Change is the only constant in Mumbai, but in one of the corners of the city, consistency is the norm.
Since 1977, Shyam Benegal has been punching an imaginary clock at his office in Mumbai’s Tardeo neighbourhood. He arrives here at around 10 am and usually leaves before 6 pm. Except when he is at a shoot or on a trip (or the time he was a Member of Parliament at the Rajya Sabha between 2006 and 2012), this is where Benegal can be – and wants to be – found.
Benegal works out of a cosy cabin that has a writing desk but no computer, a few drawings on the wall, hundreds of books, and a wall-to-wall mirror. The computers are in the waiting area that is used by his staff. “I am very old-fashioned, I don’t enjoy computers,” he said over the course of a lengthy interview. Throughout the conversation, Benegal never once got out of his chair.
At 86, Benegal has long been the object of media attention. Unfailingly polite and articulate, a voice of reason for all seasons, Benegal treats curious journalists with the same thoughtfulness with which he has approached his films, documentaries and television shows. His movies have examined the ferment in Indian society before and after Independence in often unforgettable ways, won numerous awards and introduced Indian viewers to a plethora of talent.
Ankur, Nishant, Manthan, Bhumika, Mandi, Kalyug, Bharat Ek Khoj, Yatra, Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda, Mammo, Sardari Begum, Welcome to Sajjanpur – Benegal has arguably made movies enough to retire on. But not just yet: he is now hard at work on his latest project, a biopic of Bangladesh’s first president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Bangabandhu has been written by Atul Tiwari and Shama Zaidi, and is a co-production between the governments of India and Bangladesh. The movie stars Arifin Shuvoo as Rahman, Nusrat Imrose Tisha as Rahman’s wife Sheikh Fazilatunnesa, and Nusraat Faria as their daughter Sheikh Hasina.
The assassination of Rahman, his wife and three sons in his home on August 15, 1974, by officers of the Bangladesh army is one of the key events explored in Bangabandhu. Sheikh Hasina and her sister, Sheikh Rehana, escaped only because they were in Europe at the time.
Delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the biopic is awaiting a final shooting schedule in Bangladesh. Which finds Benegal back in his office, waiting for the coronavirus to halt its deadly spread, reading the latest books and reflecting on a life in cinema marked by diversity, richness and adventure. “The entire process of filmmaking still fascinates me,” Benegal said as he looked back on some of his movies and looked ahead to many more.
Why is it so important for you to come to work every day?
It’s an important discipline. It has kept me in good health, more than anything else. You need to have a basic discipline. People make fun of this business of nine-to-five, but the fact is that it is very important.
When I started working, that was my timing, which pattern I have maintained. I cannot work like some people at night. I don’t like to take work home, I have never liked to do that.
I always see the day as working time. It’s undisturbed time. I do a lot of my reading, scripting, researching and meeting people here. There are always scripts at various stages – some subject that strikes you, some real-life event maybe or some aspect of history.
That is why reading is very important. If I have an indulgence, it is that I love to read. When I was at Nizam College in Hyderabad, it was gifted a whole library of 6,000-7,000 books by several institutions. That library suddenly became contemporary, otherwise you only had these classics.
Money ultimately determines which film gets made. If you have a subject you get obsessed with and you find nobody is interested in it except you, that is the best test to know it will not be made and shouldn’t be made.
Your cousin was the renowned filmmaker Guru Dutt. Did you work with him when you moved to Mumbai from Hyderabad in the 1950s?
I moved to Bombay as soon as I finished university. I came here hoping to make films. I found that if I was going to be working with Guru Dutt, I would learn nothing. I didn’t want to be a second or a third or fourth assistant.
I would visit him, of course. His younger sister, Lalita Lajmi, lived in Colaba. Because she and her husband had a large place and my first salary in Bombay was 175 rupees, I couldn’t afford to stay anywhere on my own. Guru Dutt’s mother then took pity on me and said, why don’t you come and stay with me instead? Until I got a job with the Lintas advertising agency, I stayed there and then moved out.
I was at Lintas from 1959 to 1963. I made a huge number of advertising films at Lintas. That was my learning period. Alyque Padamsee was the head of the film department. And I used to assist him. I was also a copywriter.
Alyque was very interested in theatre, which was a great advantage. Otherwise, a boss can make you a gopher, go for this and go for that. Fortunately, Alyque spent a lot of time with his theatre people, so that left me free to make advertising films for which I am forever grateful. It gave me so much experience. I didn’t need to go to a film school to learn to make films.
How did ‘Bangabandhu’ come about?
I was offered to make the film. It’s a co-production between the National Film Development Corporation and the Bangladesh Film Development Corporation. I have finished most of it. The actors came to Bombay from Bangladesh. One schedule in Bangladesh is left and will be completed as soon as everything is normalised.
What can we hope to learn about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from the film?
I didn’t know much Mujib very much except about the horrific tragedy. It was such an extraordinary thing, a tragedy of enormous dimensions.
It will be a balanced portrait, of course, not a hagiography. You have to get to the heart of the personality, without that the person doesn’t remain a human anymore.
Mujib started out as a conventional politician and later became a Bengali nationalist. He was an extraordinarily charismatic leader and incredible orator who would hold his audiences spellbound. What was interesting to me was that apart from being a great public leader, he loved his people too much. As you might say in Greek theatre, that was his tragic flaw. His betrayal was because he was so trusting. He had been warned [about attempts on in his life] from time to time, even Mrs [Indira] Gandhi had warned him.
On the other hand, he was one of the few politicians of that stature who had such a full and cohesive family life. It’s so rare.
The film has been co-written by Shama Zaidi. Tell us about your decades-long collaboration with her.
Shama was in school with my wife, Nira, in Mussoorie. We have a natural working relationship. Shama also loves reading and is a superb researcher. Although she has primarily worked with me as a writer, she was doing costumes for my early films, like Manthan and Bhumika.
For Bharat Ek Khoj, she became a writer and was also the head of the editorial board, as it were. After that, she has worked with me from then until now.
Vanraj Bhatia scored 17 of your films, beginning with your debut, ‘Ankur’, in 1974.
Vanraj’s ambition was to be a film composer, but he had a different temperament and sensibility. He did the music for hundreds of my advertising films.
He had his quirks, but we worked well together. I had no problems, although he always complained about me to everybody. With every film, he would say, I am never going to work with you again. Then promptly, I would call him for the next film and he would come.
He was very upset when I chose AR Rahman for Zubeidaa, especially since he had just worked on Sardari Begum. But then his was a much more classically attuned style.
Among your many abandoned films was an Indian adaptation of the musical ‘Carmen’. Are there other such projects?
There are dozens, as many as the films I have made. I don’t regret anything, I am much too old now. I used to about ten years ago.
I cast for the version of Carmen any number of times, did a bit of shooting and research, got some music recorded from AR Rahman. We hadn’t finalised any actors but at one stage, I was keen to take someone like Kareena Kapoor, who was starting out at the time.
What has been your relationship with the Hindi film industry? You arguably created an alternate star system by casting then relatively unknown actors in your movies.
I have always cast my films according to the need of the character. My first choice has always been of actors rather than stars – and stars not because they are stars, but because they are good actors. For instance, I chose Karishma Kapoor for Zubeidaa not because she was a star, but I saw an actress in her.
How did you persuade the Hindi movie star Rekha to be in ‘Kalyug’, a film with an ensemble cast?
I always wanted to get Rekha into a film. She is hugely talented, but at the height of her career, she was never serious.
The first time I worked with her was for an advertising film for Lux soap. That’s when I discovered that she had huge potential.
Once I started working with her in Kalyug, I realised what a brilliant actor she was. There is a certain tradition among some actors, particularly from Telugu and Tamil films, they wouldn’t read the dialogue. They would sit there, an assistant would read out the dialogue to them and they would then do the scene. Rekha was like that – she had a photographic memory.
When we were dubbing for Kalyug, I had about four-five days in a recording studio. I called her. She made me wait, of course. She arrived half an hour before lunch, and I was hopping mad.
In the next one hour, she finished the entire dubbing. She could lip-read what she had said in the film. My writer said at one point, she is using a wrong word. But we had actually made the correction during the shoot and she remembered that.
The kind of films I was making later, Rekha didn’t fit into any of those.
‘Kalyug’ uses the Mahabharata epic’s narrative structure to examine a feud between two industrialist families. How did it come about?
It started off as a series of incidents told to me by Vinod Doshi, who headed Premier Automobiles. Being an industrialist and having come from a family that had split in different ways, he had a few ideas, and he spoke to me.
An industrial family splitting was of no interest to me. But I felt it would be interesting to see it as an archetype of what happens when people are unwilling to share power. Vinod was very interested in theatre and had even done a bit of acting. Girish Karnad was in Bombay at the time, and had acted and written for me. I told Girish I wanted to do a contemporary Mahabharata story taking Vinod Doshi as an example. Girish and Vinod sat together and worked out what eventually turned out to be Kalyug.
You have been called a ‘parallel’ or ‘Indian New Wave’ filmmaker. What do you make of these labels?
I wanted to make my kind of films, films as entertainment should be. This terminology of New Wave cinema, parallel cinema, they were used by people from the media.
I just felt that cinema should have a form of its own, it shouldn’t simply be a theatrical performance made into a film, which is that I thought of popular cinema at the time.
And yet, your films have been criticised for not being formally daring enough.
I was never formalist, I never started with a concept of a form. I always felt that content would create and find its own form. I was dealing situations in life, I wasn’t dealing with abstractions or abstract ideas.
Many of my films were commercially successful too. I was lucky, I think perhaps the reason being the stories I had to tell related in some way to the audience experience. I don’t think there is any such thing as an ideal audience. What you are trying to see is whether you are in tune. As Satyadev Dubey would say, are you in swar, in tune with your times?
These labels are meaningless. I am Shyam Benegal, filmmaker. I have had no compunctions – if a film needed songs, I would use songs.
Every one of your projects studies social and political upheaval, the quest for justice, the attempts of individuals to resist their pre-ordained roles. That has led to another label – the socially conscious filmmaker.
I have always felt that films should engage themselves with everyday life, life as it is lived. It’s important to keep your finger on the pulse on how societal movements are taking place.
Also the clash of ideologies, the tensions within social structures, how Indian society itself has been changing – some of these have come into my films. They are not status quoist. What used to be a dominant force yesterday isn’t a dominant force necessarily today.
I grew up at a time when there were major turning points in political history. I was a boy when India became independent. It wasn’t an easy independence, of course. There was the birth of the Telangana movement, the troubles in the former Nizam state. I was at the intellectual centre of the ferment at both my school and college.
Five years ago, you headed a government-appointed panel that recommended a revamp of the Central Board of Film Certification. What has been your own experience of censorship?
I have always faced problems with the censors. They insisted on giving Bhumika an adult certificate. They felt that I was glorifying the heroine of the film as an adulteress. An adult certificate meant that 50-60 per cent of the audience was cut off.
Nishant got banned [by the censors], and I had to go up to the highest authority, which was [Prime Minister] Mrs Gandhi. She watched the film and it was eventually cleared. I had to fight on so many films – Kondura, Mandi…
‘Mandi’, in which a brothel owner battles gentrification, has been frequently described as an allegory about the Emergency of 1975. Is there any truth to this theory?
It isn’t, not at all. Mandi is based on a short story by Ghulam Abbas. He lived in Allahabad, and he wrote about its red-light district. This story was based on a haveli that eventually became part of a red light district. Motilal Nehru had some connection to that haveli in the past. Perhaps that is the connection.
Do you revisit any of your films? Would you ever remake any of them?
I don’t revisit my films, I can’t bear to. I wouldn’t want to remake any of them either. They were of a particular time and place.
At this stage in your life and career, how do you view cinema?
Cinema is no longer what it was in the old sense. There is so much mixing up of media. The vehicles of transmission are so many now.
When you make a film now, you have to be aware that it will seen in a large cinema hall and on a smaller screen or even on a cellphone. You never thought of these things in the old days. To some extent, it does affect the way you make a film. There is a certain stress on looking at the subject and characters, the characters must be more physically well-defined, more close-ups and mid-shots.
And yet, this process is still magical for you? Do you ever tire of being a filmmaker?
Never. It’s like telling a doctor or a carpenter, do you get tired of it? Why would you, especially if you are good at it?
I can’t say that I was ever bored with the choices I made, the path that I have trodden. I never thought for a minute that I had made a mistake. Being a filmmaker is like being a writer or a painter. It has the precision as well as the worldview. It is local and universal at the same time. Which other profession can give you that? You are like a person in a laboratory who is looking through a microscope as well as a telescope.
Bangabandhu is hardly a final project. As long as I can keep reasonable health and my mind is also capable, I will keep making films.