrolled by the Mumbai-based production company, WSG Pictures,

Incidentally, Benegal has never made an out-and-out musical. He has, of course, used music and picturised songs in films like Bhumika, Sardari Begum and Zubeidaa, but being a production likely to be chock-a-block with songs and dances, Chamki will represent a first for the stalwart. "The character of Carmen in my film is a performer," he points out.

Chamki belongs to a tribal community of musicians and mendicants who live close to the Indo-Pak border in Rajasthan. They are people who indulge in cross-border smuggling to make ends meet.

Benegal has decided to cast Bollywood star Urmila Matondkar as Chamki. " I was looking for sauciness and spunk, and not just sensuality," he says. "That is why I settled for Urmila." Urmila had, incidentally, featured in Benegal's modern reworking of the Mahabharat, Kalyug, released 25 years ago as a child actor.

"I see Carmen as a quintessential feminist," explains the filmmaker. "She is a strong-willed woman who knows what she wants and how to get it." In the original story, she is perceived as a temptress though. "You must remember," says the veteran director, "that the tale was written in a Catholic country and it was, therefore, only natural that she was presented as somebody who was evil and led men down to hell."

What is it about Carmen that drew Benegal to the subject? "It is a universally recognized story like, say, Romeo and Juliet. And it can be summed in four simple words: love, betrayal, jealousy and revenge. So it lends itself to great screen drama," he says.

Originally set in a cigar factory in Seville, Spain, Carmen is the story of a sensuous, beautiful Gypsy woman who aggressively seduces Don Jose, a soldier sent by his regiment to arrest her. The cornered woman aggressively seduces the man and the latter, believing her promise of everlasting love, allows her to make good her escape.

In the bargain, Don Jose is charged with dereliction of duty. He loses all he as: his job, his dignity, and his peace of mind. In the face of Carmen's refusal to tie herself down to one man, Don Jose is wracked by jealousy and obsession. He triggers a tragic finale.

Jimmy Shergill has already been penciled in to play the central male character of a BSF officer, while Yashpal Sharma is being considered for another significant male part, that of one of Carmen's suitors.

Benegal is currently on a location-hunting trip in Rajasthan. The film is expected to start shooting in late October.

In the 130 years of its existence, the Carmen drama has been interpreted in numerous ways in virtually every major filmmaking country of the world. In the silent era itself, it was brought to life on screen by Cecil B. DeMille and Raoul Walsh in the US and Ernst Lubitsch in Germany.

In more recent years, masters like Italy's Francesco Rosi and Spain's Carlos Saura have filmed it with great success. "In Spain," says Benegal, "Carmen is adapted virtually once every two years."

The latest version of the ever-popular Carmen saga, set in a South African township, has garnered critical applause the world over. The Xhosa-language film, U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (Carmen in Khayelitsha), directed by Mark Dornford-May, bagged the Golden Bear at the 2005 Berlin Film Festival.

One of the more famous screen adaptations of Carmen is based on Carmen Jones, the all-black version written by Oscar Hammerstein II. It was filmed in 1954 by Otto Preminger with Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen and Harry Belafonte as Don Jose.

Is Benegal's film the first-ever attempt to bring Carmen to the Indian screen? It isn't. According to the director, there was a version of Carmen made in Mumbai in the 1950s with Sheikh Mukhtar and Sitara Devi in the lead roles.

Not much else is known about that particular film. So, for most Indian filmgoers, Benegal'sChamki will be their first real exposure to the timeless legend of the irresistible Carmen.