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What makes Shyam special...

Through his wide variety of themes, there is a discernible common thread and that is about change, says ANIL DHARKER, tracing Shyam Benegal's career spanning three decades.


IN OCTOBER 2002, the British Film Institute published the first major overview of Shyam Benegal's films in its World Directors series.

Simultaneously, London's National Film Theatre ran a comprehensive retrospective of his work. The tributes, obviously, are coming thick and fast. But, then, they always have ever since ``Ankur" was made in 1973. That was almost 30 years ago, and the incredible thing is that Shyam Benegal not only continues to work but continues to work at a frenetic pace. In these three decades, he has made 20 feature films (21 if you count the two language versions of "Kondura"), two feature length documentaries (on Nehru and Satyajit Ray), a massive TV series (the 53-part "Bharat Ek Khoj", based on Nehru's "Discovery of India"), 70 documentary and short films and hundreds of commercials.

That is an astonishing output in an industry where finance is notoriously difficult to come by. How has he done it? To start with, he has found innovative ways of financing his films. For example, when he made ``Ankur," most filmmakers wanting to be part of the New Cinema, went to the Film Finance Corporation (now the National Film Division Corporation). The FFC was set up by the Government expressly to fund a different kind of movie. But being a government corporation, it obviously had its red tape. Benegal, instead, persuaded Blaze Film Enterprises, hitherto the main agency for showing advertising films in cinema theatres, to turn producer. That thinking-out-of-the-box approach continues to be a Benegal trade-mark: Blaze produced two more features ("Nishant" and "Bhumika") while "Kondura"/Anugraham had an Andhra Pradesh producer. "Samar" and "Hari Bhari" had Government Ministries as the financiers, "Arohan," "Surman" and "Antarnaad" were funded by co-operatives like the Weaver's Association. The most novel of these approaches resulted in "Manthan" Benegal's 1976 film set in Gujarat. As many as five lakh farmers belonging to the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Manufacturers' Federation put in Rs. 2 each to raise the then princely sum of Rs. 10 lakhs, adequate to make the film. Is there a parallel for this anywhere in the world?

Benegal's diversity of producers is actually a reflection of the diversity of his films. But through this wide variety of themes - rural exploitation, development of workers' co-operatives, the feudalism in industrial or royal families, to give some examples - there is a discernible common thread. That thread is about change.

Whichever film you look at, you see Shyam Benegal's pre-occupation with the cataclysmic forces which are taking India from tradition to modernity, from a deeply conservative, rigidly hierarchical society to a more open, democratic and egalitarian one.

You see that right from his very first film. The lushness and tranquillity of the rural landscape in "Ankur" seems to speak of anything but oppression. Surya (Anant Nag), the young landlord, sent against his will from the city to look after the family fields, seems more bored than cruel. But his public humiliation of Kishtaya (Sadhu Meher), his deaf-mute servant, for a petty theft, shows by the manner of its casualness how the ownership of people is assumed as a birthright both by the oppressor and the oppressed. Later events, like his sexual relationship with Kishtaya's wife (Shabana Azmi), are further stages in proprietorship.

Surya's weakness and cowardice serve to underline how deep the habit of subjugation has become: this is no tyrant imposing his will by force of personality; this is tyranny by inheritance. The Despot is dead, long live the Despot. But at the end of the film, a little boy throws a defiant stone at the house of the landlord. This is "the seedling" of the title, the first small expression of revolt by the oppressed. It may be a futile gesture, but it suggests that however deeply entrenched the inequities, the process of change is about to begin.

In "Nishant," the oppressed revolt openly, the culmination of a long reign of terror let loose by a family of landlords. Significantly, the revolt does not spring from the land; it is brought about by the middle-class - the schoolteacher and the priest representing the potent combination of education and enlightened religion that is most likely to bring about social change in India.

Through the unlikely story of the development of a milk association in a village, "Manthan" shows how an outside agency can act as a catalyst for change. The earnest young man (Girish Karnad) prodding the local farmers into resistance finds them overcoming their fatalism and fear because he can demonstrate first, that it is possible. And second, that there's a direct - and gettable - economic benefit to be obtained by putting up this resistance. In the end the forces for change may be defeated as in "Nishant" (Benegal isn't telling fairy tales with happy endings), but you see that society is changing and, sooner or later, the oppressed will fight their own battles.

This theme of change is present even in Benegal's "urban" films.

"Kalyug" was a wonderful modern-day replaying of the Mahabharat, with the Pandava industrial family being locked in a titanic battle with their Kaurav rivals. But the times are different from the original Mahabharat's, and external forces impinge on feudal values causing disconcerting results. This is even more evident in Benegal's last film "Zubeidaa," where a Rajput princely family has to cope with a newly independent India's democratic aspirations.

Allied to this commentary on modernity and social change, Benegal's films stress the struggle for women's empowerment. In a recent "conversation" I had with him on the stage of the British Council Auditorium in Mumbai, I asked him if we could call him a feminist. This raised a few titters in the audience: obviously, people still believe that only women can be feminists.

"Yes," said Benegal, as anyone who has seen the body of his work would expect.

What is remarkable is that the director's heroines have struggled to assert themselves in Hindi cinema, a medium notorious for its hypocrisy about women. Hindi films have worshipped their heroines, in the abstract for the qualities of beauty and purity. Then they have relegated them to their home as a bearer of food and children, neglected their role as a partner, and, worse, constantly scrutinised (and punished) them for transgressions from an impossible ideal. In most Hindi movies, virtue has shone from their heroines with all the brightness that arc lights can muster. So pure have been these saccharine dolls that butter would congeal in their mouths.

In this tradition of virtue run amok, Benegal's heroines must seem impossibly wanton: in ``Ankur," the maid-servant becomes pregnant by the landlord and is content to let her husband think of the child as his own; in ``Nishant," the violated wife of the school-teacher accepts the position of a kept woman; in ``Manthan," there is the unrealised but charged relationship between the leader of the co-operative (Girish Karnad) and a married village girl (Smita Patil).

``Bhumika" was the first in a long line of women dominated films. Based on the real-life story of Hansa Wadkar, a Marathi screen actress, the film's heroine (played by Patil) is an urban extension of the Shabana Azmi characters of ``Ankur" and ``Nishant": the men in her life also try to assert their ownership of her. They fail, but not for want of trying.

Usha, the actress, refuses to succumb which leads to her unhappiness and isolation, both inevitable in the context of Indian society. Rebels, and especially women rebels, are lonely people.

These are Shyam Benegal's early films. He did not set out, as he has said, to make feminist statements or talk about the empowerment of women then, but discovered that this theme was becoming a strong element in his films. Not surprisingly, his later films like ``Mandi," "Trikal," "Mammo," "Sardari Begum" and ``Hari Bhari" take up this theme more overtly and make it the central point of the narrative.

These achievements are enough to make Shyam Benegal one of the most important filmmakers ever in Indian cinema. But there's another, even more important reason. The New Cinema or Parallel Cinema or Art Cinema, or simply, a film culture different from the mainstream, has grown and survived only in ``regional" languages, where smaller budgets, orientation to local contexts and committed audiences have made such films viable. Benegal has worked in Hindi, the language of Bollywood, Bombay-Babylon. He has shown for 30 years that it is possible to make films that are intelligent and real and important and make them in Hindi. And by making them in Hindi, he has taken his message of social commitment to a far wider audience than everyone else in the history of our cinema.

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