50 years of Shyam Benegal
As he completes five decades in cinema next year, a look at Shyam Benegal's incomparable oeuvre
Shyam Benegal’s Mujib: The Making of a Nation, based on the life of Bangladesh’s first president, Mujibur Rehman released in theatres in late October but failed to make a mark at the box office. Benegal’s 24th film was made after a gap of 13 years — his last commercially successful film, Well Done Abba was made in 2010.
Two weeks away from turning 89, Benegal is frail of body—earlier this year, newspapers reported that he was on dialysis for a deteriorating kidney disease—but alert to the demands of a film’s pre-publicity release.
At a special screening at the auditorium of the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) in Mumbai last month, Benegal obliged the photo-ops flanked by actors Rajat Kapoor and Divya Dutta, two actors who have acted in several of his films—he is known to work with the same actors and crew members over and over again; in fact,
Kapoor says he keeps his close-knit actor coterie in mind when he finalises a script. In Mujib, Kapoor plays the role of Pakistani political heavyweight Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
“Work is everything. If I stop working, I don’t think I will survive,” Benegal replied when asked what kept him going.
Publicists and friends including the director and his long-time cinematographer Govind Nihalani and actor Naseeruddin Shah, who has played some memorable roles in Benegal’s films in the 1970s and 1980s, like the pitch-perfect Nishant (1975), surrounded the director at the screening.
Both Kapoor and Dutta revealed things you might not know about Benegal: his cheeky sense of humour and his love of food. And things you might know: That he is a famously generous and liberating director to actors.
In 2002, during a retrospective of Benegal’s films at the National Film Theatre, London, the now-deceased playwright and actor Girish Karnad, had a public conversation with Benegal. Karnad observed of his close friend: “Shyam was more than a director—he was also a friend, a very good host (you got very good food anytime you turned up at his house). Then, apart from that, in those days when actors were impoverished, he was a banker for his actors… and most of all, a father figure...Even though Smita and Shabana have been compared in various ways, I always thought their rivalry was for your affection, actually, as a director.”
Considering this is his 50th year as a filmmaker, Mujib is a cinematic tragedy—more a linear history lesson and a visual imprint of the collaboration between the governments of India and Bangladesh rather than a robust cinematic experience. The film is a co-production of both countries and the forced adulation of the subject, the father of Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina, is hard to digest coming from Benegal.
At the screening, Benegal said, unequivocally, “I was most concerned with what the Bangladeshi prime minister has to say about the film, because it is her family, and the film wouldn’t have been possible without her support.” At that moment, it was obvious that Benegal was more concerned with carrying on making films rather than channelling a point of view and a treatment of his own.
Benegal is among the few octogenarian directors in the world who is still working. At 87, Woody Allen’s last film, which was released this year, Coup de Chance, is largely a misfire; The Guardian qualified the recent film of Roman Polanski, 90, a “ghastly, flaccid hotel farce”; at 84, Francis Ford Coppola is at work on his Roman Empire-inspired epic Megalopolis; Martin Scorsese’s riveting new film Killers of the Flower Moon is being watched the world over when he is on the verge of his 81st; Ken Loach delivered The Old Oak this year, about the ugly phenomenon from which London’s liberal classes have turned away in sorrowing distaste: abusing and attacking Syrian refugees housed in hostels all over the UK; and at 93, Clint Eastwood is yet to retire from his brand of intensely meditative films on heroism and the human condition.
Benegal’s Mujib is an ambling biopic. The stodgy script written by his long-time associate Shama Zaidi unfolds on screen like a school play. The cinematography by Akashdeep Pandey is prosaic. The acting—all lead roles are played by Bangladeshi actors—is mediocre, including the lead role by Arifin Shuvoo, saved only by a few high-drama peaks where his histrionics can be justified. The life arc of
Shaikh Mujibur Rahman, known as “Bangabandhu”, is turbulent and emotionally sardonic and the birth of Bangladesh after being “East Pakistan” followed by the Partition is fodder for a complex biopic. But the simplistic treatment of Mujib’s ideology and rise will have historians in both countries cringe. There’s way too much adulation—a signature of most hagiographies of political figures that pass off as biopics in Bollywood or Hollywood.
The film emphasises throughout its three-plus hours of running time that the battle for Bangladesh’s nationhood was based not on faith or religion, but on the Bengali language. It’s a colossal idea in nation-building—one that gets the short shrift in the film. The climax, of the brutal killing of the Mujib family after the nation’s independence by a section of the Bangladeshi Army, at his townhome, is poignantly designed with the most euphonious rendition of a Bengali elegy by Shreya Ghoshal.
Benegal never had strident political views in most of his films. Like his guru Satyajit Ray, he adopted a show-not-tell sophistication when it comes to messaging in his art. But he has never shied away from the macro—each one of his films mirrors the Indian realities of their age. His commercially successful films like Well Done Abba and Welcome to Sajjanpur are political satires. The former is set in a small place in Andhra Pradesh in the Telangana region. A community well is stolen and the story takes off from there. It deals with things like developmental schemes that the government undertakes and how the difference between a scheme and a scam is miniscule.
Most of Benegal’s films—from the darkly serious and self-consciously activist works of the late 1970s and early 1980s to those of recent years—have the same controlled way of speaking for the marginalised. He told this author during an interaction ten years ago for a magazine cover story, that a filmmaker can’t be a good politician. Benegal’s transition from an activist filmmaker, the most popular name identified with the parallel cinema movement of the late 1970s and 1980s, to that of a practitioner of what can be termed “middle cinema” was choppy.
Many of the films made between 1973 and 1983 were supported by the government’s film-funding organisation, the NFDC. Idealism was ubiquitous in those days, and a counter-movement to the star cinema of Bollywood was Benegal’s signature. For many serious filmmakers of that era, including Benegal, socially engaged cinema was a badge of identity. But progressively, as Benegal worked with actors such as Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Om Puri, Anant Nag, Naseeruddin Shah, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and many others, he became a master of the multiple-character film set in middle-class and lower-middle-class milieus. By the end of the 1980s, as the Amitabh Bachchan-driven wave of star worship and blockbusters was at its peak, parallel cinema directors jumped ship. “The idealism and heavily issue-based film-making suddenly ended. The NFDC, which funded many of these films, pulled back, there was no distribution system in place and none of us really carried on,” Benegal says.
But unlike most of his peers, he immersed himself full-time in television—Bharat Ek Khoj, a history series based on The Discovery of India, and Yatra, a series about the chaotic and heartwarming confluence of community, caste, religion and humanity in the two longest train journeys across the length and the breadth of India. These are unarguably some of the finest works ever made for Indian television. In the 1990s, Benegal made Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda, based on a novella by Dharamvir Bharati, Samar, a lesser-known, stylish film where he used the film-within-a-film format to explore caste prejudices, and then Mammo and Sardari Begum, the first two parts of a trilogy on journalist-filmmaker Khalid Mohammed’s illustrious and complex maternal lineage.
Benegal’s real change in idiom appears in the 2001 film Zubeidaa, which is his most commercial Hindi film ever—it had love songs picturized in lush, undulating landscapes, a prince, a mistress and a queen, and a surprising dose of schlocky emotions. The biopic on Subhas Chandra Bose, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005), Benegal’s next ambitious project was not only a box-office disaster, but a film in which he failed to project the historical and personal nuances of Bose’s character. Less a human story than a pastiche of a documentary based on available research material on the Bengali hero, the failure of this film can be seen as another turning point in his career.
Benegal has supported systemic changes in India through his work as well as standing up in his own life. For example, he and his wife, Nira Benegal offered their vocal support to the movement to decriminalise homosexuality in India. He was one of the parents who petitioned against the colonial law, Section 377, before the Delhi high court in the mid-2000s. The law was eventually read down by the Supreme Court through another set of petitions.
Like Ray, Benegal has always chosen density of character and storytelling over form and style. His gentle gaze has never couched or diluted what his most memorable characters grappled with: Should religion or caste determine marriage or citizenship? Is living on the fringes of society always an inconvenient choice? Can nation-building be a simple process?
Mujib doesn’t do justice to this remarkable legacy. Yet, Shyam Benegal’s filmmaking can’t be only as good as his last film.