Interview: Shyam Benegal

‘Films are pre-Satyajit or post-Satyajit’: Shyam Benegal remembers Satyajit Ray

Print edition : November 05, 2021

Shyam Benegal. Photo: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

1981: Shyam Benegal interviewing Ray for a documentary at his residence. The cinematographer and director Govind Nihalani is standing behind Ray. Photo: Nemai Ghosh/Courtesy of son Satyaki Ghosh

Interview with the film-maker Shyam Benegal.

Often the most enduring bonds in life are forged on freak incidents. So it was with the veteran film-maker Shyam Benegal and cinema icon Satyajit Ray. Then an upcoming swimmer, Benegal had gone to participate in national swimming championships in Calcutta in the mid 1950s. His uncle casually asked him if he had seen Pather Panchali then showing to goodly crowds in the city. On his advice, Benegal went to see the film despite knowing not a word of Bengali. He loved the film so much that he came back to watch it again. And again. On the trip meant to fuel his growth as a swimmer, Benegal ended up watching Pather Panchali a dozen times. His life had a new direction, a new destination.

Back in Hyderabad, he formed a film society, and in 1959 organised a screening of Ray’s films, notably the trilogy of Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar.

It was not, however, until the mid 1960s that Benegal met Ray face to face for the first time. The illustrious film-maker was wrapping up Nayak when Benegal went to the sets of the film and Ray invited him to a cup of tea at his residence in the evening. The chai pe charcha went on for over four hours, finishing only after 9 p.m. By then the bond had been forged between Ray, the master film-maker, and Benegal, an upcoming one. It reached a new milestone when a few years later Benegal invited Ray to be the first viewer of his debut film Ankur, and culminated in Benegal making a documentary on the best film-maker India has ever produced.

“It is wrong to say he was reticent. He was a man of few words but forthright,” recalls Benegal about his experience of shooting Ray for the documentary. Busy with the post-production work of his forthcoming film, Benegal took out precious time to speak about the cinema of Ray, his own documentary on the illustrious film-maker, and much more with Ziya Us Salam.

Excerpts:

You made a film on Satyajit Ray. How helpful was he in the making of the documentary? Normally, he was known to be very calm, even reticent.

A few years ago, I wrote a long paper about him. I spoke about his films when talking of the history of Indian cinema, dividing it into pre- and post-Satyajit Ray. I made a presentation on his films at India International Centre in New Delhi. I made a film on him as well. From my experience, it will be wrong to say he was reticent. He was reserved, neither shy nor retiring. He was forthcoming in his views except that he was very reserved. He did not comment on everything you asked. For the documentary, though, he answered everything that I asked him.

How receptive was he about the first film you made, ‘Ankur’?

He was the first person I showed my film to. He was a film-maker whose view I respected greatly, and wanted him to see the film.

Also read: How Satyajit Ray foregrounded modernity and enlightenment throughout his career

And you showed him every subsequent film till the time his health began to fail…

I think I did until it became difficult for him later to watch (because of health reasons). I certainly showed him the first six of seven films that I made.

Was he critical at times or was he just laudatory?

Yes, he could be critical at times. The whole idea was I wanted to get an intelligent response, a film-maker’s response, a film-maker who would give an objective analysis. He happened to be the person whom I trusted greatly. It was worthwhile showing my film to him. I could get an honest appraisal unlike some film friends who would only say good things in front of you.

He always regarded you to be more like a student or a pupil?

Not like a pupil or a student. I was not a student. I did not work with him either. I regarded him as a senior film-maker who knew his viewpoint would be understood. He did not throw his opinion around freely because of his status. His opinion could mar the career of a young film-maker. He was measured in his response.

You met him for the first time when he was shooting for ‘Nayak’, and then went on to make a documentary on his works?

I filmed him when he was making Nayak. I was making a film on him when he was shooting Nayak. He permitted me to shoot the documentary when he was shooting.

There was no disturbance because of the sound of the camera?

No, no. He knew that I was not going to disturb him, or come in the way of his work.

Also read: ‘A man who knew too much’: Goutam Ghose on Satyajit Ray

How long did it take for you to finish the documentary?

It took me a long time. I do not remember the exact time. There were many problems while making a film with the government. There was this issue of finance. I was supposed to make a film of 20 minutes. Eventually I made a film which was almost two and a half hours long. So naturally there were problems in terms of money. I had to put money out of my own pocket. The government refused to put in more money.

What was the reaction to the documentary?

It was very well received when it was shown at the New York Film Festival and several other international film festivals. It was shown in Italy, France, Chicago, San Francisco,…etc. It got very good reviews everywhere. It had a very good festival run.

Was Ray happy with the documentary? Did he feel it was too personality-centric?

From the very beginning, he was not particularly keen on a film to be made on him. It was the Government of India that had asked me to make a film on him because he was already a Padma Bhushan at that time, and later went on to be Bharat Ratna [shortly before he passed away]. But I don’t think he had any complaints with the film as such.

In an interview you said the first time you watched ‘Pather Panchali’ was when you had gone to Calcutta to participate in swimming championships…

Yes, it is true. I had gone there as a swimmer, but ended up watching Pather Panchali a dozen times. I would watch the first and the last show every day.

Also read: Critical insider: Satyajit Ray's cinematic trilogies

After that experience, to go on to make a documentary on Ray must have seemed like accomplishment?

I was asked to make a film on him long after he had made Pather Panchali. I had watched Pather Panchali in the mid 1950s, the documentary came much later. I had made my own films by then.

How did you feel to make a film on the man you idolised as a film-maker?

I do not look at it from that perspective. All I can say is Satyajit Ray was an extremely imaginative, intelligent man. He had a definite view and position. He had a socio-political view of life, all of which you can see in his films. His films also spoke of the culture he came from.

Did that culture, Bengali culture, also inhibit him from making more films in Hindi?

He only made one film, Shatranj ke Khilari. He said he was not familiar enough with the language to relate the story with all the details. He did not feel confident enough of the idioms. He felt much more comfortable making his films in Bengali. He could not go wrong with anything. He was in total command, and did not have to depend on someone else’s interpretation of a language or culture.

Will it be fair to say Satyajit Ray inspired a generations of film-makers like you, or Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Goutam Ghose and others?

Oh, yes, he did, he certainly did. He was a great source of inspiration. You see, the film industry then demanded a certain kind of films, basically entertainment, for a film to be commercially viable. Bombay films tended to be formulaic. They had to have a certain consistency, some predictable elements. He was the first one to break free altogether of the mould. He created his own template of films, his own rules. Films, as I have often said, are divided into pre-Satyajit Ray and post-Satyajit Ray.

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