Shyam Benegal touted the story of Ankur for 14 years, knocking on the doors of several producers who turned down his proposal. Many of them had the same question for him: ‘Who wants to see a film about the landlord and his mistress?’ He finally secured independent financing from Blaze Films, the largest distributors of advertising films in India. Mohan Bijlani and Freni Varavia were far-sighted producers who convinced him to make the film in Hindi and not in the regional language of Telugu, which was the director’s original plan.

Soon after World War II, Bijlani realized the importance of advertisements in cinema halls – his company, Blaze, made advertisement films and slides which reached the furthest corners of the country. Benegal has already made commercials for the company which was to back his subsequent works as well. Set firmly within the realist aesthetic, Ankur deals with feudal oppression in the microcosmic rural world of a village in Andra Pradesh. The film contains explicit reference to the peasants’ movement, initially led by the CPI (M) (Communist Party of India [Marxist]), which acquired a national dimension following the failure of the 1971-72 harvests. Shyam had written the script in his college years, basing it loosely on a true story.

Shabana Azmi in ‘Ankur’.
Shabana Azmi in ‘Ankur’.

Benegal used professional actors in Ankur, some from the Film Institute as well from the National School of Drama. He was very keen to cast Waheeda Rehman – a top actress from popular films, best known for her roles in Guru Dutt’s films and in Vijay Anand’s Guide (1965) – as his heroine, but she turned down the role after a bad experience in a regional film in Kerala. Shabana Azmi cast as the heroine Lakshmi was a fresh graduate and gold medallist from the film institute. The style of the film was considered alien to the Hindi film industry. The actors wore no makeup and were dressed in realistic costumes. The languages used is the dialect of Dakhni Urdu, commonly used around Hyderabad. The blend of Dakhni and Telugu folk songs located characters through the use of language. Both Azmi and Nag introduced a new style of natuaralised acting using regional accents.

Ankur has been defined as deploying psychological realism and regional authenticity to the accepted narrative style of Indian films. Yet Benegal tells a story and tells it well. The narrative base line is one of the strongest features of his films. Here he creates a detailed microcosmic world and its characters in which the macro forces of feudal power structures and gender oppression are played out. Ankur is not an overtly didactic film, but in the Brechtian sense it does ask the audience to react to what is represented, rather than telling the viewer what to do.

Anant Nag in ‘Ankur’.
Anant Nag in ‘Ankur’.

Benegal’s first trilogy – Ankur, Nishant and Manthan – combined the contemporary stage of pleasant revolution with the consolidation of the development aesthetic (the Nehruvian vision of socialist and egalitarian society, which included five-year plans as development models). The three films comprise a trilogy in the sense that they deal with contemporary or neo-contemporary situations in India. They deal with the changes that are taking place very slowly as India moves from the feudal systems that prevailed and continue to prevail. The change has much to do with ownership and power. Ankur and Nishant – based on real-life incidents in Hyderabad – and Manthan – about the development of the milk colony in Gujarat – are rural stories about change. They were immediately hailed as a trilogy, even though Benegal had not set out to make this consciously. By using regional dialect, the new cinema was able to ‘forge a new aesthetic of statist realism’. Ankur became ‘a symbol of new cinema’.

Benegal himself attributed the success of the new cinema to the existence of a demand. ‘Political cinema will only emerge when there is a need for it,’ he observed.

Ankur has also been termed a ‘politically inflected melodrama’. Benegal himself has commented that political films are made when the need for them arises. The Indian Constitution set up in 1950 was a social contract on paper, but this did not immediately bring to an end the prevalent feudal order. In the early 1970s, the audience of new cinema was well aware of the post-independence peasant struggles against feudalism, especially the rise of the Naxalite movement, a peasant uprising which turned to armed insurrection in the Naxalbari district of Bengal and spread to Andhra Pradesh. Ankur is set in 1945 in a feudal state, but the background of 1970s peasant insurrection gave it a contemporary edge.

Ankur’s ending was immediately read as a powerful statement of the awakened consciousness of the oppressed peasants. The absence of closure and the act of defiance by a silent witness (in this case, the young boy) effectively point to future developments and subversions of the power equation.

The strength of the film lies in the detailed exploration of characters and their motivations, the contradictory impulses they are governed by, the stray glances and gestures, landscape details, marvellous use of folk music and natural sound. Benegal comments on the open ending in Ankur:

It would be ridiculously dogmatic and simplistic to think in terms of simple solutions. There are no simple solutions to complex problems. Besides the solutions would have to be in the outside world. But it is interesting to explore the problems in Indian society, so that at least one can become aware of the forces that are at work in it and the way those forces combine and interact. The point is to clarify the directions one must take if these problems have to be sorted out.

When asked whether he considered himself part of the new wave, Benegal predictably replied:

I am not sure if there is such a thing as a new wave. Let me put it this way, some people now attempt to make films of their own choice, different from the industry’s mould, everything gets cast in that mould, films come out of that fantastic sausage machine. Now there is a wide range of people, from one end of the scale to the other, who want to make their own kind of films. So I certainly would think of myself as a part of this group.

Excerpted with permission from Shyam Benegal, Sangeeta Datta, Roli Books.