In the world of Indian cinema, who doesn’t know of Shyam Benegal? Considered the father of parallel or Indian ‘new wave’ cinema in India, his career of over thirty years has brightened the Indian cinema scene as careers of few of his contemporaries have done. In many ways he remains unique. He has been lauded not just in his own country but internationally as well. It led the International Film Guide to cite him as one of the five best directors in the year 1979—no mean achievement. Modest, even humble, he has often been considered the obvious successor to Satyajit Ray.
The author of this book even makes the claim that Ray’s Pather Panchali was one of the formative influences on Benegal’s ideas about cinema. Ray passed away much too early. Had he lived longer, one wonders to what greater heights he would have taken the concept of ‘realistic’ cinema. Judging from Benegal’s work, starting with Ankur, Ray should be happy that unconsciously he has had a worthy successor. Actually, Benegal’s conceptualisation of realism is comparable to V Shantaram’s Duniya Na Maaney and Aadmi, Mehboob Khan’s Aurat and Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen. Benegal instinctively broke new ground, but that seemed inevitable. He is quoted as saying: “Every movement has a certain peaking state, then it starts to erode, because these are really vanguard motions, directional movements, after which the job is done in many ways”.
Benegal came on the scene when what one refers to as parallel cinema or realistic cinema seemed a natural sequence. It was as if Benegal merely filled in a role that History and the Fates had prepared for him. What needs to be mentioned is that Benegal filled that assigned role brilliantly. Society was changing and cinema necessarily had to change with the times. Benegal himself has been quoted as saying: “My films reflect my own sensibilities and my purpose is to tell stories that are part of people’s experiential reality”. What was that ‘reality’? Cinema fans were getting tired of watching sentimentalised melodrama and what the author describes as “the stereotyped representations of the hero and the glamorous heroine, from the pleasures of spectacle as in song and dance and action and from mandatory happy endings” and were looking for something else, sharply different. Benegal met their needs. His first trilogy—Ankur, Nishant and Manthan dealt with contemporary situations, dealing with changes that were slowly taking place almost unconsciously in the country. Benegal was aware of, and responsive to, the changes. Ankur clearly was a powerful statement of the awakened consciousness of oppressed peasants.
Strangely enough, Benegal sounds unaware that he was breaking new ground. As he said in an interview, he was merely attempting to make a film of his own choice, different from the industry’s mould. That may be Benegalian modesty, but the fact remains that he was introducing new—almost revolutionary thematic concepts. And, in the process, he was giving birth to a whole bunch of new stars like Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi and Amrish Puri. The country was going through times of great socio-political ferment; there was no way any conscientious film director could ignore the changes. Benegal in his own ways showed awareness of changing times. Sangeeta Datta has tried effectively to position Benegal in the context of the entire history of the new cinema movement in India.
The book is divided into eight chapters. In these, the author starts with describing Benegal’s early years. He was born in the then Nizam’s state of Hyderabad on December 14, 1934. Interestingly, his father, Shridhar Benegal was himself a professional photographer and a very good painter besides, and Shyam must have had photography in his blood, right from his birth! The father also possessed a 16 mm hand-cranked camera and a passion for home movies. No wonder, then, that Shyam got addicted to films at an early age. Even his thinking was conditioned by the atmosphere at home, with his father, a staunch Gandhian arguing with his grown-up sons of issues political. Shyam’s eldest brother had communist leanings. His second brother was a member of RSS and discussion on politics must have come fast and furious.
Shyam comes from a large family of six sisters and four brothers and after-dinner discussions were great fun. One of Shyam’s cousins was very close to Subhas Chandra Bose, all of which should explain Shyam’s own intellectual growth. Perhaps it was Shyam’s interest in political and economic changes that had their origin in his growing days that were responsible for his focusing, as a film director, right from the beginning, on rural problems and social changes. One chapter focuses on Benegal’s rural trilogy.
Another chapter on Benegal’s women-oriented films, a third on his historical films and his re-interpretation of the Mahabharata epic. His films about the dispossessed are examined in another chapter. But most significant is the chapter that analyses Benegal’s masterpiece in narrative experimentation. In his long career, Benegal has made about 900 films (shorts, advertising films and documentaries), considering that he began his career in an advertising agency, shifting later to Lintas where he moved to the film department and in writing scripts and making advertising films. He was later to make twenty feature films, several TV series including the epic Bharat ek Khoj based on Nehru’s Discovery of India.
The sheer range of his contribution to Indian cinema takes one’s breath away. To say that Benegal is one of the most prolific directors would be an understatement. He has been a creator of films, penetrating in their analysis of changing times, a pioneer in his own right. Have times changed since 1970s? Have new social values come into being? Will future Benegal films reflect them? Benegal is quoted as saying: “I don’t know if cinema can actually bring about change in society, but cinema can certainly be a vehicle for creating social awareness”. That is fair comment. In fact this work on him clearly brings out how, in his own way, Benegal has sought to create social awareness, something that cannot be quantified but can be noticed in subtle ways. A more brilliant assessment of Benegal’s life and work would be hard to imagine. For all Benegal-indeed any cinema fans, is must reading. It is well researched, objective and totally focused, which makes it a work of outstanding merit.
(Roli Books Pvt. Ltd, M-75, Gr. Kailash-II Market, New Delhi-110 048)