bfi features

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Shyam Benegal

Shyam Benegal was interviewed at the National Film Theatre on 18 October 2002 by Girish Karnad.

One of the foremost film-makers of India, Shyam Benegal's oeuvre is central to the history of the alternative cinema movement in India. Benegal's career of 28 years spans the genesis of the movement in the 7Os to an exciting trend today when arthouse cinema language is being appropriated by mainstream films. His first feature, The Seedling, is considered a landmark in Indian film history. He has kept pace with changing market trends and audience tastes, as evident in his latest film, Zubeidaa, in which he enters mainstream territory, casting top Bollywood star Karishma Kapoor in the lead role and utilizing wiz-kid AR Rahman's music.

Cinema Paradiso
Present Project
Interview © BFI 2002

Cinema Paradiso
Girish Karnad: Good evening. Welcome to an evening with Shyam Benegal. Shyam, as you know, has been active as a film-maker for 30 years now, and has made 21 feature films, two feature-scale documentaries, and lots of other things. There's a retrospective going on here, and it's a great pleasure to welcome him here.

Let me start off by introducing myself, so that my connection to Shyam becomes a little clearer. My name is Girish Karnad, I'm the Minister of Culture, and Director of the Nehru Centre. I'm also an actor, a playwright and a film-maker, and I was associated with Shyam in his early years. Before we get on to discussing his films with Shyam, I think it's very important to understand the context in which he started making films. This was in the early 70s; the first feature was made in 1974. At that time the Hindi film industry was an absolutely closed shop; with doors and windows locked and bolted. No-one was allowed inside. That was also the period of the multi-starrers. Sholay had just succeeded, and each film had not just one star, but many, and the whole industry had become overweight and inward-looking. There was no possibility for any young technician, any young film-maker, anyone, to get into it at all. I was the Director of the Film Institute, and was actually requested by the acting students to close down the Institute's acting course, because we were churning out 20 actors every year who were not getting anywhere. It was at that time that Shyam appeared on the scene, and what was marvelous about Shyam was that he only listened to himself. He chose stories that he liked: I think his first film was based on a story that he'd nursed for many years. He took actors he liked: not little-known people who had not succeeded elsewhere, but just entirely new people, who had no standing at all in the film industry. In his early films, he didn't use songs, or dances, and he did them in a sort of neo-realistic fashion. Most extraordinary of all was that he found money to make these films. Because that is the most difficult thing in the film industry. There were several directors of that period who made art-films and then just disappeared. The films were not seen, they were not seen again, and that was the end of that. I think the great thing about Shyam, and the reason we're celebrating his career here today, was that he was not just a dreamer. He certainly was a dreamer, but a very practical dreamer. As we go along discussing his films, I hope we'll look at the various ways he found to raise the money to make those films. Before we start that, though - and at the risk of upsetting Godard's spirit - I'll go from the beginning to the middle to the end, in that order. So let me ask Shyam, How did films come into your life?

Shyam Benegal: By watching them, actually; like everybody else. But it started very early, because there used to be a cinema close to where my family had their home, on the way to my childhood playground, and that particular little cinema was essentially for the army, and there used to be two programme changes a week. One film used to be a Hollywood film, and the other an Indian film. Of course, like in Cinema Paradiso, I befriended the projectionist so I could see both of those films. So from an early age I was seeing two films a week, and that became three films, four films, and so on. I really got hooked on movies that way. But more important, I think, was that my father, who was a still photographer professionally, had a little 16mm Bolex movie camera, and he used to make little movies about his children. I come from a very large family - ten children - and there were movies about each of us. He did lose interest in movies about the eldest as the youngest came along, but that was always our after-dinner entertainment, particularly when we had guests. We all took turns commenting on the films; so it became very much part of my life at an early age. It wasn't really difficult to have an ambition to become a film-maker, although I was very far away from that. If I'd ever told anyone that this was my ambition, they would have thought that I'd a hole in my head. It was crazy, wanting to be a film-maker, while sitting in Hyderabad, where there was nothing at the time. But it worked, I suppose, eventually.

GK: It would have been crazy anywhere at that time. The industry was, as I've said, so inward-looking. So it took you a long time to start making films...

SB: Oh, a very long time. When I was 18 I said that if I didn't make my first film by the time I was 20, I would die. Then it went on like that: If I don't make my first film when I'm 22... Eventually, I made my first film when I was 39. There was a reason. I did the story of the film 'Ankur' when I was in college, and of course I drafted and re-drafted that script any number of times. I was taking it round to every single producer in Bombay, and it went on for 20 years before I finally got a producer to agree to put a little bit of money into that film.

GK: But you were a very successful advertising film-maker...

SB: Yes, that I was. I was successful in advertising, and already making documentaries, so I had my hand in the cinema, but I wasn't really satisfied with what I was doing. So I gave up my job in order to do the film, and that was it.

GK: I met Shyam for the first time in 1957, I think. A cousin of his took me to meet him, and the thing that impressed me immediately was the encyclopaedic mind he had. He seemed to know about everything. He knew about Cuban painters, and Spanish writers, and South African drummers, and all sorts of things. I remember one line particularly though: when he asked me if I knew of this Indian who was winning awards all over the world, called Satyajit Ray. And I said, Who? Shyam didn't even look at me, he just looked at his cousin and said, He hasn't heard of Satyajit Ray.... I think my later career with Shyam was an attempt to make up for that gaffe, actually. When you came to make a film, it was 'Ankur', and you made it for an advertiser, I think...

SB: Yes, for someone who used to distribute advertising films. I came into contact with Lalit Bijlani, the gentleman who used to run this company called Blaze Advertising, and he used to distribute all the advertising films made in the country at the time. Of course, in India it was a seminal period for advertising films. He had wonderful contacts, because he had a network of about 3,000 cinemas, and finally, I think, he really took pity on me. He'd always ask, 'why are you wasting your time in advertising, why aren't you making a film?' So I asked if he'd produce my film. And he thought about it and said, 'Yes'. I said, 'OK', we'll take a rain-check on that, but we'll make it. He said he had very little money to give, but I said it didn't matter, I just had to make the film. I held on to this man, wouldn't leave him, would call him almost every day so that he wouldn't forget what he'd offered me, in case it had been a drunken moment when he'd said that to me. He was as good as his word, though, and I made the film.

GK: In fact when you made the film, your wife Neera was so nervous about it that she kept saying, 'Oh, it's just a little personal film...' But it was a tremendous success, wasn't it?

SB: Yes, it was a huge success. One of the first people I showed the film to was Satyajit Ray, and he asked what I expected of the film. I said I'd like to see it in the Eros Cinema in Bombay, running over a weekend. He said it would probably run over many weekends, and then walked away. It actually ran for 25 weeks.

GK: ... and made quite a bit of money...

SB: ... for the producer; not for me.

GK: What I think Ankur shows immediately is your ability to cast correctly. One of the strengths of that film is the casting. There were two entirely new people: Shabana Azmi and Anant Nag.

SB: In fact, everyone in that film was new. The only person who'd shot one feature film before that was Govind Nihalani, the cameraman. He'd been my cameraman on advertising films and documentaries before that; but the first feature he shot was yours; not mine.

GK: Yes, and you had recommended him to me.

SB: So he came along, behaving like a veteran. He knew what film-making was about, and we really didn't. Everybody else was new, none of them had ever made a feature film, not the editor or anybody. It was a completely new unit that went and made that film. For everybody it was an extraordinary learning experience; all of those associated with that film went on to make a very successful career out of film-making, in their different lines of work. The editor, the sound recordist, everybody.

GK: It's notable for a lot of reasons, like for instance the use of dialect, which I'll come to later. The second film you made, Nishant, was also pretty much in the same mould, for the same producer, except that there are some new people in it, such as myself.

SB: Girish was at that time the Director of the Film Institute, and he had a dreadful strike on his hands, amongst the acting students. There was one particular bad egg called Naseeruddin Shah, demonstrating in front of your office, I think. I was having problems casting one of the brothers in the film, the youngest brother, and I telephoned Girish to tell him I was looking for an actor to play this part. So he said the best person for the part would be this guy called Naseeruddin Shah, who's here at the Institute giving me a lot of trouble. And Naseeruddin came, and was perfect for the part.

GK: The reason for the strike was so stupid, and Naseeruddin was so passionate, that I thought he couldn't possibly be worried about the cause; that can't be driving him - he must be a very good actor.

SB: He turned out to be an excellent actor, and Girish had him out of his hair.

GK: Then of course Nishant also saw the introduction of Smita Patil... But moving on to the next film, Manthan, we have another story: because your first two films had been made for the same 'sponsor', as it were, and this was made in a different, quite wonderful way...

SB: I was really lucky. I was making a couple of documentaries for what was then a kind of growing enterprise, a milk co-operative being set up in different parts of India. That became one of the greatest success stories of India, because India was ranked something like 150th in the world as a milk producer, and by 1999, because of the milk co-operatives all over the country, we became No 1; larger than the United States. So as part of that process I was making these documentaries called 'Operation Flood', about the creation of these co-operatives, but decided I'd rather make a fiction film, because that would be far more experiential than simply a documentary. So I spoke to Doctor ([inaudible]), who was the father of this movement, and he said that perhaps the best way to do it would be to get all the milk producers who are part of the co-operatives to become producers of the film. He had this very innovative idea of taking two rupees from each of them, and making them producers of the film. Which is how the film was made. It was a huge success, because they made a lot of money at the end of it; and it gave me the idea that I could use the same methodology to raise money for several later films. Both Susman and Antamaad were made in similar ways. Casting the net really wide, and not just going to one Mr Moneybags.

GK: The film was actually sent to the USSR, as well...

SB: It was given away by Morarji Desai, who was Prime Minister then. Much to our horror, he gave the film for free to the Soviet Union, as though it were some little poor country; and they used it and made a lot of money on it.

GK: This is supposed to be a conversation with Shyam Benegal, not with me. Now Shyam is known to be a very honest, upfront person; but there's one story he won't tell, he told me yesterday. Though he's given me permission to narrate it, which I'll do with reference to Manthan; as it's indicative of the kind of atmosphere we were working in. I had worked in Nishant as the lead actor, and the script was written by Vijay Tendulkar, who's a very great Indian playwright. I hadn't interfered with it at all; I was there as an actor, so I shouldn't. Then we went on to Manthan, and again the script had been written by Tendulkar, and the dialogue by Kaifi Azmi, the father of Shabana and a great Urdu poet. When we arrived on location, Shyam called me over and said, Girish, we are in trouble. The script doesn't work. You see the script had been written in Bombay; the writers were sitting there with no idea what was happening in Gujarat. Shyam said we'd have to try and find something else, so I asked if he wanted me to write a script, and he said yes. From then on, we worked on the script every day, on the next day's scenes. I would write the scene and Shyam would say, Let's do this; let's do that, and the idea would be thrashed out. Then we'd work it out with the actors, and then it would be written down by Shama Zaidi, who was actually there as an art director, not at all as a dialogue writer. The film was done, and had a happy ending, in a way. Although I'd written the entire screenplay and Shama Zaidi had written the dialogue, the film got the National Award for Best Screenplay and the National Award for Best Dialogue. Only the awards each went to Tendulkar and to Kaifi Azmi, the original writers; not to those who'd actually made it work. But we didn't mind, there was a cause at stake, and for the next film, Bhumika, Shyam asked me to write the script, and I got the credit. There had been such a good atmosphere of improvisation - I think we'd gone for about five weeks shooting, and it took about eight weeks. Almost double the time; but the actors had nothing else to do, nowhere else to go; there was no television; the Hindi films wouldn't admit them...

SB: We were living in a village 25 miles from the nearest town, and that helped...

GK: I think your instinct for what helps is always very strong. So we come to the next film, which I think is one of his great masterpieces, Bhumika, which was based on...

SB: ... based on the life of Hansa Wadkar. She was a Marathi film actress whose career spanned from the late 30s into the 1950s - a wonderful actress, but she never acted in any Hindi films. She was also a dancer. And she wrote a superb autobiography, very unusual as a piece of work that was almost like a confessional. I decided to make a film of this story, which was also seminal as the most extraordinary feminist work to have appeared in India. I couldn't miss out on that; I had to make a film of it. Though I didn't want to make the film in the way that the book was written. Somehow, the Marathi reading audience had seen it mainly for its salacious elements, it wasn't seen as giving any kind of insight into her predicament. Which is why the structuring of the film is different. I always thought you, Girish, could work on re-structuring of that kind; that's how you started to work on the script.

GK: I should mention that Shyam's flat had two bedrooms: one occupied by Shyam and his wife, and in the other was a bunk where his daughter Pia slept. Underneath that was put a bed for me, and I sat there for a week and wrote the script. That was the way we worked: I would write through the day, he would come in the evening, we'd discuss it, the next day's ideas would be thrashed out, then we'd go on. What is marvelous about that film, though, is the soundtrack - there was no music at all.

SB: The film had no background music whatsoever, but in India it's always considered as the one 'musical' film I have made, because there are songs in it even if no background music. In fact, there's a lot happening on the soundtrack, because it was also conveying different periods...

GK: I remember the way the whole era was recreated. I also remember the problems created because it was shot during the Emergency. The original Hansa Wadkar was a very tempestuous character, who ran away from her husband, landed up in a hotel room, got drunk, met another drunk, fell in love with him, and eloped. We were doing this scene during the Emergency, and women were not allowed to be shown drinking. So working that scene out was very difficult, I recall... By this time, you were so successful that instead of admiration, you attracted a lot of resentment.

SB: Enormous resentment. But the film actually failed on its first release, just sank like a stone when released in Bombay. It eventually succeeded on its third release.

GK: Then you went into a phase where, for the only time in your career, your star was your producer - Shashi Kapoor, with whom you made Junoon and Kalyug. Kalyug particularly is an interesting film, because it's based on the Mahabharata theme...

SB: I've always believed that all the archetypes of human beings can be found in the Mahabharata, and you could use these archetypes wherever, whenever, in whatever period, in contemporary time, anytime. This was an idea I felt I could use in this film, because it was the story of an industrial family collapsing, and I could find equivalents from the Mahabharata. The first draft of the script was written by a very well-known industrialist from Bombay, Vinod Doshi, who also acted in the film, and unfortunately his own family collapse also took place in a very similar way, though some 20 years later. Anyway, he wrote the first draft, then Girish and Satyadev Dubey got at it between them.

GK: Now we come to another important film, Mandi.

SB: After a while when you're making films you start to get a little jaded, trying to tell stories in the same way; from beginning, to middle, to end. I'm no longer interested in doing films like this. At this point, I said I didn't want to do a film with a single protagonist. So Mandi gave me the opportunity to work with an ensemble of actors. The whole idea was that you wouldn't just think in terms of one person in the film; you'd have a whole lot of people to engage with. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to make the film. The story itself was marvelous, but to get this whole lot of talented actors, where everybody is equally important, I really enjoyed. Since then, I've done a lot of work with ensembles, rather than taking a single protagonist.

GK: You're known for your mise-en-scène; how you handle that...

SB: It was something that also gave the actors a great deal of opportunity to do all the things they wanted to; and I so enjoy working with actors. If you get them to contribute to the film, not just use them as puppets, it really works wonders for the film. I really think the credit for that film should go to the actors in it.

GK: I think that your career takes a slightly different turn after that - and after that I didn't work again with Shyam, I got involved in my marriage and a lot of other things - so I'd like us to pause to say what it meant to work for Shyam. I think that if you talk to anyone who worked for him, the word they always use about working in his unit is 'family'. His wife Neera was very much there, a very affectionate presence, but almost every actor carried on working for Shyam until almost the end, even if they became big stars. In fact, no single director in the Hindi film industry - or in the Indian film industry - has contributed as many major actors as Shyam has - Smita, Shabana, Naseer, Om Puri, Amrish Puri, just to mention a few; and they all continued loyally to work for Shyam. The reason for this is that 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; a psychiatrist on whose shoulder you could cry; and most of all a father figure. This meant, of course, that his heroines couldn't get on with each other. Even though Smita and Shabana have been compared in various ways, I always thought their rivalry was for your affections, actually, as a director. Now we come to Trikaal, which by some has been called your most perfect film. Would you like to talk about that?

SB: I'm happy that they think so. Again it was a case of trying to get an ensemble working together. The idea was to catch that ethos of Goa - a fascinating place, one part of India that has not shared the history of the rest of India for about the last 500 years. So the kind of culture it represented became something I got terribly interested in, and that was a big reason for making it. Some of the actors I got came from the amateur English theatre of Bombay, but they blended so well with the rest. My cameraman, Ashok Mehta, did some wonderful things with that film - all the night scenes were shot entirely in candle-light, at a time before high-speed film became available. He did a magnificent job, because none of the interior scenes at night had any other light at all. I was very worried whether this would work or not, but it did.

GK: At this point, would you like to comment on your use of dialect? Many of the films use dialect.

SB: That's something that I find not only useful, but also very important for a film. In India, I used to have these regular discussions with Mr Ray when he was alive, and he would tell me I should really use a standard speech, that it doesn't matter, but I always thought it very important to get the local idiom in the speech, because without it you lose something. You don't get the flavour of a place. Your story is supposed to be universal, and your characters identifiable - they're not supposed to be little exotic creatures. But the idea of using dialect or local idiom suddenly gives a certain kind of colour; unmistakable, and related specifically to a place. I'd done that in Ankur; then I'd try it even in a place where the language was not Hindi, for instance in Manthan. Which happened later, as when we shot it we did it in straight Hindi; but I got someone to sit and re-work the dialogue so we could re-dub the film. We actually invented this language which sounded Gujarati, but was not; it was Hindi. And the film was reviewed by the Times of India and other papers as the first Gujarati film ever made!

GK: Then there was a time when you stopped making films...

SB: Well, it wasn't because I wanted to stop making films. It had become quite impossible when television suddenly proliferated, grew, exploded on the scene with any number of channels. This was in the mid-80s, and at the time it was very difficult to raise money to make a film, and if you did it was just as difficult get playing time on any screens. Because television had become such a strong competitor to the cinema, to get a screen you had to have the kind of film guaranteed to fill the hall. I wasn't making films that could fill halls easily. There were blockbusters, and everything else was practically wiped out. So I decided to do some television, and did a couple of projects. One of them, which I am quite proud of, was Bharat Ek Khoj, based on Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India, which is the entire history of India. In 53 hours. Today, if I tell anybody that I did that series, that entire 53 hours, on 35mm, doing it exactly like a film, nobody would believe me. But that is what I did.

GK: No sane man...

SB: No sane man would attempt to do it.

GK: This was on every week, in one-hour episodes, every week for 53 weeks? New material?

SB: Well, we built 144 sets...

GK: And you made two documentaries at that time as well, didn't you?

SB: Yes, one on Satyajit Ray and one on Nehru. But also there was another television series I did, which was Yatra, about the two longest train journeys you can take in Bombay. Done as little stories, in fact, not as pure documentary. Documentary doesn't tend to work in India, by and large. The audiences don't come; they want to be paid to see documentaries.

GK: Then we come to your next film, Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda, from Dharmvir Bharati's stories, which is a very distinct change in your style. Again, your whole narrative technique has changed here.

SB: That was because for a long time I'd been feeling that cinema had a kind of limitation. It's such a concrete kind of medium, the semiotics and language. When you write, movement in time and space is so easy, just as when you think. But in the cinema there are concrete structures less easy to work with. So I wanted to use stories that were happening simultaneously, and to get that sense not necessarily by using cross-cutting. Here was this novel that Dharmvir Bharati had written in the mid-50s, considered a great breakthough novel in the Hindi language, and that was excellent material. It's a cycle of four stories that the central character tells, and he's the protagonist in each of them, but his self-perception in each is different from how he sees himself in the other stories. In one he sees himself as a pre-pubescent boy, in another as an adolescent, in another as an adult... Then suddenly you discover that these events are actually taking place simultaneously. I found this very interesting material to work with. I've always thought that people's perceptions freeze at certain times. Like with your parents - to them you stop at a certain age. For instance, I think my father always saw me as an 8-year-old boy, even when I was pushing 50. The same thing with one's mother: they don't see you as a grown adult; they place you in a position they find most attractive. We do the same to everybody else; we hold on to certain characters we like. But how to get that in a film?

GK: When Shyam and I were in the States together, I mentioned to an American film-maker that we'd done five or six films together, and were still good friends. The American film-maker's jaw dropped, and he said, Still friends?, as though this was something impossible to think of. But it has been possible for a lot of people with Shyam, because the one thing he doesn't seem capable of is malice. As shown when, for your next film, you went to a person who'd set out to be your tormentor - a critic who'd attacked all your films.

SB: And who went on to write three of my films. The first one was Mammo. Khalid Mohamed had written this little thing in the Times of India about his grand-aunt, which I'd loved; I thought it was a wonderful story. It had so many reverberations: it was also a story about Partition, about borders. So I asked if I might use the sory, and if he might like to write the script. I don't know what happened at the other end of the phone, he must have fallen through the floor. Because he thought I was his implacable enemy - he'd hated every one of my films before that. Anyway, he wrote the script and it worked out well. I didn't even have to ask him the second time, he came to me with the script of Sardari Begum himself, and finally of course wrote Zubeidaa.

GK: Very good scripts. He trained himself as a film-maker...

SB: ... and now he's a fully-fledged film-maker himself.

GK: Would you like to talk about Samar before we come to Zubeidaa?

SB: Yes. The problem of Untouchability goes on and on - after 50 years of independence, and after a series of the most extraordinarily good laws passed in the Indian parliament. So I thought I should take a look at that area again - what happens after half a century, when the government is trying its best to get rid of Untouchability, and it's not working. When I decided to make the film, one of the first things to confront me was the fact that I could not make a film like Ankur again. It would be ridiculous. It would not be insightful at all. So I decided I would do it as a film-within-a-film story; of a film unit going to this place where an atrocity against an Untouchable took place, based on a real incident. The film unit has actors who are going to be playing the parts of the real people in the village, and the real people exist, and are watching this happen, and new things emerge from this interaction. The idea was to gain an insight into this whole problem today. I think as a film experience it worked very well indeed. I was very happy with the result, though practically nobody else on the unit was confident it would work, while we were actually shooting. They were wondering how it would all come together, because for everyone it was very confusing. I must admit there were times when I was very confused myself, but it did work in the end.

GK: These films that you make - Samar, and then Hari Bhari, which is about gender...

SB: ... and about women's reproductive rights. These are subjects on which many films have been made. The idea is to find a new way of looking at them. There's a lot of propaganda, government documentaries and so on, and everyone's very blasé about these things. You have to break through this attitude. Because they are real problems continuing to plague us. You cannot just shut your mind off to them. So how do you deal with them if you have to go back to them again? You can't deal with them the way you did earlier. They become challenges; but I like these challenges, because they allow you to explore the medium of film itself in the process.

GK: But these films somehow didn't quite reach the audience, in the way Manthan had.

SB: Hari Bhari did. 'Samar' had an unfortunate problem because the person who bought the rights to the film, very enthusiastically, is sitting on it for some reason. I don't know if he wants to hatch an egg, or something. There were all kinds of offers, but he didn't seem to want to accept any of them.

Present Project
GK: Before we throw it open to the audience, I just want to make one point. Mammo, Sandari Begum and Zubeidaa together show two kinds of things in your work. One is your tremendous and genuine understanding of Muslim society. Because although there are many Muslims working in commercial Hindi cinema, you find there a very falsified picture - sentimental, romanticised, what I call the Muslim mythology. The second thing is your sympathy for, and understanding of, women. Do you trace this to your Hyderabad background?

SB: Definitely. I grew up in a milieu where Hindus weren't a kind of brute majority: you had a very mixed community. So it was very easy to get to know each other this way - the everyday ways of living. Put another way, there was no opportunity to make the Muslim 'the Other'. One never had that kind of problem. Hyderabad was a great place, really. Everybody thinks that [inaudible] was some peculiar character, but the fact is that he always used this term: saying one eye is Hindu and one eye is Muslim. That stuck in my mind, and when I think of India, I think in those terms. As far as women are concerned - well, I'm not particularly conscious of it. Probably because in my family, we were four brothers and six sisters, and the six sisters were quite dominant, really.

GK: There is also the sense of music in all your films. Sangeeta Datta in her new book on you, published by the bfi, says that the story of Sardari Begum is the story of Thumri itself.

SB: In some ways it probably is, although I didn't really intend that. There has been a lot of confusion with that, because a lot of people thought the film was about Begum Akhtar, and I had people getting very angry, questioning why I was distorting Begum Akhtar's life. But I'm saying, Who's claimed this is Begum Akhtar's life? There was a Sardari Begum, who was a singer, and she did die in the same way, by this rock being thrown during a riot in Old Delhi - she was an unintended victim.

GK: What's your present project, Shyam?

SB: My present project is on Subhash Chandra Bose, who I think is a person much misunderstood, if not misrepresented. Many attempts have been made to deny acknowledgement of what he has contributed. It's a beautiful story, actually. The portion I'm taking makes for a great story, but also does many other things I wanted to do, to connect a few things from the history of the Freedom Movement of India.

GK: I must read one critic's quotation that sums up what many of us feel. He says "Benegal has put up a model of committed film-making in a thoroughly professional manner that could be eminently useful for both the mainstream, with its recklessly expensive habits, and art cinema, with its holier-than-thou attitude and amateurism". So how do you react - I'm sorry to ask this question - to the current craze for Bollywood?

SB: I've never, ever thought there was anything wrong with anybody making the kind of film they want to make. I totally subscribe to the idea that cinema's primary purpose is to entertain. If they are unable to entertain, then people will simply not come to the cinema to see the film. So if they have to entertain, you shouldn't denigrate people who want to entertain you. Also, certain sections of Indian society have always felt a little embarrassed, a little apologetic, that they liked mainstream film. There's developed now a fairly highly-evolved form, very distinct in its own way. And to my way of thinking that's really traditional Indian film-making; why should one even have to explain that? But then everyone has the right to make films the way they want to make them. I want to make films the way I want to make them, and I have that right. So, fine.

GK: I'll now end by referring to your family, actually. You're very much a family man, a very affectionate husband and father. Neera was involved not only as a mother figure to all of us, but she was also involved in some of your productions, wasn't she? She did costumes for Nishant; now your daughter Pia is also involved.

SB: She's a costume designer. She's done fashion design, and when she's not working on fashion she does costumes for my films, and for others.

GK: She hasn't started making films yet?

SB: No. That, she says, she does not want to do. She was the producer of a couple of documentaries I made in the beginning, at a time she wanted to be connected with films, and she found me very difficult... So this was a better way for her.

GK: Well, she's been immersed in the world of cinema from her early childhood, and I'd like to end my conversation with Shyam with an anecdote that features her, when she was about five, or five-and-a-half. There was a dancer living upstairs in the block of flats, and she was pestering Shyam to cast her in his next film. Shyam was of course very nice and pleasant, and said he'd see if there was a role for her. One day we were sitting there with Neera and Pia and just chatting, and this dancer came in and said, Shyam, I want an answer. Why are you not casting me? I want a role in your next film. And before Shyam could answer, Pia said, "Why do you ask that? My father says you can't act for nuts".

Q: Asking for more about orientation to non-linear structures and shifting perspectives.

SB: Well, it was really related to literature. I always felt that in literature you could do so much; why wasn't it possible in the cinema? Almost the only cinematic example one could turn to was Rashomon. Of course, there were films with flashbacks, or told through flashbacks, and so on. But the idea of so many different kinds of realities, or the question of where truth resides, ideas like that, how did you arrive there? Is there truth in anything; because it's all subjective? All these things were difficult to convey in the cinema. Particularly simultaneous happenings; and the self-perception of people. How do you deal with those? In this particular case I found this beautiful book Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda; in which the protagonist who tells all these four tales, which are all stories to define love, puts himself in the centre of each story. A lot of people before me had attempted to adapt this, and I remember that when I finally went to the author Dharmvir Bharati and told him I wanted to make the film, he said he was sorry, but he'd given the rights away to someone who wanted to make a television series out of it. I said - I couldn't help myself - He's going to destroy the novel, totally. Because he will make these into different episodes, and that would be absurd. That's not the spirit of the novel. Then he retrieved the rights, and I got them after about a year-and-a-half. He was very happy with the film, the way it turned out. Then I suddenly felt that I had achieved some kind of breakthrough, that I no longer need to worry about the kind of things that were giving me sleepless nights. Because if there's any real fear I have, it is that of repeating myself. That can become a habit, it can become very easy: you become so able to do these things that it all becomes very facile. I want every film I make to be like the first film I'm making. It's very important to me, otherwise it'll no longer be challenging.

Q: Asking for comments on Kondura

SB: That was a very brilliant novel written in Marathi by the writer Khanolkar, who died before I made the film. I took the rights from him, and I wanted to make it in Marathi, actually. I didn't want to make it in any other language. But I found that I just couldn't get funding to make a film in Marathi, because the Marathi cinema audience had really shrunk. So I decided to change the old story from the west coast of India to the east coast. When I did that, I was able to do it in Telugu; which I did, and was able to find a Telugu producer quite easily. Then when I was making the film, the plan was to make it only in Telugu, but the producers decided that maybe it should have a Hindi version as well. But I didn't feel confident that it would work in Hindi. I felt the Telugu audience would relate to it much better, because it was really examining the Brahmin psyche, and there one is talking about societies that are truly traditional, in the way that northern India is not as traditional as southern India. It's a very traditional kind of story, it was like turning Sri Ramakrishnan on his head. The Telugu version had, of course, a wonderful release, and tremendous controversy. There was one Telugu literary magazine which ran a debate that for a whole year fed off that film. Quite unbelievable. But the Hindi version never got released at all, until it was eventually shown on television; mainly because the producers fell out. It's one of the least-known of my films, but it did play here at the London Film Festival in the Telugu version.

Q: Regarding Guru Dutt, and the first blurring of the line between commercial and new wave cinema.

SB: In fact it wasn't blurred; it didn't exist at that time. You had Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy and others making films at that time that were not necessarily the kind of films people in the Bombay industry made. And they worked with audiences. I think the change really took place in the 60s, when a lot changed. If you know Indian film history, you'll realise that when Guru Dutt made Kaagaz Ke Phool - which later on became very successful, twenty years after he died - it was at first a huge failure. That film truly shattered him, because he couldn't understand why it failed... That, for me, was the turning point, when it was no longer possible, even using the traditional Indian form of cinema, to make films like Mother India, or films such as Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt were making, or even the early films of Raj Kapoor, like Awaara and so on. One year after Kaagaz Ke Phool failed, one of the biggest successes was a film called ([inaudible]), and that set the tone. There was then a hiatus of about nine years before a Hindi film appeared that was very individualistic, or in some ways personal, and did not use the popular format.

GK: I should perhaps add that Guru Dutt was a cousin of Shyam's.

SB: He was a great role model for me, and I always used to feel that if he succeeded, surely I should be able to succeed as well. Because he was around I never needed to feel depressed.

Q: Querying the major influences or driving force in Shyam Benegal's life

SB: There are many; I'm not sure they can be pinpointed. I don't think anybody can. The way one grew up; the kind of life experiences one had; and the period itself. Growing up in the early years after Independence, it was an extraordinary time of hope, with a real sense of change. The kind of environment helped in many ways; the friends one made; one's peer group...

GK: You were closely associated with theatre people, I think?

SB: Yes, and lots of friends in politics, members of the Communist Party, some of whom went to jail; and there was the T [inaudible] movement... All those things had an impact, and made me a little more socially aware, I think.

Q: As to whether Shyam Benegal has a favourite from among his own films.

SB: Actually, I don't. To tell the truth, the moment I finish making a film, I forget about it. The umbilical cord is cut; I cannot stay with that film any longer; it's done. My enthusiasm for it finishes the day I put the word 'End' on it. Because then I have to get on to another film. I can't stay with the films that I've made. A lot of people do, but I can't. You have to get on with the next film.

Q: As to which contemporary film-makers Shyam Benegal admires.

SB: World film-makers? Quite a number of them. I'm a great admirer of Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf in Iran, also Makhmalbaf's daughter Samira - I think she's a wonderful film-maker. I also like a whole slew of American film-makers - Martin Scorsese is my favourite; Francis Coppola, though he hasn't made too many films recently - and there are film-makers from elsewhere as well: Kitano, Zhang Yimou, and others. I can keep naming, because I get terribly enthusiastic about good film-makers, and there are quite a few of them around. Of Indian film-makers, too, quite a number. Rituparno Ghosh is somebody whose work I like very much among the younger film-makers. But there are older ones, too. Adoor Gopalakrishnan continues to be my favourite Indian film-maker; and several others.

Q: As to whether films for social change can actually effect change.

SB: Never because of a single film; single films don't change society. But cinema as a whole does. There is a great deal of impact. For instance, cinema in India, particularly during the 70s and 80s, did have some kind of impact on the young of that generation. But all that changed a great deal for reasons that I think had nothing to do with the cinema - rather, the situation in the country. Now, of course, this whole business of liberalisation and globalisation has changed the entire thing altogether. Now there's so much emphasis on popular culture - you can use other terms. Some people say that everything's becoming democratised, but that's just another way of saying everything's getting dumbed down, you know.

GK: [wrap up and thanks]

Shabana Azmi

Shabana Azmi was interviewed at the National Film Theatre on 7 March 2003 by Nasreen Munni Kabir.

Shabana Azmi is among India's most respected actors. But she also works tirelessly in India's countless fields of social causes, is a Member of the Upper House of India's Parliament and a respected academic.

First Paycheque
A Bohemian Upbringing
Questions from the floor
Interview © BFI 2003

First Paycheque
Nasreen Munni Kabir: I think we should start with Anjuman, as a lot of people here have just seen it. What are your feelings about it now?

Shabana Azmi: I'm seeing Anjuman after almost twenty years. I must say I was extremely overwhelmed, because it's based on the real-life struggle of a chikan [embroidery] workers' group in Lucknow. When we were making the film, there were thirty people in the organisation, and today there are 5,000 women. In fact, they are so empowered that they've transformed Lucknow society, and all of the rural society around it. They've been truly empowered, and I was very moved by it.

NMK: At the time you made the film, did the chikan workers actually see it?

SA: They saw the film; they were part of it. A lot of the workers are actually in the film. For them, this struggle was not really a film, it was their struggle. For instance, the scene where she's talking about how the traders are trying to cut these women by forbidding the laundry people to wash their clothes. Now if anybody knows anything about chikan, it's that they have to take home these very large pieces of cloth and work on them in their huts, and the embroidered cloths become very filthy, because it can take two months or six months or whatever. So it's crucial that they be laundered; and the middle-men even tried to take that right away from the women. It was a huge struggle.

NMK: For those who don't know, the lady who plays the mischievous aunt is in fact your mother...

SA: She's not like that in real life, I promise you.

[Audience laughs]

NMK: Well, we'll talk about your family a little later... What I'd like to know is when did you know you'd be an actress?

SA: I don't know when I became conscious of it, but it dates back to when I was three. I was in school and acting in the nursery rhyme, Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle... I was this three-year-old girl playing the Cow, and I was supposed to jump over the Moon, who was another three-year-old girl. And instead of jumping over the Moon, I jumped on the Moon. So she stood up and slapped me very hard, and I slapped her back, and they had to pull the curtain down. I think that was the day it was written in my fate that I would end up being an actor.

NMK: I know it's going back into the past a little - because you've acted in more than 140 or 150 films in a 30-year career - but do you remember the first time you were recognised in the street? As being famous?

SA: Well, I come from a family in which every member has been famous in their own right. My father was a very well-known Urdu poet and writer, and my mother is a stage actress, so that went quite naturally in the house. I don't remember the exact moment, although I do remember the first time I got a cheque, for my signing amount for Kantilal Rathod's Parinay. It was 1500 rupees, which is, what, £20? The film-maker came and gave it to me, and I took it ever so elegantly, as if this was the kind of money I got every day. And the minute he left the door, my brother and I were shouting, "Yippee, yeah, 1500 rupees." My father said, "If he hears you, he'll come and take it right back..." So I remember the feeling of earning that money, which was great.

NMK: Do you remember what you did with that money?

SA: That I don't remember.

NMK: You have obviously worked in a wide range of roles - a farmer's wife, a social activist, a doctor - all kind of roles. How do you go about researching these characters?

SA: In different ways for different parts. I think that for an actor or any artist, it's important to draw your resources from life itself. So if I can find somebody similar to the person that I'm playing - that, I find, is the easiest way of working on a character. But sometimes, of course, the people are so removed from anybody that you can meet in real life that you have to depend on the writer and the imagination. I remember when I was doing Mandi, which is a film by Shyam Benegal in which I was playing the madame of a brothel, I actually went to three different brothels in three different cities - one in Bombay, one in Delhi and one in Hyderabad - and I found they had completely different atmospheres, that reflected different cultures. In Bombay, they were a much younger lot, and they all wanted to look like Rekha, the movie star; and really you couldn't see much difference between them. When I went to Delhi, I found that they had much more of the nautch-girl charm, and there was a certain atmosphere of gentility. When I went to Hyderabad, I saw this young girl, who had no make-up on her face; she was really slight and very thin; and she came and sat down in front of me with her eyes lowered. Then this guy said, "These are people from cinema, and they'd like you to perform - would you do something?" Well, there's a song of mine in a film called Fakira, which is an almost devotional song that I sing to Shashi Kapoor as my husband, which says, "I will pray for you," et cetera. And this slight little girl just broke into the most vulgar interpretation of that song. [Audience laughs] It completely took me by surprise. So I had these three completely different experiences which I had to then get into the part. It's interesting how you tend to meet characters who you can model your roles on.

NMK: I think that character was called Rukmini Bai; an extraordinary, wonderful performance that's one of my favourites of yours. Totally believable; you really felt for her.

SA: What I really liked about it was the fact that I had a legitimate reason for putting on weight. I could eat; and I really love food. I'm always playing characters who are emaciated, and really thin. So I was really thrilled about the fact I could eat so much food.

[Audience laughs]

NMK: Obviously you've worked with a number of different kinds of directors, like Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, Gautam Ghosh... For you, what is the quality you look for in a director?

SA: I like being directed. I don't like being left on my own. I sincerely believe that film is basically a director's medium. Cinema is really a very collaborative art, but finally it is the director who is captain of the ship. Unless I get direction from a director, I find it very difficult to do things on my own, however well-written it is. But rather than have someone tell me that this is exactly how they want it interpreted, I enjoy being allowed to participate and allowed to interpret. Then being held back if I'm doing something foolish. Now why I enjoy working with Shyam Benegal a lot, is that I know I can take many more risks in a performance with him. I know he'll stop me making a fool of myself. So instead of depending on studied gestures that I know will work, I will attempt to do something different. I must have a relationship of trust with my director, and I don't like unpleasant vibrations on the set. I work best when people are happy around me.

NMK: Say you are working with a director you don't get on with, would you be sulking, or what?

SA: I could behave very badly. [Audience laughs] I can get very angry; I can get very moody; I can cry. I can do all of that, but ultimately I come from a discipline where, never mind how much I disagree, ultimately it is the director's vision, and I would have to go by that. I mean I'd fight like mad, but ultimately I'd give in, because I come from that discipline.

NMK: You were extremely successful in the art cinema. What drew you to working in the popular cinema?

SA: It was great fun. Because your imagination is tested in the extreme. For instance, there was Manmohan Desai's film Parvarish, for which we had to shoot the climax for thirty days. And Neetu Singh and I had to hang in the villain's den over a river where any moment a crocodile might eat off our legs. So can you imagine trying to pretend this whole thing is real, and to do it with any degree of conviction? That's quite, quite wonderful. I think that what commercial cinema does is to require you to create an alternative reality. And to bring any semblance of truth to that alternative reality is a real challenge for an actor. You have to suspend your belief system entirely, and go along with it. What I found very difficult to do was to dance. I have two left feet, and I can't dance at all. That's why I'm amazed when I see all these young actors and actresses who just dance so wonderfully. I think, Well, why didn't I learn? But it's something I didn't do.

NMK: How would you describe the difference in atmosphere on the set of a film by, say, Shyam Benegal, and one by Manmohan Desai?

SA: Well, for one thing, in mainstream Hindi cinema the scene is written as you shoot. So there have been occasions when we have shot only the first page of a scene, not knowing what the rest of the scene is going to be, while the writer was sitting in the make-up room writing the rest of the scene. You can imagine, to work under those circumstances is nearly impossible. But it's an alternative discipline. In a sense, challenging, also.

NMK: Were you doing your own synch-sound, in Shyam's films for example?

SA: For a long time it was dubbed sound, and then for the past ten years or so, he's been doing synch-sound. Which is unusual in Hindi cinema, where it's still a problem for an actor. Because what dubbing post-synch sound does is to make the audience watch one performance and listen to another. I think that creates a certain kind of artificiality, which is very disastrous for a performance. It's only now that we've started doing synch-sound.

NMK: We know that in most Indian cinema there are very predictable roles for women. Yet you have always managed to make extremely bold choices. If we take the example of Fire, from which we saw a clip earlier - the tabloid press immediately said it was the role of a lesbian, and so on. Did you find that a difficult decision to make?

SA: I loved the script of Fire. When I read it, I really loved it. But I agonised over whether I should play it, for almost a month. Simply because I have a life beyond that of being an actor. I also work with slum-dwellers in Bombay, and I felt that vested interests would try to jeopardise my relationship with women in the slums. Because of the radical positions I take, slum-dwellers sometimes find it quite tough to stay with me. They are bound by traditional ties, and have men telling them, Don't go with her; stay with us, et cetera. I thought that would be further jeopardised. Yet I wanted to do the film very much. Ultimately I figured that not all of India's audience is a monolith; that people would react in different ways. Some would be overwhelmed, some would be moved, some would be angry, some would be confused. But what it would do would raise a degree of awareness of an issue which in India we just don't have the courage to acknowledge. Fire was particularly important because it shows these two sisters-in-law in a middle-class environment in Delhi. Not in Canada. Because if that had happened, you could say that it was just the western influence. But to me, more importantly, Fire is not just about a lesbian relationship, Fire is about our relationship with those we do not understand. We tend to fear people we don't understand, so we condemn them. I think that what Fire tries to do is to say that if you can empathise with these two women, then perhaps you can extend that empathy to the other - the other religion, the other race, the other gender, the other nation. In today's increasingly intolerant world order, I think it's an extremely important statement to make. I was pretty certain that, when called upon, I would be able to defend Fire. Yet the reaction to Fire has been so overwhelming all over the world. I didn't expect it to get this kind of reaction, but I'm really glad I did it.

A Bohemian Upbringing
NMK: You bring a completely different mood to the character of Radha in Fire. Can you tell us what you brought to that character?

SA: She could quite easily have been played as a victim. I think it was extremely important to wrest that victimhood from the character, and infuse dignity into her. I remember Deepa Mehta telling me that there is a stillness in Radha, and I think I just completely internalised that. What I really like in her is that, in the scene you just watched, which is her ultimate rebellion, you can see that even when she is rebelling against her husband, she is doing it from a person that she already is. Oftentimes in cinema, when a change takes place in a character, then that person becomes a completely new person. Whereas I think you can see in Radha the residue of the person that she was, and the person that this transformation has now managed to make her. She does it in this very quiet, dignified way. And I must say that Nandita Das was a very good co-star to have. It was a real pleasure working with her.

NMK: When you think of films like this, they are a bold choice of roles, with which you might be alienating a lot of your audience, even including the people you represent socially and politically. Did you find you'd actually make these decisions because of your own parents' background?

SA: Before I answer this question, let me give you an instance of doing a film, not quite knowing how the audience will react. There was a film I did many years ago that became a hallmark for women's liberation in a sense, Mahesh Batt's film Arth. It was a very simple story about a woman who was abandoned by her husband for another woman and, at the end, when she's finally come into her own, her husband comes back and says, "I'm sorry. Will you take me back?" The woman says, "If I had made the same mistake, would you have taken me back?" The husband says, "No." So she walks out on him. When the distributors saw the film they said, It's a very nice film, but you have to change the end. It's unthinkable that an Indian man, an Indian husband, would come to a wife and say sorry, and she wouldn't forgive him. Mercifully, the director and I both decided to dig our heels in, and say, "No, this is the reason we made the film. Even if it doesn't run, this is what we should do." To our surprise, the film became a huge commercial success, as well as a critical success. We didn't quite know that that was how far we could push the audience. But what happened as a result of that was that suddenly I had hordes of women walking to my house. Not as fans, but in sisterhood, expecting me to resolve all their marital conflicts. I was really overwhelmed, because I'd never even thought about it; I was just playing a part. I got so frightened by it. I also faced a lot of hostility from men who said, "You're giving all these wrong ideas to women, and you think walking out on men is the answer." There was real hostility. But women really bonded with me in a way that made me realise an actor has an important role to play in society. Because people put their weight behind you, and you really want to become a role model. It's this kind of responsibility. When you push the envelope a bit, you become more and more aware of it. I wouldn't say I go consciously out of my way to make these choices, and I certainly don't enjoy controversy. I don't court controversy. Simply because I think controversy is bad for any piece of art. What happens is that people in a short-sighted way think that all controversy makes people come into the theatres. But what it actually does is to add a lot of baggage. So people come in expecting what they have imagined, and when they come out they find it disappointing. But I don't think I would not do something only because it was going to be controversial. And the confidence to do that I certainly get from my parents. From my father; from the kind of very bohemian, liberal atmosphere in which I grew up. The fact is that ever since we were little children, my brother and I were encouraged to express our opinion, and we were aware of the fact that our opinion was respected. I think that's why I am who I am.

NMK: What are your memories of your father? He was obviously a very famous poet; and your mother's a well-known actress. What was the atmosphere like, growing up?

SA: It was totally bohemian. Until the age of nine, I lived in a commune-like atmosphere, because my father was a member of the Communist Party. We had just one room each, and the drawing-room of that flat was called the Red Flag Hall, where all the Communist Party meetings used to happen. We used to have a common loo; a common bathroom; and I had just a simple room, with a little strip of balcony that had been converted into a kitchen. But it was a very happy place. We really grew up in a kind of commune. Though I thought 'a poet' was a euphemism for somebody who did no work. I used to think that fathers are supposed to wear trousers and a shirt and go to the office; and here was this man who would just sit and write at a desk. So I would lie in school, and say, "Oh, he does some business," or some such thing. I used to think he was weird. I went to a convent school, and like all girls in my school I wanted a blonde doll with blue eyes. At the age of seven, my father gave me a black doll, and explained that black is beautiful, too. So I'd say he was weird; he doesn't even know what I'm talking about. Much later, though, you start seeing where all these values are coming from. He's been an extremely important influence on my life.

NMK: Did you, as a child, attend any of the mushairas [poetry symposiums] that he held?

SA: Yes. Mushairas are these poetic gatherings that we have. In India we have a tradition of recitation of poetry: not readings, but actually reciting to huge crowds. I remember going there as a small child, going to sleep on the stage and waking up when my father's name was announced to thunderous applause.

NMK: Is there any particular poem of his which really moves you?

SA: Lots of poems... In my work with women, my work against religious fundamentalism, my work with the slum-dwellers; for each of these issues there's a poem of my father's that guides me. When I first got involved with the slums in Bombay, it was really inspired by a poem of my father's called 'Makaan', which means 'home'. It was about the irony of a construction worker who builds this fabulous building with his blood and sweat; who, when the building is finished, is prevented from entering it by a security guard. There are lots of poems like that.

NMK: Also some fabulously romantic ones for Indian films; for Guru Dutt's work. Do you feel as if your world view would have been very different if you'd been brought up by parents who were, say, lawyers, rather than in a house of artists?

SA: Absolutely. In spite of the fact that we really had no money at all, we were very poor, we had some of the best names in Urdu literature living as houseguests. So we grew up thinking there was something more important than money. Plus, as children, it was unusual at the time to be included in so much, in the decision-making process at home. Normally, children were just asked to disappear while the adults made the decisions. But because I grew up with such liberal parents, it was completely different.

NMK: In your adulthood, you've seen an incredible rise in fundamentalism and communalism. Can you situate it back to any specific point, or do you think the whole thing was just much more insidious?

SA: It dates back over eighty years of a systematic campaign of hatred against the minorities. Done insidiously, done strategically, done cleverly; and not being countered enough. Not busting the myths that were allowed to propagate, and that even today face the minorities. So I wouldn't say there is any one incident. In India, of course, everyone talks about the demolition of Ram temple as being the darkest of India's secular spirits. But I think it has been a very long process.

NMK: Obviously, you've worked and spoken a lot against all this. But when you're interviewed, do you find the journalists would rather talk about your cinema career than your political views?

SA: No. Because I'm a Member of Parliament, so it's quite obvous that they'd like to talk about my political position on most things. In fact, that quite overwhelms my work as an actor. It's very interesting - Aparna Sen is a director I really respect, and a friend of mine, and she told me, "You know, your off-screen personality has become so strong that I would hesitate to cast you in a film where you were a weak or meek character. Because the audience will already know that there will be a change; that you will not remain a meek person." I think that's a very real problem, because as an actor I've been trained in the Stanislavski method, where I was told that an actor should be able to prefix the words 'if I were' - Mother Theresa, slum-dweller, sex-worker, anybody - and be able to do it with truth. But I think my political beliefs have started becoming so strong that there are some things that I certainly couldn't do, even if I thought they'd be very interesting parts. That's a real conflict in me. I'm trying to solve it.

NMK: Then I think we should all see the new film that you've done, in which you play a witch... A children's film.

SA: She's not a witch in the end. Just a bad girl.

NMK: Can we talk a little about your husband, Javed Akhtar, who's a very well-known poet and screenplay writer, and an extraordinary person? Can you tell me what it was about his personality, when you first met, that you were immediately struck by?

SA: His wit; his intelligence. He's really the most intelligent man I know. He's also extremely funny. He's capable of being very flippant and very serious. But he and I share a world-view. We come from exactly the same kind of background. His father was a writer; his mother was a writer. He belongs to Lucknow, like my father did. I don't think I could have married anyone else in the world and have the marriage succeed.

NMK: People here may have a certain idea of how a famous actress lives in India. Is our imagination way off? Could you share with us what would be a typical day in your life?

SA: You see, I'm not only an actor. Because I do so many other things. It gets crowded. On the same day, I could be shooting a film, I could be up in the slums, I could have to attend a party that has nothing to do with either. I can have a lot of problems you might not foresee. For instance, on the same day, I have to be at a slum, at a meeting where I'm saying, "Women of the world unite, we've nothing to lose but our chains," and getting them all together. Then finishing that, and going straight off to a Pierre Cardin fashion show. Now how do I dress? That for me is a really big problem...

NMK: In the middle of that, who is the real you? Or is that an impossible way of separating things?

SA: All of it is me. I don't see my work as an actor, or my work as an activist, or my work as a Member of Parliament as different sections at all. I think all these are parts of my personality that I use to raise awareness on issues of concern to me; which is basically women's issues, the rise of religious fundamentalism, and the rights of the dispossessed. All of this is part of me. I don't see any contradictions at all.

NMK: I'm someone who's done a lot of work on Indian cinema, and it's rare to meet someone, particularly an actress, who is concerned about anything other than what their next role is. So it's always a pleasure to hear you. I don't want to monopolise the discussion, so I'll ask the audience if there are any questions?

Questions from the floor
Q: [from the floor] By and large, there seems to be an absence of good scripts in today's Hindi cinema. What is your view on this?

SA: I think that is the main problem in Hindi cinema, though it has come a long way. I think it's technically better, and in many ways there has been an improvement. But with regard to content, there is a dearth of good writers. Plus, interestingly, for a long time the Urdu language suffered because of what happened in Partition, when India and Pakistan were divided. There was a conspiracy to make Urdu the language of the religion, rather than the language of the region. There was this concerted effort to say that Urdu is the language of Muslims; which is wrong, in fact, because it was the language of Northern India. Even in the film Anjuman, there is no distinction between the way Hindus speak Urdu and Muslims speak Urdu. Strangely, it was the Hindi cinema which acted as the custodian of Urdu. But when the Urdu writers started to give way to this kind of 'Hin-glish', this Hindi-English mix that came in, that led to the decline of Urdu, and to a language that, apart from not having any literary flavour, is not even grammatically correct. I think that is a great pity. It's very important that scripts are well-written. I feel very sad about it.

Q: [inaudible]

SA: What I think is happening is that there is a movement both ways, which is very nice. I think anything that allows a director like Shyam Benegal or Govind Nihalani, who were characterised only as Parallel film-makers... If they have stars willing to work with them, as is the case, why should they not do it? Because the fact is when these stars work in Shyam's films, they give the best performances they've ever done. And what having a star does, is to give the film much greater distribution. So as long as they're not compromising on the quality of the acting, I think it's wonderful. There should be a two-way movement. I encourage it greatly.

Q: You're one of a select group of Muslim celebrities in India. Are you finding that more Muslim celebrities are being politicised in the face of rising Hindu fundamentalism?

SA: Firstly, I think Muslims are in a difficult position all over the world, not only in India. Particularly post-September 11th. Because there has been this attempt to make Islam seem synonymous with terrorism. Which of course is not the truth. Islam is spread over more than 53 countries in the world, and is not a monolith. It takes on the culture of the country in which it resides. So in some places you see it in its moderate, or liberal, or reformist or fundamentalist form. To paint all of Islam as synonymous with terror is a huge disservice. But I think this crisis has also become an opportunity, because it's the first time that Muslim liberals all over the world have realised that it is time for them to make a conscious effort to make a separation between the fundamentalist and the liberal, and to say Islam gives us that space. The film Anjumanthat you saw - I don't think people are even aware that Islam gives the woman the right to reject a marriage if she doesn't want it. People don't know about it. You have to take the good things of the religion and make people understand that there is a difference in the way Islam is interpreted. I think what is happening in India is that for the first time the liberal Muslim, who had kept away from the affairs of the Muslim because of Partition - because he or she had believed that to take on the affairs of the community would mean they were communal - for the first time have realised that religion is too potent a weapon to be left to the zealots alone. It's extremely important for the moderate opinion to be heard. The moderate opinion has always been there, but the press has made it invisible. The press will always highlight something a fundamentalist leader says, but when the moderate says things again and again it finds one tiny little space somewhere. But in India in the present situation, I must say there has been a sensitisation of the press, and they are now bringing the moderate voice forward.

Q: Is that true of high-profile Bollywood stars who are Muslims?

SA: It's very strange. The film industry is one place where it doesn't seem to affect. They're not affected by the fact that they're Muslims, thank God.

Q: [inaudible[

SA: That's pure rubbish. The fact is that the fundamentalists are getting nervous for the first time in their lives. Because the secular liberals are finally moving out of this precious space of the seminar-room and coming out on the streets and getting their voices heard. Now this is threatening to the fundamentalists, because it was very safe as long as the secular liberals just stayed in five-star hotels and in seminar-rooms and spoke about how secularism was in danger. It didn't threaten them. But when they're actually going out and aligning themselves with the grassroots, it means there's a strengthening of the secular force. The only way you can deal with that is by pure lies. So what is being said in the name of pseudo-secularim is really lies spread against the secularists. What happened in Gujarat is, I think, the darkest hour in India's history, and I hope that we won't see a repeat of that. But we can only guarantee that won't happen if the guilty are punished. What happens in India's history is, riot after riot, the guilty get away scot-free. So you end up saying there are two kinds of law in this country: if you kill one person, you are likely to get punished, but if you indulge in mass murder then an amnesty of sorts is granted to you. That kind of signal is really dangerous, because then the brutalised people, when they get this sense of justice, just get further alienated. I think India's greatest strength is her secularism, her pluralism, her composite culture, her tolerance of the other. Those are the practices we have to strengthen, because otherwise India will fall apart.

Q: You've done a lot for Indian women in developing countries. Do you see Indian women in more developed countries needing to take on more leadership roles?

SA: I think there's a difference between the feminist movements in the west, and in India. I think that's India's strength. Because what the feminist movement in the west does is talk about rights, and they talk about an individual's rights, whereas I think what the feminist movement in India has done is to realise that development must be the core issue of the women's movements. Because that's the place from where it works. I think it's different in India and the west because in India the family is a very important structure; although a lot of the strictures come from the oppression of the family. But within that, the unit to work with is the family rather than the individual. I think that, earlier, India did take all its cues from the west, but now it is negotiating its own space, according to its own reality. There's a lot of strengthening of that movement.

Q: Could you tell us about your experience of the film Genesis?

SA: It was lovely; wonderful. Because Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah are my favourite actors, and Mrinal Sen is a very favourite director. It was a very stark kind of film, and yet it was bold, because ultimately she says, "The child is mine." I enjoyed doing it very much.

Q: In Anjuman, there's only one feminised man, who supports you. The rest are ghastly, and aggressive, and exploitative. Have things changed?

SA: Yes, I think things have definitely changed. We were talking about 1984. But I think there has been a sensitisation of the Indian male. Certainly, a lot of men are still very angry, but there is at least the notion that to be a male chauvinist is a value that is looked down upon in society. In a certain area, I mean. In certain castes; in certain areas; I don't know. Because we belong to a patriarchal, feudal structure, so that rules the roost; but there is definitely a shift that is happening. There are some Indian women [here], smiling away as if they know better - or at least they're not revealing...

Q: [about Shabana Azmi's occasional returns to the stage]

SA: We are still doing Tumhari Amrita some twelve years later, and I still enjoy it, because I think it's an extremely well-written part. I have done some theatre, not too much. It's a completely different challenge, facing a live audience. I think it's very exciting for actors to be able to do both theatre and film. I think it keeps them on their toes. I enjoy working in the theatre.

Q: [about the limited exposure of the show The Spirit of Anne Frank]

SA: We had only two shows there, that's right. We just did a run of nine shows in three cities; but just to get all five of us together for dates was very difficult. But we hope to be able to start touring with it from September onwards. We'll try to do it here as well.

Q: For Fire, did all the cast discuss the contentiousness? And are there the same pressures on Indian actresses as Hollywood actresses to have a certain profile in the youth culture?

SA: On Fire, Nandita and Deepa and I had long discussions, and we did some rehearsals. This was Nandita's first film. She was a raw newcomer, and I'd been working for a long time. So obviously there was a certain hesitation; although the moment I saw her I knew we would get along very well; like a house on fire. On the first day of rehearsals, within five minutes of us fooling around, Deepa just said, OK, get into bed, you both. Excuse me? Well, do the kissing scene... We both giggled, and tried to get away from it. And Deepa went about it totally professionally, and said, Stop being silly, and just do it. I think that broke the barriers, completely. In fact my husband complains that I've done a kissing scene with a man in another movie and I don't look as convincing as I do with Nandita, and he wants to know what that's all about.

NMK: And the question about youth culture?

SA: For me personally, some of my strongest parts have come after the age of 40, which is very, very unusual. I think that's coming from the fact that women all over the world are negotiating more space for themselves. And from women understanding that today's woman at 40 or 50 is much more interesting than she was earlier. Because earlier, by 40 that was the end of your life, there was very little experience that you could have. But today one is experiencing a lot, and wanting that to be seen. But that's only a small section of Indian cinema. Otherwise, they are saying that by the age of 30 she is already too old. The men can happily go on, being 60 and cast opposite a 20-year-old girl. It's changing slowly.

Q: Can I go back to your answer about your typical day, and ask what you would wear under those circumstances?

SA: I'd dress down. I would wear a cotton sari, because I wouldn't want to be conspicuous in the slums. Although, let me tell you, after I've been in the slums for a long time, some of the slum-dwellers complain, and say, Can't you ever come dressed as a film star? I'd much rather dress down.

Q: Do you have any plans to go into politics full-time?

SA: I don't think one can say, Never; for anything. But I find the idea of party politics excruciating. I think the party's truth becomes your truth; which is necessarily a selective truth. So I'd lose my independent voice. Also, constituency politics don't interest me as much as being in the Upper House, and getting involved with the debates. So I wouldn't see that happening; but I don't totally rule it out.

Q: But you don't have as much power?

SA: You have exactly the same power, except that you don't vote on the Finance Bill. Apart from that, there is no Bill that can be passed if the Upper House doesn't pass it.

Q: If your parents had so little money, how come you were sent to a good school?

SA: The thing is, my father was giving whatever money he was earning to the Communist Party, and he was left with only 40 rupees a month. So my mother had to go out to work, that's how she started working in the theatre, and her salary was 150 rupees. My school fees were 30 rupees - a huge sum of money. In fact, my mother said we couldn't afford it, and they sent me to a municipal school. I used to get zero in every single subject. My mother said, well, she doesn't look like a daft child, obviously she's rebelling, she doesn't want to go to that school. So at great stress to themselves, they started sending me to that school and paying that kind of money. It was not a rich, upper-class commune, at all.

Q: Was this in Lucknow?

SA: This was in Bombay.

Q: We've heard about Shabana the actress, the activist, the politician. Is there to be Shabana the director?

SA: I hope. But I'm too scared.

Q: Are there any parts you've played you'd like to go back and do differently?

SA: A lot of parts I'd like to change. I can see all the mistakes. But I think it's the whole process that's interesting. The journey has been good.

Richard Attenborough

Richard Attenborough was interviewed at the National Film Theatre on 7 September 2003. Hosts: David Robinson, Amanda Nevill, Anthony Minghella.

Attenborough's first film as director is endlessly inventive in transferring Joan Littlewood's 1963 stage musical to Brighton pier, deftly shifting its impressions of the First World War between different levels of fantasy and reality. Most of the British acting profession is on display in what grows to become a grand, elegiac national celebration. Variety, awed, said that 'His work also happens to be dedicated. exhilarating, shrewd. mocking, funny, emotional, witty, poignant and technically brilliant.' As the centrepiece of the Richard Attenborough 80th birthday tribute the bfi welcomed Lord Attenborough back onto the NFT stage, where he was interviewed by David Robinson.

Introduction by Anthony Minghella
Oh! What a Lovely War
In Which We Serve
Playing Christie
Setting up Beaver Films for The Angry Silence
Trade unions and financing films
Making films
The Great clown: Chaplin
The Depths of Emotion: Shadowlands
Beautiful Things, Little-seen: In Love and War and Grey Owl
A Birthday Surprise from the bfi
The Film of a Lifetime: Gandhi
Interview © BFI 2003

Introduction by Anthony Minghella
Anthony Minghella: Lord Attenborough is a great man, somebody who has worked tirelessly on film sets for more than half a century, but also, with equal passion away from the camera to champion cinema and quietly to support the institutions and individuals who've enjoyed less success, who command less influence. A genuine philanthropist, a tremendously important Chairman of the bfi for more than a decade, during which time he secured a Royal Charter for the Institute, a President of BAFTA, a current Chairman of RADA, Dickie has laboured long and hard in the fields of the good. It's a testament to his fabled generosity and kindness that he's inspired affectionate imitation of his conversational style, peppered, as it is, with unforgettable largesse. He is that most unusual of Englishmen, one unafraid to reveal his emotions, his concerns and his loves, so that each of his films, sometimes unfashionably, always without nodding to the cool or the cynical, bears witness to his sensibility, which is compassionate, life-affirming and always sincere.

An Attenborough film will always assert content over style, often finding inspiration in the life of a great historical figure, approaching his subjects with a passionate interest rather than with an analytical judgement. Dickie makes films for people and not for critics, and people have loved his films, from Gandhi [1982] to Cry Freedom [1987], from Chaplin [1992] to Shadowlands [1993].

He's also a greatly undervalued actor, and ironically one whose darker notes stay indelibly in the mind - certainly in my mind. He refers to these roles as playing 'little spivs' or 'quivering psychopaths' but for my part I remember being haunted by his performances in Seance on a Wet Afternoon [Bryan Forbes, 1964], 10 Rillington Place [Richard Fleischer, 1970] or Brighton Rock [John Boulting, 1947], and perhaps all his poisons were leaked into these riveting screen characters and we've been lucky enough to be left with this tremendous and unique personality of British cinema, this 'idiotic optimist' as he calls himself, whose heart is worn so proudly on his sleeve. So, welcome to this screening of Dickie's first film, from 1969, Oh! What a Lovely War. It's part of a season of eighteen of his films that will be showing at the NFT throughout September and October, many of which will be introduced by Lord Attenborough himself. I want to thank Variety, and also Dominic Smith from Mayfair Cellars, who have kindly sponsored all these events. At the end of the film, I'd love to ask if you could just stay in your seats for a few minutes, after which there'll be a short interval - I feel like a priest now, doing the parish notices - there'll be a short interval in which we'll be serving champagne, courtesy of Dominic, and before we return for an audience with the great man, led by David Robinson, who's wearing a tie - Dickie's not wearing a tie, I've noticed.

My final duty is to ask you to turn off your cell phones and any other electrical appliances other than hearing aids, so please turn everything off, and sit back to watch basically the entire British Equity showing up. How you did that? Every director just looks at that cast list and thinks, My God, that was an achievement, and what a wonderful man, and I'm so proud to have introduced this today. Thanks.

Oh! What a Lovely War
[Screening of Oh! What a Lovely War]

Richard Attenborough: It's too slow, I'm afraid! And undoubtedly it's too long, but it was 35 years ago, and pace and tempo and style of movies has changed a great deal. But at that time, everybody who was involved in the making of it and the creation of it felt very deeply indeed about its content. Many of us had seen the show in the East End, and at Wyndhams, Joan Littlewood's work, and Charlie Chilton, and I might say Alf Ralston, who conducted the show and who conducted the music and wrote a lot of the music for this film version, cared deeply about what he was trying to say. He was a Cockney from the East End, and he was a brilliant, brilliant musician, and he created, I believe, an atmosphere and a feeling about this subject which I'm not sure any other composer could have done in quite the same way. It meant so much to Alf. It meant a great deal to me when Johnny Mills and Len Deighton sent me the screenplay. One of my great sadnesses is that Len did not remain as part of the production for a reason I do not know other than that he had a major disagreement with his partner. And so his name is not on the screen, at his wish. It should be, because he did an incredibly ingenious scheme and way of moving what was a theatre show on to the screen, and then using the pier et cetera and the reality and the juxtaposition of the two. Gerry Turpin was the photographer. He's no longer with us. Ronnie Taylor was the operator, and he lives abroad. The picture was created in its style and its colour and its form by I think one of the greatest production designers this country has ever known, and his name is Don Ashton, and Don is here this afternoon. As indeed is Simon Kaye, who probably is the finest sound recordist in the world, and has recorded every movie I have done, bar one. He is here. I couldn't have got through the movie, unquestionably, had it not been for Annie Skinner, who was continuity girl, who is now a distinguished producer in her own right. And she taught me and helped me and held my hand and got me through what was a ridiculous risk on the part of a lot of people. I actually was got through the movie by somebody we all know in the company as Monky, that's Maureen Goldner, who is now Maureen MacDonald, and she and her husband are here today. An awful lot of people who are not here... You saw some great acting, I believe, and although we mentioned [Laurence] Olivier and [Ralph] Richardson and [John] Gielgud and [Dirk] Bogarde and Kenny More and Jack Hawkins, it was the Smith family that really I believe brought the reality and the truth to what we all wanted to say and how we all felt. And Mary Wimbush, who played Mother, is here. I hope that Corin Redgrave is here. If he's not, he was delayed coming up to London. Wendy Allnutt is here. Angela Thorne is here. Paul Shelley, who played the boy right to the end, is here. Angus Lennie is here, and a number of the boys are not here. A number of the girls too. Some are not here at all. But those that are gave, I think, in their performances a truth and a calibre of integrity which could scarcely be bettered. So we thank you for coming this afternoon - [by] we, I mean all of we - because I would like you to applaud those people who I've mentioned who aren't here and Mary and the players that are here, and I'd like you to take a bow, please, if you will.


Bravo, darling. Bravo, all of you. Bravo. Thank you all so much. And thank you for coming today. Angie, bless you, marvellous to see you here, and to have made such friends with a number of people who were involved in that production. I don't quite know what else to say except that I wish to thank Anthony Minghella, very sweet, for his monstrously overgenerous introduction. I would like to thank you for all coming because so many here are friends of mine and people who've been involved in this particular production. I hope those of you who wish will now go to the loo and have a drink and then come back in because David Robinson has devised a monstrous hour or so with excerpts from about another half dozen of movies some of which you may have seen, some of which I don't think you will have seen. But most important of all is to say that I hope and believe that the idea of transferring that show to the screen, which was the idea, basically, as far as I was concerned, of my longest friends in the business, who is indeed in his ninety-fifth year. And it was he who asked me and I thought he was asking me to play in it, but he was asking me to direct it. I told him he was a raving idiot and I'd never done it and he said, Well, Len and I decided that we should either get somebody who knew absolutely nothing and might try one or two new ideas, or someone who knew absolutely everything, and we don't know why but we settled for the former so it was you. So in ending the welcome to you, I would like you to welcome my oldest friend in the business and somebody to whom I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude, as do everybody in the British film industry, because he granted us stature, he granted us style, he granted us integrity, and he made us believe that the movies actually do have something to contribute in terms of our understanding and our concerns, and that, somehow or other, if we get the opportunity to make movies that have some content, then perhaps the cinema, as far as we are concerned, is an art form - maybe not a fine art - but it is an art form if it touches people's heads and hearts. So thank you all who did participate. I've always believed that the movie is an ensemble operation, and you have made it, all of you who were here today and all those who were not able to come, I thank you very much, and may I ask you please to now welcome this great guy, Johnny Mills.


RA (to John Mills): Everybody's standing up to welcome you. Sit on the edge here. There. Bless you... Johnny, you may not see to the end there, but I can assure you that everybody in this theatre stood up when you came in. And they would wish, I'm sure, to thank you for a marvellous performance and for your courage in setting about this subject, which we all felt so deeply about. Johnny, we shall look forward to your hundredth, which isn't far to go now, and then we'll really celebrate, Johnny, and you and I can dance. Yeah.

John Mills: Now thank you very much for that absolutely wonderful reception. I feel quite moved and it was just marvellous for me because Dickie made a dream come true. I thought Gandhi was a great picture but my favourite film of all time is Oh! What a Lovely War. I just thought it was a piece of magic, and I never really thought I'd see it realised in that way. He did a brilliant job. I'll never forget it. Thank you very much, Dick.

RA: Johnny, thank you so much for coming this afternoon. You're the highlight of our day.

JM: Thank you so much.


In Which We Serve
[extract from Journey Together [John Boulting, 1945]

David Robinson: It's a long time ago. Richard, just pretend for a moment that you don't know the boy. Pretend you don't know him. What do you think of him?

RA: Oh, brilliant.

DR: He's not pretending, you know!

RA: You can imagine playing with this god, you know. I mean, Edward G. Robinson... suddenly, you're 19, and suddenly you're asked to play in a movie with such a man. And I've been so lucky. I made two other movies: one bloody awful with [John] Duke Wayne, called, um... oh, Poppy what's it called? I can't remember - anyway... It was a dreadful movie and he was a wonderful man, Duke Wayne, I mean he really was a terrific man, way to the right of Genghis Khan, but I mean professionally wonderful, and Jimmy Stewart, wonderful. So they were great figures. We tend to knock Hollywood and those real real masters that really knew it backwards. And, as I say, he was a fantastic teacher just for that short space of time he was there.

DR: You're evading my question, aren't you?

RA: Yes. Yes. Well it's a bit OTT. I think, you know. Lip trembly, but that's been part of my scene for some time, I'm afraid.

In Which We Serve was fine, I mean, to work with the great man [Noël Coward], and to work, of course, on David Lean's first film. David was an editor, and it was because Noël thought so, so much of him... they told him a man called - a wonderful man called Doug Ricci told Noël that if he was going to write and direct and play the lead and compose the music and so on, that he ought to have a great editor, and there was a boy called David Lean, and David came on on the movie and within a couple of weeks, Noël was so certain that David was superb that he went to Del DeRicci and said, I must give up my sole directorial credit. It must be directed by David Lean and me. A measure of Noël.

DR: But the performances were directed by Coward?

RA: By Noël. The performances were directed by Noël. And obviously, the shooting was David. Have I got time to tell you a story about Noël? If you've ever seen the film In Which We Serve, but it was about a destroyer in the Mediterranean. My family all know this story. Forgive me. And we had to go on a Carley float, and they built a huge tank in the studios at Denham, and up to about 4 foot 5, 5 foot, and we would all go after about six weeks shooting into the water, which was filthy, covered in oil and sawdust all round and the stench was simply dreadful. And we all used to be bang on the double because you were never thirty seconds late for a Noël Coward appointment, ever, and we'd all go in, Johnny [Mills] and Bernard Miles and Michael Wilding and a gang of people, Philip Friend, I remember, and in the water we would be, and the master would arrive and stand on the edge of the tank and dive into the tank. The most terrible belly flop. And on this last occasion I remember very clearly, and Johnny will remember this, that Noël emerged out of the water with oil coming all over his face and said, Darlings, there's dysentery in every ripple. Sorry darlings!

DR: You know, this isn't so very long ago because in this audience there are two of your leading ladies from this 40s period, and one of your directors. The leading lady - one leading lady we've mentioned already, of course, it's 61 years this week since you acted in a play called London W1, and you played a character called Andrew, and Penny was played by Sheila Sim.

RA: I've got nothing to say about that!

DR: So that's one of your leading ladies from that period. The other one... When you came to do the film of Brighton Rock, in the play, of course, your leading lady would have been Dulcie Gray; in the film, it was Carol Marsh, and Carol Marsh is with us tonight.


RA: Carol's performance, I mean as Rose in Brighton Rock, was - Dulcie's got marvellous reviews in the theatre, very properly - Carol's performance in Brighton Rock was magic. It was just absolutely terrific. I mean really exquisite, and for somebody like me, who had very, very little experience till that time, she gave the most beautifully judged, sensitive, restrained performance. If you see - thank you - if you see the picture, because I think Brighton Rock is playing in the [season]...

DR: It is

RA: ... you'll see how marvellous she was. The difficulty with the other leading lady is that... we did a movie together called The Guinea Pig [Roy Boulting, 1948], which is also, God help us, in the season, and, Sheila - [it] was one of the very few movies we've done together, and Sheila played my housemistress... Quite right, yes, I mean... It was OK on the set, but can you imagine the Ma'am thing I got in the evening when I got back, and 'Go upstairs' and, 'Yes, darling.' Yes. Sorry, darling!

DR: And that led to one of those ephemeral showbusiness marriages, did it?

RA: Afraid so, yes.

DR: And the director who's here, on 9 April 1943, which was a Sunday, you did a one night stand in a one act play called Women Are Waiting, and it was directed by a young man who'd just arrived from Czechoslovakia, Herbert Lom. And he's here tonight.

RA: Ah, bless him.

Playing Christie
DR: So, as you see, it's not so long ago. Now, unfortunately, we really can't cover the range of your acting so I thought we'd next show one of the nastiest performances you ever gave... Well you heard what Anthony [Minghella] said about it, that you were just working out the bad bit...

RA: It's not true.

DR: But it's fascinating, here you, who can play Santa Claus without any make-up, and you chose to play John Reginald Christie. There must have been a reason to do that.

RA: Well, yes. I am passionately opposed to capital punishment, and I have been all my life. I think it is obscene that we should believe that we are entitled to end somebody's life, no matter what that person has supposedly done or not done. And an MP on the south coast whose name I have banished was about to enter a Private Member's Bill into the House to reinstate capital punishment. And a number of people, including Ludovic Kennedy and Leslie Linder, decided with the backing of, oh, who was that marvellous editor of The Sunday Times? Oh, somebody help me... Harry Evans, bless you. Harry Evans. And Harry and Ludo got the idea that we should attempt to make a movie of Ludovic Kennedy's book about Christie, because, as you know, it was the most ghastly miscarriage of justice, and a marvellous performance in the movie by Johnny Hurt. And that character, the Welsh boy, was hanged.

DR: Timothy Evans.

RA: Timothy Evans, yes, for the murder of his wife, who in fact Christie had murdered. And they got hold of Dick Fleischer, the American director, and we all did it for what amounted to scale, because nobody wanted to finance it. And so we made this film, made it actually in the house where Christie lived. Actually shot within the house and in the garden where he buried all those female bodies. It was very uncomfortable. My - are we showing 10 Rillington Place?

DR: Yes.

RS: Well, there's a, I have a bald pate, and the make-up took something like three and a half hours each day. It was deeply unpleasant because, of course, I had to try in some way, I mean actors either work out of knowledge or out of intuition or out of skill or research or whatever - how do you research to play the man John Reginald Christie?

I met a number of people. I met psychiatrists. I met the people who arrested him. I met the police who dealt with him, and so on. And it seemed to me even at that point to create a man who had solely evil in his being without any possibility of understanding what drove this poor demented character, was short-changing the characterisation. And so I worked very hard, and it meant bearing in mind Leslie's instruction that I had to be believed, I had to believe what this man was capable of doing, and so I didn't see anybody or talk to anybody while I was made-up and I didn't talk to anybody at lunchtime, and the worst time was really going home to Poppy and to the children, because I almost felt unclean. But I'm awfully pleased I did it, however hard - I can't bear to watch it; it's quite horrid, I think. But it did have an impact. It did add to the anti-capital punishment lobby and to that extent I feel proud to have done it with Leslie and Ludo and people who really set about doing it.

DR: To me [it shows] huge courage, not just to do it, but to do something really so nasty. And it's strange, it's a courageous performance, and let's just look at it. A bit of it.

RA: It's not very pleasant. It really isn't very pleasant.

DR: Not agreeable, but...

[extract from 10 Rillington Place]

DR: Does anybody want to say anything or ask anything about this, the earlier period, the acting period of Richard's career? No? All right...

RA: They want to go home!

Setting up Beaver Films for The Angry Silence
DR: Right. It's very sad that we're showing so little of the acting, but you will come back for the films and see the full range of the acting career, I hope. The next extract we're going to show is another wonderful performance but it also represents a career move, because this is the moment when you go into what you call the actor-manager.

RA: The Angry Silence [Guy Green, 1959], yes?

DR: The Angry Silence, yes. How did this happen, this move?

RA: Forbesy [Bryan Forbes], Forbesy's not here tonight because we've got a do at the university, Sussex University, tomorrow night and he's sort of emceeing that, so he's down there; otherwise he would be here, and I would wish him to be here. Because he was a partner of mine for a large number of years, and a marvellous partner and a greatly, ridiculously ignored talent. He writes, I think, probably the bestdialogue in English movies that you could ask for, and he's a terrific director. He hasn't worked for 16, 17 years and it's a great, great pity. He felt in the... how long ago was The Angry Silence? 60s, 50s?

DR: '59.

RA: '69?

DR: '59.

RA: '59! And Forbesy and I were, as you've mentioned David, playing silly parts, and we were typecast, and we didn't feel the sort of movies that we were being asked to play in were things we wanted to play in greatly. And we decided to form our own company. And I was playing in, you know, a fairly ordinary picture called Sea of Sand [Guy Green, 1958], directed by Guy Green, which, and I met on that picture an English actor called Michael Craig. And I told Mike that we wanted to go into production and he said, Oh, I've got a great story, I've written it with my brother, Richard Gregson, it's called God Is a Bad Policeman. And I said I wouldn't think that that was the greatest of help in advocating money to make the movie, quite honestly, Michael, and one would hardly call it a commercial title. Anyway, we decided to meet together and we formed a company called Beaver Films, Forbesy and I. And it was story about a boy who opposed a strike. And at that time, being sent to Coventry was a practice which was prevalent in the UK, which I personally felt was undemocratic and inappropriate and improper and usually was brought into play by a group of bullyboys, as, indeed, was the case that we based the movie on. And Forbesy wrote the script, and Guy Green directed it, because he had done Sea of Sand, and Forbesy produced it. We produced it together. And we took it to the Boulting brothers and to Frank Launder and to Sidney Gilliat, and the budget was 137, 138 thousand pounds. And British Lion, which is the company that they ran, said, Look, it's too expensive. It's a risky subject, it's a political subject, it hasn't any of the ingredients of - Oh, God help me, the number of times I've heard that over the years - but it hasn't any of the ingredients that'll bring about a box office success. If you can do it for 100,000 British Lion will put up the money, but no more. And so Forbesy and I started to think about how we could reduce the budget. And we reduced this crowd and we reduced the tempo of shooting and we saved money, we got somewhere. And finally I said to Forbesy, Forbesy, we're being idiots. If we reduce the product, if we reduce the subject matter down to the point that we're now discussing, we are eroding the chance of success of the movie, and if we care about what we're doing, it's very important, we don't do that. There's only one way to do it, and that's to get everybody to do it for nothing. And Forbesy said, Oh, typical, you raving idiot, who are we going to get to do it for nothing? And I said, Well, let's start. We'll start with Guy [Green], and you'll have written it for nothing, and I and you will have produced it for nothing, and we'll get the actors. And we got Bernie Lee, and we got Pier Angeli, and we got Kenny More to play the lead, because I'd given up acting. I was not going to act any more. I was going to produce. Not direct, but I was going to only play in things that were very different to what I'd done already over the years. And Kenny, bless his heart, who agreed to do it, suddenly got a company in America who'd play him money. Cash! And cash to an actor is fairly important. And so Kenny had to withdraw. And there we were with about ten days to go and no leading man. So guess who, you know, played the part? And we went with this example of doing scale work, Equity scale minimum and so on in the salaries, we went to the accountants and the lawyers and the costumiers and to the laboratories and so on, and we got the budget down to 100,000. And so we made it. And it was the first time that I think actors in the UK actually set up a production company of which they were in control. We were not there financed by Rank or by British Lion or whatever, who would come in and say, No you can't do this and you must do that and so on. We had autonomous authority. And it was very important to establish that if you want to make movies that don't fall necessarily into the routine box office bracket. And so we made it just outside Ipswich and at Shepperton and, touch wood, it got marvellous reviews and did very good business and Forbesy and I gave everybody involved a proportion in the movie. So even now people get a little profit percentage every now and again from this movie, people who were involved in it. And it set a new course, which was very important.

DR: So let's have a look at a bit of it.

RA: Bernie Lee, a wonderful, wonderful actor. I don't know if you'd remember him, but he plays the part with Pier Angeli...

[extract from The Angry Silence]

RA: Forbesy got an Oscar nomination and, I think, a BAFTA nomination as well. He didn't win but he should have done. It was a marvellous screenplay. There's nothing more important in making movies than the screenplay. It is the absolute prerequisite and it's such a joy for actors, I mean, we all say, Oh, marvellous actor, marvellous performance. Boy, if you've got lines which just drop off your lips, you know, that come into your reckoning in terms of the performance as it is in those circumstances, that's the writing, and Forbesy is a great, great [screenwriter]. Johnny will agree. Johnny played in a number of movies which we did with Forbesy, and he is a terrific writer.

Audience member: Could you comment, sir, on your relationship with Pier Angeli during the film, because she played a very great role there, I thought.

RA: Well, thank you. That's a very good question. A question about Pier Angeli. Pier Angeli was in the movie called Sea of Sand that Guy Green directed where this idea came up. And of course, in setting down the criteria for the debate, as it were, that took place in those circumstances, you had to inform the audience, because we, Forbesy and I, have said, we don't make movies for two men and a dog in a barn. We want to make movies, not for commercial success but because there are things in most of them which we want to say. So we had to find a new audience, and an audience that was not necessarily au fait or interested in trade union relationships, bullying, Nazism in a way, in terms of force. And therefore we had to explain how that arose and what all the circumstances were and who the various components were in telling the story. And Forbesy had this marvellous idea: say, well, let's cast Pier, who we'd all been working with, because she's a foreigner, and so he, Tommy, will have to explain to her this, that and the other thing. And she had to ask the questions and so on. So he made a dramatic use of Pier's performance and so on by virtue of the fact that we assumed she didn't speak English. She was an enchanting actress, many performances I'm sure you've seen. She had an awful, miserable end to her life, and she committed suicide, and she was absolutely enchanting, tremendous worker, desperate to make something of some value, and I adored her. I thought she was marvellous, as did Forbesy and Guy and everybody else.

DR: Somebody else with a question?

Trade unions and financing films
Audience member: It seems that the subject matter, of the trade unions, is very much for a domestic market, for a British market. I mean, could you see any kind of film like that being made in the future for the international market? Is it such that now it's so difficult to make that kind of film?

RA: It is very difficult indeed. The question is could such a film be made now and would it find an international market and so on? I mean I selfishly have to say that because it got such marvellous reviews in the United States, it was from that that I got the part that I played in The Great Escape [John Sturges, 1963]. The director and the company, United Artists, saw that movie. I'm a passionate trade unionist. I was on my own union council for twenty-odd years. I believe in trade unionism, and I believe in democracy, in democratic trade unionism. And during certain times and maybe, to a certain extent, now, there are, every now and again, those, I believe, on right or left, who take advantage of particular circumstances in attempting to reach their own very confined views and not the general view, and I find that individual rights and conscience should be preserved and permitted, and provided they do not destroy the case that has been made by the unions as such, and merely stand aside, then I think that's fine. Or they leave the union. That's up to them. Making films that has any sort - I want to make a film about Tom Paine. I think Tom Paine is one of the greatest men that's ever lived. He lived in the 18th century, as you all know, he was an Englishman who was involved in the writing of American Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution, the French Constitution, wrote the great book called The Rights of Man - commercial over! But nobody wants to make it. Nobody. Because it's politics, it's period, it doesn't have any of the things that now are supposedly our prerequisites to commercial success. I'm going to make it, provided I'll stand on my feet, but it's not easy, any more than Gandhi was, any more than Cry Freedom was, et cetera. Those movies are very difficult to make, and if you're not prepared or interested in science fiction, which in terms of movies I'm not, if you're not interested in terms of all the CGI stuff that you can now do in the cinema which is quite remarkable compared to the time that I was making movies, 30, 40, 50 years ago, then if you're not prepared to indulge in the pornography of violence or overt sexual [matter], it's very, very difficult. It is hard to raise the money. And so in answer to your question, I don't think it's any easier. It wasn't easy then and I don't think it's become any easier. What I am sad about is that there is now, in America, no equivalent to the art circuit. In other words, if you - the cost of promoting movies, the advertising and promotion of a movie, the budget is almost as large as the cost of the movie. And these huge blockbusters that you see have tens and hundreds of millions of pounds and dollars spent promoting them. And if you don't have something which they believe will reach an enormous audience, then they won't go for it. And so you fall out. And there are companies in the UK, terrific companies, young companies, who made, you know, whether it be Four Weddings [Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mike Newell, 1993] or whatever, or Trainspotting [Danny Boyle, 1995] or whatever, who are having a go, but it is not any easier, in fact I think it's even probably more difficult than it was when Forbesy and I were starting, which is a pity.

Making films
DR: It's difficult, but I mean the really extraordinary thing about your career as a director is that you are the only person who has consistently made films because you want to say something with those films. That it's not just making a picture to sell, but - you want it to sell, you want it to be seen by a big audience - but you do make the films to say something.

RA: Well, yes. This could be very boring, David. Could you cut me short if I go on?

DR: Bore us, bore us, please!

RA: Yes, OK. Well, I come from a (in small 'L') from a very liberal family. I came from a family who believed in, in quotes, the Rights of Man, who believed that in order to justify the sort of luxurious life that the majority of us have, related to the whole world, that you had to do something. You had to put something back. You had to recognise what values really mattered to you and, uh, God, darling, who made the quote that I can never remember? 'All that is necessary' - somebody will tell me - 'All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.' Come on, help me, somebody. It was marvellous. Time of Pain. Middle of the 18th Century... Thank you, darling. Edmund Burke. Well, it was attributed to Edmund Burke; nobody's quite sure that he did say it. But it's a marvellous statement. And I'm not saying that I'm a good man, but I am suggesting that if you have things that you care about and feel are important, I am - Dave'll be angry with me for saying this sort of thing, but - I did not go to university. I left school at sixteen. I was pretty bloody awful. I do not have a brain that I long for in dealing with matters of which I am ignorant, that don't come within my ken and a rationale, a reason, and argument and so on, and I can't do that and I'm not in that bracket at all. I can't write, I can't paint, I don't compose. What I know about is actors. I understand and know about actors. And as you sweetly say, David, somebody who I think was having a go at me said that the problem with Attenborough is that substance matters much more to him than style. It was the most charming compliment that I could ever have been given. Because that is precisely true. I do care about style. I do care, but I only care about style that serves the subject. And there are certain things, and they are evident, obviously, without being boring about it, but I mean obviously, the two evident and easy ones being Gandhi and Cry Freedom, there are things which I do care about very much and which I would like to stand up and be counted. And my making movies with actors who I think are tremendous because I believe that we, all of us, identify with subject not intellectually easily, but we identify with human beings who we believe are real human beings, four-dimensional human beings, that I understand. If I have a skill, it is casting - David, you've very sweetly said it quite recently in your book, I think. I understand how to cast and I understand how to get performances out of actors. And to guide actors and to make circumstances whereby actors work. And therefore it's very important to me that I use what skill, trade, whatever you want to say it, that I have. And that is how I employ my time in cinema, saying things about people who I think have touched us in terms of our value judgement and by example. And therefore there are certain occasions and certain opportunities in cinema which allow me to say the things [I would say] if intellectually I was capable of saying [them] in erudition and so on. No, it's true David, I know you smile, but it is true. I feel it very deeply. And I feel that if I don't do that, you know, of course, you know, the entertainment value of cinema is a prerequisite, obviously. It is a world semi-art form of reaching people, a means of reaching people, and if I don't, if I'm, you know, the comedies and the science fiction and all the other things [are] absolutely fine, great, you know, I don't object to it at all - well, Dumb & Dumber [Peter Farrelly, 1994] I object to - but broadly I don't. And if I ignore that opportunity which, touch wood, has so far been available to me to a certain extent, then I think I'm a bit of a ninny. And I want to make those movies and that's why I want to make them because that's what my parents, as Dave and my brother Johnny here would agree. I mean, they set certain examples, Johnny, to us, didn't they, and we tend to abide by them, I think.

DR: Well, we'll have a bit from Cry Freedom which illustrates this beautifully and it's a very quiet bit. It's not one of the dramatic bits but it does show you using two actors here. You have Kevin Kline and you have John Thaw. Small scene from Cry Freedom.

RA: Marvellous actor, John Thaw. I mean, just wonderful actor. And in this scene which David showed me yesterday ...

[extract from Cry Freedom]

The Great clown: Chaplin
DR: Very often your films have been lives of people who have influenced you in one way or another, like Chaplin.

RA: Yes. Yes, people have influenced me a great deal. When I was ten or eleven, I think, we lived in Leicester where my father was Pricipal of Leicester University College. And he brought me up to London, as he had meetings, and he took me to the National Gallery to see a painting by Seurat which the National Gallery had just acquired. And he said then, I know somebody who you'll like very much and I think he's as major a figure as Seurat was, and his name was, of course, Charlie Chaplin. Let's walk along to the London Pavilion, which is what we did and saw The Gold Rush [Charles Chaplin, 1925]. And I was totally shattered by this man who seemed to me to have not only genius but to have a unique genius - perhaps genius is unique, because it applies to a particular person - but he was able to grasp my attention, either emotionally or cerebrally, however he chose. He was able to make you laugh and cry, et cetera. I thought he was just incredible. And so right from that age, I was fascinated by him. Well, you cannot think of cinema now, and you cannot think of cinema in the UK and not place Chaplin in the most extraordinary elevated context, if there can be such a thing, in that he was a genius, he was unique. He was the most famous man in the world in the 20s and 30s, and he used this mass media of cinema eventually, having used it in the most brilliantly subtle way, as well as his comedic stuff, or his comedy turns, I mean the dance of the rolls, the fish, the boot, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, or the end of City Lights [Charles Chaplin, 1931] when he - just absolutely remarkable and wonderful. But in addition, he suddenly had the idea of making Modern Times [Charles Chaplin, 1936] to question whether the world was going in the right direction in forcing human beings into this autonomous, awful ghastly behaviour that was part of factory life. And then, of course, and he wasn't a Jew, incidentally, to attack, when those who want to deride him suggest he was Jewish, he wasn't in fact Jewish, but he decided to go for Hitler, and made The Great Dictator [Charles Chaplin, 1940]. And to me, a man who had that world at his feet, everything he could wish for with all his proclivities, all his problems, all his difficulties, his innovative ideas and commitment to cinema and to something which he really felt was important, I thought was absolutely wonderful. And into that, of course, you take The Great Dictator and then you see him do the balloon thing with the world, and so this great clown, he's not a comedian, he's clown, demonstrated that through laughter, through integrity, and so on, he could make a statement that was as powerful anti-Nazism and anti-totalitarianism as you could wish for. And I thought - he was a god to me. I mean he was an absolute [god.] When you allowed me, David, with all your work on Chaplin, and I will talk about this despite your look... David has written the definitive biography of Chaplin and indeed was our adviser on the whole of the Chaplin film, which was based fundamentally on David's book and David's research. And I have the same respect for Chaplin whom I had the great joy of meeting towards the end of his life, and indeed Oona, who died, bless her, just before we started to shoot. The picture was not as good as it should have been. And, I think, partly it was not as good because I didn't have the degree of autonomy - that sounds arrogant - the degree of autonomy that I would have wished, because the budget was very high and the result was that the company that was financing it made certain requirements as far as the script was concerned, and instead of having a single writer, which is infinitely the best thing to have, whether it be Forbesy or whether it be Bill Goldman or the writer of Shadowlands, William Nicholson. And that's when it works, when you have a writer, not a covey of writers. And we had too many writers on Chaplin. And I so admired the man and I was so fascinated by his origins, his upbringing, his relationship with his mother, then the beginning of cinema, then the advance in cinema, and his sexual perversions, if you want to call them perversions - I don't, in fact; 'proclivities' let's call them - and his political commitments and so on, and I felt they were all related, they all were interrelated and so I tried stupidly to put too much into the movie, and the result was that if it hadn't been for a bewildering performance by Robert Downey, I mean a just staggering performance by Robert Downey, I think the picture would have been a real failure. But his performance was such that, and indeed so was Geraldine's as so were a number of others, and so it was OK, but it was not as good as I ought to have made it and I'm sad about that because I admired him so much and I felt that it's unlikely that anybody else is going to make a picture of Chaplin for another five or ten or twenty years or whatever, and so that one stands, and it was not as good as it should have been.

DR: But I think it's also a great period recreation, thanks so much to Stuart [Craig].

RA: Is Stu here? Yes, I think he is. Yes, that's you. Stuart Craig, who is as good a production designer as [any] in the world and won the Oscar - won a number of Oscars, but one of them being for Gandhi. And Stuart recreated the period of Chaplin and recreated the studios in Los Angeles and so on. And Stu, I owe you a phenomenal debt in not only that movie but in half a dozen others, since we've done so many together, and I'm thrilled you're here, because I'm going to persuade him to come and talk about Chaplin and talk about In Love and War [1996], if you will, Stu, when we show it in the season. Will you? Thank you!

DR: It's also a very nice little chance, isn't it, that Don Ashton was the production designer on your first film and on Chaplin's last film, The Countess from Hong Kong [Charles Chaplin, 1966].

RA: Yes. Stu?

Stuart Craig: I was just going to say, in addition to David's very authoritative book, there's a splendid picture book, actually, by Mark Wanamaker, do you remember? I think it's called One Hundred Years of Hollywood, and it was the most [useful book]... The one thing we didn't have to do was work terribly hard at the research, because of David's book and Mark Wanamaker's. The world was there for us to pick and choose.

DR: But I'll never forget, you had to recreate the Keystone studios from nothing because nobody knew that, and I found this old, old gentleman who, before Chaplin had gone to Keystone, had been a star at Keystone as Little Billy Jacobs. And I took him to your recreation of the Keystone studios, and he came and looked round, and he says, But it's just as I remember it. It's given to very few people to have their memories realised. So I think that was one nice compliment you had. We have to move on. We're falling behind, I'm afraid. Shadowlands.

The Depths of Emotion: Shadowlands
RA: David has asked me, a number of people have asked me and said, What performance do you like best or what's the best film you've made and so on and I don't really have any hesitation that the film I'm least embarrassed by and ashamed of or uneasy about is Shadowlands. And I think it's because of Bill's script. Bill Nicholson wrote it, as you know, for television, for theatre, and so on. It's very rare to get a writer who's prepared to ditch those particular circumstances and those techniques of that form of narration into a new one which is cinema. And again it bears out my conviction [that] it was one writer, with absolutely immovable vision as to what he wanted, and with somebody who's not here again today, Diana Hawkins, who has worked with me on six or eight films. Bill thought she was the most marvellous script editor and she's out of the country but she's going to come back for some of the films later in the season. The screenplay was superb. Absolutely superb. And it was because of Bill's understanding, because he was prepared to understand that dialogue as such is not necessarily the prerequisite for a wonderful scene, that if the actors understand what the writer and the director are after, you very often need a minimal [amount of dialogue] - you're going to show the scene with Deborah? Yes. There's a scene you're going to see now. You will not see better acting in a movie than Deborah Winger and Tony [Anthony Hopkins] in this movie. And 90 per cent of it is silent. And that is partly due to Bill's understanding of characterisation and relationship and so on, in this extraordinary couple.

[extract from Shadowlands]

RA: He [Anthony Hopkins] is extraordinary. He's marvellous. And he's very English, you know. It's tragic, in a way, that he's decided not to come back to the UK. Tony and I made five pictures together, I think, and he has decided to stay in Los Angeles, and he's very unAmerican, in a way. That [scene] and the scene with the little boy right at the end was the first time I've ever seen him actually demonstrate a depth of emotion, born of absolute reality and conviction. And yes, of course, the other pictures that he gets Oscars for and so on, they're a pushover really, relatively, you know. That [in Shadowlands] is wonderful acting. That is understanding of screen acting. He was marvellous in it.

Beautiful Things, Little-seen: In Love and War and Grey Owl
DR: Now, in the '90s, as well as Shadowlands, you made two films which simply did not do very well. I mean, in each case, something outside your control had gone wrong with them, and this is very disappointing because both films, I think, have enormous pleasures to offer and both of them are in the season, and I hope that if you haven't seen them, and there hasn't been all that much chance to see them, I hope that you will see them. These films were In Love and War and Grey Owl [1999]. Both of which have beautiful things in them. The performances in both of them, the main performances, are wonderful.

RA: Well, I think In Love and War, which had a wonderful performance by Sandy, Sandra Bullock, who the authorities and, the supposed authorities, in cinema didn't want to know about. They wanted her to play the sort of kooky girl next door which was her box office label, as it were, and perhaps they were right and I was wrong. I thought she gave the most wonderful performance in In Love and War. It was a picture that didn't come off, in large measure, again, because of that terrible thing, there were six, seven writers. It was not my own picture and it didn't work. It didn't work. And it's a pity because there was some terrific stuff in it. Grey Owl I... silly, I'm not going to rehearse the sort of silly excuses that I do have. I made one or two very bad decisions and we had some very bad luck under the particular circumstances which affected the whole of the shape of the movie. We had to take a sequence out which we should have had and hadn't got. But again, I thought it was a subject well worth talking about and demonstrating, and Dave [Attenborough] and I, I remember, queued up for hours in Leicester to go and see him [Grey Owl] speak. I mean, a mean master, my brother. He and I lined up and got a book signed and he said it was his and I say it was mine, and simply because it had something to do with nature and all that stuff... Have you got it, Dave, or have I?

David Attenborough: I've got it.

RA: Oh, you've got it.

DR: Richard, I've got a signed Grey Owl book which I'm going to give to you.

RA: Ah! Well, it wasn't a bad movie. It wasn't as bad as [was said.] I mean, critics are bloody fools in the main. They criticize films that they think you ought to have made, not the film that you wanted to make and did make. And in this particular one they had a great time talking because Pierce Brosnan played Grey Owl marvellously, and the silly buggers [wrote] headlines such as 'Double-Oh Seven in Pigtails - Do We Want to See?' et cetera et cetera et cetera and it was a picture that was worth much more than that, I think. It wasn't as good as it should have been but there was one wonderful scene with Renèe...

DR: Which we're going to show you. I don't know, does everybody know the story of Grey Owl, I wonder?

RA: Go.

DR: Well, I remember from being a child, this American Indian, a Native American appeared suddenly and he was a pioneer ecologist. He wrote books, he became a world celebrity, he came to England, he lectured. He was also popular on the BBC's Children's Hour, which is how I knew about him at the time. But eventually it turned out that he wasn't a Native American at all, but a lad from Hastings who was just bewitched by all this exotica. And when you see the film - I shouldn't really have revealed the secret in case you do - you watch this character developing without knowing the secret. Then suddenly, during his world tour, he comes to Hastings. And we see him arrive at a house where there are two old ladies, beautifully played by Renèe Asherson and Stephanie Cole. That's the scene you will see now.

[extract from Grey Owl]

A Birthday Surprise from the bfi
DR: And if you haven't seen that, do come and see it. I promise you you'll thank us.

And also don't neglect to see the exhibition of still photographs in the back of the theatre, which is for the season. At this stage, Richard, I'm going to interrupt proceedings because Amanda Nevill, the director of the BFI, wants to come up and say something, do something...

Amanda Nevill: Lord Attenborough, very quickly. The reason that we have this privilege of this very extraordinary and wonderful event, we mustn't forget, is because, I think, you're celebrating something very special yourself: a birthday. And the BFI felt that it would be a pretty poor birthday if you didn't have some presents, because birthdays you're supposed to have presents. So we've had a whip round and we've got a couple of presents for you. The first is a beautifully bound copy of this book we forced David to write about you and which we have the privilege of publishing, so this is for you. But also, I think, if we're lucky, we might get, here we are, now this is a picture of a rather beautiful rose. It's a white rose with a pink blush but it's got a bit of a problem because it hasn't got a name. It's the rose with no name. And so we've worked with a few accomplices, because we know a bit about films but not a lot about rose-growing, it has to be said, and there's one very important accomplice in this room who is so modest he refuses to be named, but without him we couldn't have fixed this. But our suggestion is that for your birthday that you name this rose after yourself. The other good thing is that of course you get a rose for yourself and a party at Hampton Court and I think we should invite everybody that's here this evening...

RA: Hear, hear!

AN: year, when the rose blooms. And the other thing is: it can also go on sale and a proportion of the proceeds can go towards your charity. So there we are.

RA: That's marvellous. Thank you very much. Have we got much more to do David? I mean...

AN: Yes, I have to do a sharp exit left.

DR: Well, what do we want to do? Do you want to...?

RA: Well, I would just, I would like to... I mean, I didn't know anything about this.

AN: You don't have to do anything. Because I'm going to wreck the proceedings and David has very carefully choreographed this, and we've sorted out my exit and it goes like this: Bye!

RA: We have just touched, David, on the other important thing in my life, which is my family, and I think, if everybody agreed, what I would like really to do would be to call the rose Sheila. As I said, my brothers are here and my three children and their spouses and my seven grandchildren and we all had a fantastic four-days birthday together in France and it has been one of the most precious four days of my life. And I should, in mentioning that, because I talked about the members of the cast of Lovely War, actually the very last line that was spoken in Lovely War was, 'What did Daddy do in the war, Granny?' And that was an 8-year-old youngest daughter of mine called Charlotte who is here somewhere. So, Lottie, I should have mentioned you in the cast and you should have taken a cheer as well. So, darlings, thank you very much for coming, my family, they're very important. So if I may, I didn't know about this, but I'd love to call it Sheila if I may.

The Film of a Lifetime: Gandhi
DR: That's marvellous. We haven't quite finished. We have one more extract to go. If there was one film, Richard, in your life, I mean if all the others, something happened, is there one film?

RA: Well, you were sweet enough all to sit through that very long film this afternoon - gosh, it is extraordinary, isn't it, the difference in tempo? I mean... It was too long and it was slow. The impact of television on the style and tempo of cinema, cinema is so, cinema has accelerated to such a point that I really did feel the longeur was a bit worrying this afternoon. It's a very, very special film because, obviously, it was the first one that I did, not intending, as Johnny [Mills] knows, to direct at all. I wanted to direct a film about Gandhi. And I was happy to produce and play with Forbesy, and I was totally content and couldn't ask for anything else, and then this Indian civil servant, a great man called Motalil Kothari, sent me this biography of Gandhi and I've mentioned this before and so forgive me if you've heard it, but it is true, I read the definitive biography in which there was an incident in which Gandhiji was in South Africa. He was in his late teens, well, nineteen he was. And he was walking along the pavement with another Indian, and towards him came two white South Africans, and, as was the custom in those days, Gandhi, without any show and problem and so on, simply stepped into the gutter to allow the two white South Africans to walk down the pavement. And when they'd gone by he turned to his colleague, without, as I say, any bitterness or anger or anything, and he simply said, You know, it is always a mystery to me that men should find themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow human beings. I thought, That's some guy, aged nineteen, you know That summarises so much of what I care about and believe in. And so that's how I decided, not to direct, but to direct a film about Gandhi. And at boring length, and everybody in the theatre knows it, it did take a hell of a time. It took twenty years to try and raise the money. And I always remember the last time in Hollywood when I really gave up because there was no industry money in the film at all, it all came from private individuals and institutions in the UK. And I remember going to the head of Fox at that particular time and, forgive the language but it's what he said, and I told him about the subject matter, and I said what I thought this wonderful story was, and he said, Dickie, we've made a number of movies together and we owe you a great deal for the performances that you've given and we'd love to be able to walk with you, but, Dickie, who the fuckin' hell do you think is interested in a little brown man dressed in a sheet carrying a beanpole? And I thought, Well, you know, I mean... And I'm a stubborn bugger and I was so angry at this. It reinforced my determination, and so, in a way, I have to say that if there was a film that meant so much, because it transformed my life. It transformed our life together darling didn't it? I mean it occupied our, we went bust practically at one time trying to finance it and raise the money and so on and so it was part of Sheila's and my life for a long period of time, with all the ups and downs and therefore, because it had this extraordinary acclaim... And don't let anybody tell you that the Oscars don't matter. Boy, they matter. I mean, if, in promoting a movie that nobody knew anything about and nobody wanted to see, that nobody was interested in, when those nominations came out, and the eight Oscars, wasn't it, eight Oscars the picture got, more than or as many as any British movie has ever had, it was extraordinary. And it transformed my opportunity to work, overnight. I mean it meant that I could quite suddenly do the things I wanted to do and make the movies I wanted to make, good or bad. And so it holds a very, very special place. And people like Stu [Craig] and Terry Clegg, bless him, if he's here. Is Terry here? I don't know. Hello, Cleggy, darling. Cleggy was what we call the line producer but what that really means is that he and Diana [Hawkins] and so on produced those films. I mean, I had a name on the title, but the real person who did not only that movie but a number of other movies, was Terry. And indeed Terry is going to run these marvellous studios we're going to build in Wales. And with Stu and with various other people who, Simon [Kaye] who I can't work without, we all had a tremendous satisfaction from battling through to get it made. Particularly when, I remember, in Poona, Cleggy, do you remember? When we had an Indian backer who lived in this country - I won't mention his name; I'd be put in the clink. But we were in Poona, and we had a hundred and sixty crew, and we got a Telex, as I say, whatever you do get in those days, which said: Very sorry to inform you but unfortunately the funding which he had promised for the last third of the movie was not available. So Cleggy, I remember, and everybody else on the crew, we had to sit in Poona, and I remember [former British Prime Minister] James Callaghan was visiting the set and we literally hadn't got the money to pay the wages on Friday night. And Jake Eberts, who founded Goldcrest, came to the rescue again with various other people, and the money was supplied. And we didn't think we were going to win anything. We were absolutely sure that Steven Spielberg's picture, E.T. [E.T. The Extra-terrestrial, Steven Spielberg, 1982] was going to win everything. And by some extraordinary miracle, not only the Oscars but indeed the American - which I perhaps think is - I care about the BAFTA award very much, because those are colleagues, and I care very much about the fact that the American Directors Guild Award I got that year, and that's from directors, other directors. So that meant a great deal. And after all that struggle, it was a tough go but it did occupy our lives, as I say, for that length of time, and it did transform our whole future, because now, I mean, when the picture's suddenly sold for dvd or something, and I don't have to worry about paying the gas bill, I mean, I really, it really is possible. So if I had to select one, David, but I feel you're drawing to an end, David, so I'm going to embarrass you now for a moment, if I may. May I thank on your [the audience's] behalf David, who is such a wonderful [critic] - he ought to be the critic of every major newspaper in the country. He really adores cinema, and he has a knowledge [of it] and it holds a fascination for him, and he places it in a particular context, and he speaks with such authority, and his grace to me and kindness to me, and to Sheila, particularly during the making of Chaplin, has established a friendship which I value very much. And this book, David, dear, which you've so sweetly written about me, will be very precious indeed, and I'm immensely grateful. And at the same time, I'm sure you would wish us to thank the bfi because it's... I care about institutions like the bfi and BAFTA and so on. I care desperately about movies. I really do believe that movies have a tremendous place that it can occupy, and I think that if all we make... in the old days they were thugs in America, many of them were, Jack Warner and [Louis B.] Mayer and so on, they were devils, but they were there because they adored the movies. They were mad about movies. And you could go in and talk to them about them. The horror now is that the accountants and lawyers, particularly the accountants in the huge conglomerates, no major company stays in one conglomerate for more than ten minutes, and you face a new set of accountants and so on, and all they care about is what's on the bottom line. Yes, of course we've got to be responsible if we borrow that amount of money, of course we have to try and get the money back for them because it's their investment, but for that to be the sole prerequisite as to the decision to go forward, to go ahead with something which is really important, something really, which is entertaining, it is commercially focused, but really has some content... To not be able to continue to do that is tragic. And the bfi and BAFTA and such organizations and writers such as David help to make that possible. So, David, I do thank you and I'm sure you'd all wish me to thank Susan Picken who has spent so much time organizing this evening for us all to be able to be here together and for the whole bfi and for Anthony Minghella and so on. And so, as I say, I'm sure you're coming to the end and I know what you're going to show and isn't it lucky that I selected Gandhi?

DR: Yes, it is. We're going to show an extract from Gandhi and I think Richard will still be on stage at the end and at that point we can all demonstrate our gratitude for him, but I would just like to anticipate that by saying Richard, we're very grateful for you being here and doing this beautiful performance for us. We're very, very grateful to you for teaching us all how to reach eighty years old and not be old. That's a miraculous thing to have done. We're grateful just because you're Dickie Attenborough, national treasure. And we're grateful for this extract. Can we have it, please?

[extract from Gandhi]

[Final applause]