The Benegal oeuvre

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

Shyam Benegal by Sangeeta Datta; Roli Books (Lotus Collection); pages 276, Rs.350.

"REALITY is a nice place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there," wrote John Barth. That pretty much sums up the attitude of the commercial movie industry in India, until a brave new band of film-makers came along to challenge the basic assumptions of the medium. This alternative cinema acquired a whole new momentum in the early 1970s when Shyam Benegal showed up the unbearable lightness of mainstream cinema with his breakaway vision.

At a time when villages served just as cutesy wallpaper for popular Hindi films, his first movie Ankur broke all the rules by simply telling a real story of rural India, of the appalling exploitation that marked a feudal society in transition. Since that explosive entry, Shyam Benegal has steered his own course and Sangeeta Datta's book is an exhaustive career retrospective on the man who pioneered the Indian new wave.

This new wave of alternative cinema was far from being edgy for the sake of it - instead, it was profoundly political. While commercial Hindi movies of the time spun out stories of teenage romance or action-driven vendetta, the new wave films chose to ground themselves in the contradictions of a complex, unevenly developing nation. Self-consciously, and seriously, Benegal drew attention to the untold stories of power struggles, sexual repression, caste conflict and resistance.

Rejecting the studio system and other trappings of commercial cinema, they centred on subaltern stories. "Parallel cinema," writes Sangeeta Datta, "can be viewed as a modernist project, as an agent of social change with the film-maker firmly entrenched within the premise of nationhood." Often state-financed, these film-makers, including Mrinal Sen, Saeed Mirza and Ketan Mehta, found receptive, diverse audiences.

Benegal's film Manthan (1976), inspired by Dr V. Kurien's milk cooperative movement, was a rousing reminder of collective power. Produced by 50,000 farmers of the Gujarat Milk Marketing Federation, it was a fascinating critique of a modern, interventionist state colliding with local context. As such, Datta places the film in the category of `third cinema', an overtly political tool in the hands of those who produce it.

However, in the late 1980s, with the spread of video piracy and satellite channels, the situation changed. Parallel cinema was doubly done in by a feeble distribution and exhibition system and a larger tectonic shift in popular cinema itself. Analysing Benegal today, it is impossible to miss the striking contrast between his first few films and his latest projects, from the relentless realism of his `rural trilogy' to the prettified sensibility of Zubeidaa - the Story of a Princess. His recent market-friendly avatar and his association with government-sponsored film initiatives have drawn serious criticism. Has Shyam Benegal succumbed to our hopelessly compromised times?

Sangeeta Datta disagrees. She argues that these strains have always been present in Benegal's work. For all the bludgeoning social realism of Ankur or Manthan, he has also given us glimpses of the complicated inner life of a Pathan soldier obsessed with an Anglo-Indian girl (Junoon) and the dream-drenched atmosphere of Trikaal. An elegiac, subtle story of a Catholic family trying to come to terms with the crumbling of the Portuguese regime, Trikaal dwells on the mourning Dona Maria (Leela Naidu) as she tries to make sense of her past and deal with the future. Even in Kalyug, one of his least celebrated (though most ambitious) films, he fuses the archetypes of the Mahabharata with the fortunes of a modern business family.

Suraj Ka Satwaan Ghoda, which many see as Benegal's finest work, is a radical departure from the conventional narrative technique. Instead of grand perorations on society, struggle and change, it looks deeply into the interlinked lives of six people. Free-floating into different perspectives, it throws up questions about the elusiveness of truth, much like Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa's 1950 masterpiece. As Sangeeta Datta sorts and classifies Benegal's rather immense body of work, she makes a persuasive case that he defies definition.

Sangeeta Datta identifies as one of the great running themes of Benegal's movies a preoccupation with womanhood. While his earlier films received flak for their portrayal of women as eternal victims of an oppressive system, Benegal has consistently explored the female psyche. The public and private worlds of the performing woman seem to be a fascination with him, as he touches on the Bhumika theme in Mandi, Sardari Begum, and even Zubeidaa. Whether a bawdy social comedy about a brothel or the story of a strong-willed woman's quest for her place in the world, Benegal's "rare perspective consciously avoids the prevalent male gaze", Sangeeta Datta reminds us.

SHYAM BENEGAL, the book reminds us, is responsible for an entire generation of icons and technical talents of alternative cinema. He introduced both Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil, actresses with talent to burn, who were to define thoughtful cinema ever since. In fact, all the usual suspects of serious Indian cinema, like Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, and Girish Karnad, owe a great deal to Benegal. His razor-sharp casting instinct and his rapport with his cast have extracted mature, moving performances even from popular movie stars like Karishma Kapoor.

As she traces Benegal's oeuvre, Sangeeta Datta reminds us of his abiding influence on later film-makers. She argues that mainstream directors like Mani Ratnam and Ram Gopal Varma absorbed the realist art-house aesthetic into their craft. For example, the Ganapati immersion scene in Varma's gangster film Satya bore a stylistic resemblance to a similar scene in Kalyug. Commenting on this trend, Anil Dharker, in a magazine article, claimed that Benegal was to a whole generation of later film-makers what Satyajit Ray was to his own.

Comparisons may be odious, but any book on an Indian film-maker is incomplete without a discussion of that giant shadow looming over the cinematic canon - Satyajit Ray. Yet, far from being weighed down by the anxiety of influence, Benegal acknowledges his deep debt, categorising Indian cinema into two periods - before Ray and after Ray. In fact, he made the definitive documentary on Ray, a freewheeling conversation between the two film-makers where they discuss their shared calling.

Sangeeta Datta's book is an invaluable guide to Benegal's films, as it delivers up the contexts, the plot outlines, and critical responses to almost all his major works. However, the potted-history feel to the entire exercise leaves one feeling more clued in to Benegal the film-maker, but not especially moved by Benegal the man. There are interesting scraps of information, like how he grew up in a politically charged atmosphere, riven between his Communist father and right-wing brother; how he cut classes to watch Thursday matinees, and how on one occasion he collected four boys from school (to cover an empty theatre's electricity costs) and watched Vittorio De Seca's Bicycle Thieves, the Italian neo-realist classic which left an indelible imprint on his craft.

Perhaps the only charge that can be levelled against Sangeeta Datta's book is that it scrimps on personality. It is a measured, academic appreciation bolstered by interviews from Benegal's cast and crew, critical excerpts and reviews. However, the book rarely slips into a more intimate mode. For example, she briefly mentions Benegal's first cousin, Guru Dutt, making the idea of a filming career acceptable in the family, and later adds a throwaway line about how Benegal rejected Guru Dutt's style - without developing this interesting detail. At another point, Girish Karnad comments on the famous rivalry between Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil, arising initially from their individual equations with Benegal.

However, at such places, Sangeeta Datta delicately steps out to allow other voices to tell the story - making it a curiously held-in narrative. Much of the personal detail is, in fact, clumsily tacked on in the appendices, called Benegal's Reflections and Reflections on Benegal. As she states in the preface, the reason she proposed a book on Benegal "was to keep a critical discourse alive on realistic, socially meaningful cinema - a premise fast losing space to the gloss and fantasy of the mainstream". She succeeds eminently in this project, but along the way one cannot help wishing that a book on this radical, passionate film-maker could convey a sense of the same involvement that characterises his work.

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