The time was ripe for the kind of Hindi cinema celebrated Indian filmmaker Shyam Benegal created in the 1970s and ’80s. India was changing: it was in a state of flux as imbalances, insecurities and tensions emerged in society. Feudalism had passed its time and utility, and a major demographic shift was underway as cities became larger.
The predominantly agrarian, controlled economy was yearning for transformation into a free, industrialised economy and family-owned businesses were expanding, giving way to wider, extended ownership of companies. Politics was also undergoing a radical shift as new forces with a stronger urban bias and influenced by the West were appearing on the scene, challenging the existing socio-political and economic order.
But change was painfully slow and needed a push. It was in this background that Benegal made his first film, Ankur (The Seedling), in 1973. Now having around 26 feature films to his credit, Benegal is credited with pioneering a new genre of Hindi cinema called middle cinema or New Wave Cinema or Parallel Cinema — radically different from the mainstream Indian cinema — with his first four films: Ankur, Nishant, Manthan and Bhumika between 1973-77. The era of the so-called middle cinema was short-lived and often denoted commercially unsuccessful, but identified as one with artistically well-made films.
Benegal does not like this label for his films. “Films are either good or bad. My films socially engage the audience, i.e. they are not boring, and also offer something of an experience which is worth taking away from theatre. That’s why I have always believed in making socially engaging cinema, and I also believe films to be a form of artistic self-expression. Without it a film is not worth making,” he says while speaking exclusively to Images on Sunday during his visit to Lahore last week, his third, to screen his films on the invitation of the Faiz Foundation.
The internationally acclaimed director is inspired by many Indian, Japanese, Italian and American filmmakers. Satyajit Ray has been his primary inspiration followed by Guru Dutt, his cousin and mentor, to whom he would show his work for his comments before any one else saw it. Yet no one has “influenced the form or style of my work. I have to have my own voice. Unless I discover it, I cannot make a film. It has to be done in my own voice,” he says.
Although he has made hundreds of documentaries and short films, he prefers making fiction “because everything is in your control. Documentaries are always harder to make. You have to chase facts to produce documentaries,” says Benegal who produced the 53-hour long television series, Bharat ki Khoj, whose pattern of narrative was based on Jawahar Lal Nehru’s book, "Discovery of India," that “tries to make a sense about diversity of the country.” Now he is working on a 10-hour long TV documentary on the story and making of the Constitution of India from 1946. “The idea of making this documentary came to me when I was a member of the parliament (2006-2012),” he says.
Born and raised in Hyderabad Deccan, where there was no film industry at that time and the idea of making films itself was preposterous for anyone, he left for Mumbai “where movies were made to work out my strategy to get into the making of films”. As he was not a trained filmmaker nor did he want to apprentice any one, he started working as a copy editor for an advertising firm. Since the “ambition to make films was always there”, he shifted to making advertising films and documentaries within six months of arriving in Mumbai.
“(My first job in) advertising was an aberration. I always wanted to directly go to cinema. But the kind of films I wanted to make was not being made and had no natural financers. So I took the job at the advertising firms. It was here I learnt all aspects of film-making, everything from writing scripts to using camera to recording sounds. By doing that I felt I was ready to make films,” he says.
As the film industry itself was not interested in the kind of films he wanted to make because “the way it defined film was completely different from the way I defined it”, Benegal looked for alternate sources of finance for his films when he was ready to venture into it.
Manthan, a film on rural empowerment set against the backdrop of the developing milk cooperative movement led by the legendary Dr Verghese Kurien, father of India’s white (milk) revolution, in the state of Gujrat, for example, was made from money collected from farmers. “I was fascinated by the story. When Dr Kurien asked me how much money I need to make the film, I told him around Rs1 million. He sent out a word to the milk producers to ask if they’d like to be producers of a film that told their story. In two weeks all the money came together with the milk producers contributing Rs2 each to it. When the film was released, they (farmers) hired trucks and lorries to watch it in their nearby cinemas and made it a huge success,” Benegal recalls.
Manthan had a great impact on cooperative movement around the world as the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) took it to countries in Latin America and Africa to create new cooperatives.
The multi-lingual, multi-religious and sometimes multi-cultural but feudal/rural society of Hyderabad Deccan in which the pioneering filmmaker grew up had a huge influence on his choice of themes for his films. “The rural themes were part of my childhood and growing up” and continue to dominate his stories that “deal directly with the subjects of nature of change (in Hyderabad) from rural to rural rich, which is not at all feudal in its character. These were experiences I gathered directly from my growing up there or people around me.
The movement I had seen in my growing up figured in two of my early films and then I moved out to the other parts of India to return to Hyderabad to make Well Done Abba.”
Benegal does not like to repeat himself. “I don’t make the same kind of films even if they are very successful. I have to explore new grounds.” Still it is possible to find a common thread through his diverse themes, connecting his first film to his last one. The major theme of Ankur, that is social, political and economic oppression and the underlying current dealing with the exercise, control and manipulation of power set in the rural background was to recur in all his subsequent works time and again in different stories and forms.
“Social, political and economic oppression can be found even in my happy films,” he says. But the issue of power and its manipulation, control and exercise is most strongly articulated in Kalyug (1981), produced by Shashi Kapoor’s production company, Filmwalas. “The film is basically about power. The idea of power gets very well articulated once land becomes the issue, you know, property. The story is essentially about that. I applied this (feudal) idea in Kalyug to the contemporary industry at that time, which was family-owned business. I used metaphors from Mahabharat, India’s foundational epic, to create characters. I wanted to make it for a long time but no one would back me until Shashi came forward,” Benegal asserts.
Though his films are widely praised for raising political and social issues, Benegal, an optimist by nature who is a great believer that human beings will not survive if they did not have hope, is sometimes criticised for not giving answers to the questions he raises. “The answer is for the audience to think. I mean if I gave the answers, then I don’t need to make the films. I just sit out. I want to get to heart of the matter, highlight the problems and the areas that need to be changed. It is not for me to suggest solutions. I just want to make the people think and do something about it,” he says.