Shyam Benegal, the latest winner of the Phalke Award, is special for his resourcefulness and adaptability.
THIS years Dadasaheb Phalke lifetime achievement award went to veteran film-maker Shyam Benegal, who made his debut in feature films with Ankur 33 years ago. Before that he had served a long apprenticeship in advertising, mak ing publicity films and documentaries. Joe Dantes, ad man, bon vivant and pianist, remembered Benegal in one of his autobiographical pieces as being associated with a Hari S. Dasgupta production in the Bombay (now Mumbai) of 1958. This was when Dasgupta, star pupil of the great French director Jean Renoir, was enjoying the high noon of his career.
Telling this anecdote was to prove that Benegal had a long apprenticeship in film-making before he embarked on Ankur (1974), produced by Blaze Advertising owned by Messrs. Bijlani and Variava, and took the mainstream Hindi film aud ience by surprise. There were no songs and dances, no predictable attempts at sentimental blackmail. A story of a Telugu landlords spoilt son, his infatuation with his deaf-and-dumb tenants wife and her impregnation and the whole episode sowing the seeds of revolt in the mind of a pre-teen boy, it made quite an impression on a small section of the paying Hindi film viewers. The film actually made a modest profit on its first run.
Benegals next, Nishant (1975), was a feudal tale of a zamindars sons kidnapping a schoolteachers attractive wife, gang-raping her and then retaining her as the youngest brothers mistress. Again, the motif of revolt is evoked when the village priest incites the serfs to violence and they kill the oppressors.
The third effort, Manthan (1976), changed tack and was about a large number of rural milk sellers pooling their resources to form a cooperative. It was clearly inspired by Dr. Verghese Kuriens highly successful experiment in Gujarat which served as a model for the rest of India. In a work of fiction, the director managed to bring in many domestic and social tensions, which held the narrative together. Just as Ankur saw the rise of a powerful new actor in S habana Azmi, Manthan brought into the limelight a gifted actor, Smita Patil, whose career was too short as she died in childbirth.
Manthan was proof of Benegals enormous abilities as a fund-raiser; it was entirely financed by the milk-producing farmers of a certain region of Gujarat and may have served as a model for the late John Abrahams last major film in Malayalam, Amma Ariyan, which too was financed entirely by very small donations from individuals. That Benegal has survived so long in the Hindi film industry despite his middle-of-the-road approach is because of his ability t o work within modest budgets and the resourcefulness to get them.
In the early days he collaborated with Vijay Tendulkar on his scripts. They were melodramatic certainly Ankur and Nishant were and smacked of the theatre despite elaborate location shooting. Even a work as late as Suraj Ka Satva Ghoda (1993) has a theatrical ring to it. Dharmveer Bhartis parallel love tales, all of them ending badly, was, to put it mildly, a strange film, rendered stranger still with shots of a stallion o n heat going berserk.
He could not entirely eschew the influence of the theatre in his films, not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly limited the scope of many of his productions. Ritwik Ghatak turned such a limitation into a huge advantage. Benegal unfortunately was unable to capitalise on the Indian Peoples Theatre Association. The IPTA is the cultural arm of the Communist Party of India. Having said this, one must also acknowledge that he is the one to hang on the longest in the changing world of Hindi films the norms of its financing, exhibition and distribution. The smugglers, and now increasingly felt terrorists, from Dubai could not tempt him or Gulzar to make a few concessions in their style and content as a trade-off for a luxurious lifestyle.
Benegals huge resourcefulness alone makes him a fit recipient of the Phalke Award. He has shown what Dada Saheb Phalke, the pioneering Indian film-maker, could not do in managing his career as the times changed. Phalkes great resourcefulness was limited to his film craft. The serpent in Kalia Mardan (1919) looks real. The outdoor location shots with a lion are an acme of verisimilitude in another film. His inventiveness was only approached by the young V. Shantaram&# 8217;s technical skills, but unlike Shantaram, Phalke was no businessman; neither was he a survivor like Benegal.
Bhumika (1977), purportedly was based on the life of the Marathi stage and film actor Hansa Wadkar, a rebellious non-survivor, played with an equal measure of defiance and vulnerability by Smita Patil. A good deal of effort had gone in to the detailing and the story of an actor becoming a cash cow for various dependants, including a lecherous husband, fighting for her independence, and ultimately failing after being let down by several men, came to life only fitfully. Despite the art direction evoking the period between the late 1930s and the early 1950s and some good acting by Smita Patil, Amol Palekar, Sulabha Deshpande, Amrish Puri, Anant Nag, and Naseeruddin Shah, a lack of organic unity could be felt in the conception and execution.
Benegal became the most well-known Indian director abroad after Satyajit Ray. The International Film Guide (Ed. Peter Cowie) heaped praise on him perhaps because he was seen as continuing the Ray tradition of story-telling in India n cinema. He could create interesting characters, maintain a flow of images and sounds and hold the audience. How many film-makers can do that, especially without songs, dances and fights? Not many.
In Malayalam, Adoor Gopalakrishan, the late G. Aravindan, K.G. George and now Blessy have done it. Adoor, of course, is a classicist and has maintained his independence throughout his career, seeking assistance from the State-owned National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) only once, at the beginning of his career.
Nobody in Hindi cinema has Benegals versatility. Trikal (1985) was set in Portuguese-occupied Goa and ends with its annexation by India in 1961. Mandi (1981) is about the lives of sex-workers and is based o n a short story by Ghulam Abbas. Sardari Begum (1996) is about the dying tradition of the singing courtesan or tawaif in northern India; The Making of the Mahatma (1996) is about Mahatma Gandhis struggles in South Africa in the Boer War and after and the events that shaped his life and thinking in later years; Mammo (1994), scripted by Khalid Mohammad, is about his own aunt being torn between India and Pakistan and opting for the former after some bizarre-comic contretemps; and Zubeida (2001), also written by Khalid Mohammad, is allegedly about an actor relative who marries a Rajput prince much to her sorrow. Hari Bhari (2000) deals with female foeticide in northern India and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005) is about the misunderstood nationalist hero of the fight for independence against the British.
Benegal has had to reinvent himself many times in order to survive the constant changes in the Indian film industry. He did a series on Indian erotica for television based on the Kamasutra, and it was aimed at an overseas, largely W estern market. He also did a highly influential series, Bharat Ek Khoj, on Jawaharlal Nehrus Discovery of India, in which that very fine actor, Roshan Seth, played the narrator, that is Nehru, Indias fi rst Prime Minister. The 52-part series was the first of its kind in the history of the government-owned Doordarshan and indeed Indian television.
He presented vignettes from Indias ancient civilisation and the processes of its evolution through gripping stories. Again, the technical values were top class. The acting in individual episodes, memorably Anana Desai as Purandharadasa, the southern Bhakti saint-poet-singer of medieval India, was uniformly good, as was Vanraj Bhatias music and the photography, some of it by Piyush Shah. His forays into television have been highly successful.
He has made over 500 advertising films, short films and documentaries apart from feature films. One of his lesser known films is a feature-length documentary on Satyajit Ray.
Benegal has given a start to many a talent. His first cinematographer Govind Nihalani, a former assistant of the famous V.K. Murthy, Guru Dutts cinematographer, first showed his talent in Benegals films before he took off to directing Aakrosh, Ardh Satya, Drohkal and Takshak, among many other.
An actor like Shabana Azmi got her most interesting roles with Benegal in Ankur, Nishant, Mandi and Sardari Begum. Naseeruddin Shah made his debut as the gentle, compassionate brother in Nishant, and went on to do the film director in Bhumika, a love-crazed Awadh fighter in the war of Independence of 1857 in Junoon (1978) and the narrator in Trikal. T he mercurial Amrish Puri got some of his meatiest parts through a series of films beginning with the muscular, demented zamindar in Nishant and ending with the film-producer father of the eponymous heroine in Zubeida .
Rekha, then the superstar of Hindi films did her first role with Benegal in Kalyug (1981), about warring factions within a business family, and then came full circle playing the older princess in Zubeida. Smita Pa til, the most charismatic actor of her generation, did some of her most significant work with Benegal. Even a glamorous doll like Karishma Kapoor finally found her niche as a dramatic actor in Zubeida.
Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Rajat Kapur, Leela Naidu, Neena Gupta, Pallavi Joshi, Manoj Bajpai and other thespians responded better to Benegals direction than they did to other directors, who were in no way untalented. Amongst cinematographers, apart from Govind Nihalani, Piyush Shah and Prasann Jain produced fine images for him. It is no secret that Vanraj Bhatia, a pupil of the celebrated Nadia Boulanger of Paris, composed most consistently his best music for Benegal, the lone exception in his oeuvre being Kumar Shahanis Tarang (1978-84). In short, Benegal has always had the ability to bring out the best available talent to contribute significantly to his films.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: the Forgotten Hero has Sachin Khedekar in the lead. It is an episodic film full of goodwill towards the forgotten, often misunderstood Bengali revolutionary who left the Indian National Congress in 1938 afte r being elected its president (he drubbed Pattabhi Sitaramayya, Mahatma Gandhis candidate) because the Mahatma regarded his proteges defeat as his own. Bose went on to found the Forward Bloc, a political party, and then left India to wage a war against the British with German and Japanese assistance. His Azad Hind Fauj became a symbol of liberty for millions of Indians. Benegal treated his subject with respect, even deference, but was unable to come up with the stirring, dramatic film that was expected of him.
At 73, Benegal is still very active and is in no mood to retire, the Phalke Award not withstanding.