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]


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