Out of focus: Review of ‘ReFocus: The Films of Shyam Benegal’

This book on a filmmaker as thoughtful as Benegal has reduced him into nothing more than a repository of thesis ideas for reluctant graduate students.

Published : Aug 24, 2023 11:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

Shyam Benegal in Mumbai on October 9, 2018.

Shyam Benegal in Mumbai on October 9, 2018. | Photo Credit: VIVEK BENDRE

In 2024, Shyam Benegal’s debut feature film Ankur will turn 50. The story of the unrest in landed relations in the Telangana region of Madras Presidency from the late 1940s to mid-1950s that erupted into a powerful protest movement led by communists, Ankur is the first of Benegal’s rural reform trilogy comprising Nishant and Manthan, and the start of a prolific and consistently ambitious filmography. Through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, Benegal made feature films, documentaries and TV series regularly, marking himself out as one of the most productive filmmakers in India, alongside Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen. At 88 (as per Encyclopaedia Britannica, whose website is incidentally managed partly by Mrinal Sen’s son, Kunal Sen), Benegal is at present directing a biopic on Mujibur Rehman, and is arguably the oldest working filmmaker in India and even perhaps across the world.

ReFocus: The Films of Shyam Benegal
Edited by Sneha Kar Chaudhuri and Ramit Samaddar
Orient Blackswan
Pages: 272
Price: Rs.1,050

So, this book comes at a timely moment to take stock of Benegal, the director. The book comprises essays on 15 of Benegal’s 21 feature films released so far (Charandas ChorKondura/Anugraham, TrikalSusmanSardari BegumSamar, and Hari-Bhari are the ones left out). Each is a textual analysis of Benegal’s work—a reading of the plot of the film(s) seen through the lenses of politics and ideology. There is almost nil discussion on the technical aspects of Benegal’s work, barring passing mentions.

The unambiguous triumph of the book is the discussion on Benegal’s portrayal of women. This emerges seemingly organically: every essay notes the complexity and richness of Benegal’s female characters, who are presented not as projects whose lives must be improved, but as human beings who give in to temptation and make mistakes. A lot more has been made of Ray’s women or Rituparno Ghosh’s non-cis male characters. Benegal has never been considered in the same way for his women characters. All the essays consistently stress Benegal’s rich portrayal of women. This is true even of the so-called more political films like Ankur, Nishant, and Manthan, as well as of biopics like The Making of the Mahatma. The discussion on Benegal’s work on Kasturba Gandhi is particularly thoughtful.

A still from Ankur.

A still from Ankur. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The film-by-film treatment makes clear the other thread running through Benegal’s filmography—his long-time engagement with politics, beginning with Ankur to his somewhat more commercially packaged comedies in the 2000s, such as Well Done Abba. A couple of essays note that the film scholar Madhava Prasad has criticised Benegal for his Nehruvian, read statist, vision of politics, so this is not an uncritical appraisal. At the same time, one essay notes how Benegal worked with a storeyed writing team comprising celebrated playwrights Vijay Tendulkar, Satyadev Dubey (both in Marathi), Girish Karnad (in Kannada), and screenplay writer Shama Zaidi, who wrote Garm Hawa and Shatranj Ke Khiladi, among several other memorable films.

Lost opportunity

Calling a filmmaker political often does them injustice because they are seen as uninterested in storytelling and the inner lives of characters. Benegal’s stories contain memorable characters, complex and not merely shaped by the currents of politics and history.

“The unambiguous triumph of the book is the discussion on Benegal’s portrayal of women. This emerges seemingly organically: every essay notes the complexity and richness of Benegal’s female characters.”

This fine observation notwithstanding, the book contains no discussion or even mention of the other aspects of Benegal’s filmmaking, such as cinematography, sound, production design or acting. The term mise-en-scene surfaces in a number of essays but is never spelt out. (Perhaps the term is evident to cinephiles or those interested in Benegal—who are presumably the targeted readers of this book. However, there are many interpretations of mise-en-scene, perhaps the most influential of them by the film theorist André Bazin, the Encyclopaedia Brittanica notes. Bazin designated camera work and the placement of actors and action, also known as blocking, as elements of mise-en-scene. It includes set design and costume, essentially all elements that appear on camera.) The book does not explore Benegal’s mise-en-scene beyond referencing that he paid attention to it. Indeed, but how? How is a Benegal mise-en-scene distinct?

Film is a technology, not only an art form or a storytelling medium. It emerged because the technology of the camera made moving images possible at a certain time, and then gradually expanded to permit the overlaying of sound with it to describe the form at its most basic. A discussion of a major filmmaker without analysis of the technical aspects of his work is incomplete.

Cover of Re-Focus

Cover of Re-Focus | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The chapters on individual or dual films do not even contain a list of the cast and crew of the film(s) under discussion. If they had, then what would have emerged is that Benegal worked for much of his career with Govind Nihalani as his cinematographer, occasionally Ashok Mehta, and Vanraj Bhatia as his music composer. Nihalani, who would go on to become a well-known filmmaker himself, and Mehta are counted among the finest cinematographers in India. Bhatia is a distinctive composer, known for his work in alternative/ arthouse cinema, and especially notable for the contextual affinity in his composition to the subjects of the film projects.

For instance, in Benegal’s Sardari Begum, the story of a courtesan, he composed memorable thumris. In Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane, about an ageing Anglo-Indian in Calcutta, he used the beloved hymn “Silent Night, Holy Night” twice in the film to magnificent effect. Benegal’s films contain memorable music, used in very different ways from commercial Hindi cinema’s fanciful song-and-dance routines. In his ear for music, you can see that he is indeed Guru Dutt’s cousin.

Also Read | Gaddar: We shall not look upon his likes again

Perhaps Benegal’s most obvious legacy is the cast of outstanding actors he introduced, including Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Anant Nag, Smita Patil and Mohan Agashe, although the last two had done credited roles in Marathi cinema before they worked with Benegal. These actors went on to become mainstays of commercial Hindi cinema, and mark Benegal’s most prominent contribution to filmmaking outside of the alternative register. Omitting the technical aspects of his filmmaking erases the extraordinary cohort of film workers he provided the commercial film industry with. (I prefer the term film worker to technicians and artists because it takes away the hierarchy between technical and artistic work.)

Scene from Manthan directed by Shyam Benegal starring Girish Karnad and Smita Patil.

Scene from Manthan directed by Shyam Benegal starring Girish Karnad and Smita Patil. | Photo Credit: NFAI, Pune

Without this detailing, Benegal appears as a dusty government museum artefact in filmmaking history, who made important-sounding, well-meaning films that the socialist regime funded and no one watched. The truth is different—Benegal’s pre-2000s films told complex stories about politics and gender that shape narratives today in the OTT and (overlapping) indie/alternative filmmaking spaces. His collaborators in film work are among the most sought-after in the commercial Hindi film industry.

Alternative cinema has long shaped commercial filmmaking in India, not only by the actors it has provided, but also through styles of shot-taking, editing patterns, use of noise, and so much more. This book feels like a lost opportunity to make this point.

  • In 2024, Shyam Benegal’s debut feature film Ankur will turn 50: so, this book comes at a timely moment to take stock of Benegal, the director
  • The unambiguous triumph of the book is the discussion on Benegal’s portrayal of women: every essay notes the complexity and richness of Benegal’s female characters
  • But the book contains no discussion of the other aspects of Benegal’s filmmaking, such as cinematography, sound, production design or acting
  • The book contains several typos and errors

Glaring typos

What is more, Benegal’s films are often very funny. Mandi, a satire, is the obvious one. Mammo has a warm, light-hearted touch. Films like Bhumika and Zubeidaa are infused with moments of splendid levity: in Bhumika, there is a sequence when the tree that Smita Patil’s character is dancing around falls off; in Zubeidaa, the dance master who choreographs the protagonist’s gypsy girl dance complains that Hindi films now need PT teachers rather than dance teachers. Benegal is able to inject joyfulness despite the often too real (and tragic) narratives of his films. This volume’s focus on Benegal’s themes and ideology gives the impression that he is a joyless filmmaker.

Also Read | From revolution to realism, the multifaceted legacy of Mrinal Sen

A note for the publishers: the book contains several typos and errors. To note an especially egregious one, the chapter on Arohan carries these sentences: “However, until the Tebhaga movement of 1946 conducted by the Communist Party of India through the Krishak Sabha in support of the demands of the sharecroppers, no significant uprising can be noted. The Krishak Sabha demanded an increase (tebhaga) in the bargadar’s (sharecropper’s) share from 50 per cent to 66 per cent…. Then came the famine of 1943 which created a crisis in the rural economy, forcing the cultivators to take all the produce without sharing it with the jotedars.” How can 1943 come after 1946? The Tebhaga movement was shaped by the great famine of 1943, the hunger that stalked Bengal was the single most precipitating factor for the demand that the actual cultivators retain the larger two-thirds share of the crop.

Another shabby aspect is the very poor quality of photographs from Benegal’s films reproduced in the book. For a book priced at Rs.1,050, this is embarrassing.

A Shyam Benegal volume published to coincide with the 50th year of his landmark debut Ankur deserved to be a collector’s item. It should have been an invitation to watch and rewatch Benegal’s films. This book only makes him a repository of thesis ideas for reluctant graduate students.

Sohini Chattopadhyay is a National Award-winning film critic and New India Foundation fellow. Her forthcoming book, The Day I Became a Runner, published by HarperCollins, is a women’s history of India told through the lives of nine women athletes.

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