For me it began with the two promotional posters – a rural Indian woman in each, one with the trapped heat of molten lava in her eyes (Smita Patil), the other with the wary look of a hunted animal (Shabana Azmi). Shyam Benegal’s Nishant (1975), was indeed an ‘A’ film, but, as I told my mother at 13, it was time I grew up.
No usher had stopped me entering the hall where the film was being screened and I walked home with questions that would haunt me for 30 years until I met the director himself. That happened in 2005, when I was assigned to interview Shyam Benegal as part of a Prithvi Theatre initiative under Sanjna Kapoor.
I did what anyone would do if they were given such an opportunity – squealed, squeaked and shrieked I was hardly the person for the job and then decided I had to, just had to do it. I would tell Shyam Benegal what his films meant to me (I had seen many more of them since Nishant) – unravelling social complexities, exploring truth without judgement, engaging with characters in full-blooded, pulsating, lived moments and above all, the resilience of the human spirit. I would tell him how his films shook me out of a somnambulist’s stupor and pitchforked me out of societal pretensions, what such themes meant for urban women in India... and ..and...
Every poster that lined the walls of his office made me stop to catch my breath.
“Mr Shyam Benegal,” I burst out when I was shown into his room. “How I have wanted to meet you!”
He smiled at me, shook my extended hand, offered me a seat and waited for my ebullient jet of excitement to drain itself out.
There was Nishant, I babbled. What was the ending all about? Ankur and Shabana Azmi, what a find! Mandi – you know, Mr Benegal, I never got all of it when I first saw it, but later I grew to love it. What dialogue! Naseeruddin Shah – what an actor! And that monkey business – how did you shoot it? Susman – the scene with Om Puri when he sinks in defeat. Bhumika – did you think it Smita Patil’s best film? Junoon – was it then that Jennifer Kendall caught your eye? Manthan – why was the DVD not available?
Shyam Benegal responded to every question and comment I hurled at him, never once making me feel the 13-year old I must have sounded. Then he brought us back, gently and firmly to the subject of our interview – Shakespeare’s works and what he felt about them. I have been a teacher of Shakespeare for over three decades but that afternoon, I was transformed into a student of Shyam Benegal’s and I hope I have retained much, if not everything I recorded on the dictaphone and later transcribed.
How could one reconnect with Shyam Benegal? Could I possibly work with him?
“Are you good with languages?” he asked.
“You can send me your CV,” he said writing down his email address for me (I still have that post-it, by the way). “If there is anything, I will let you know.”
A distinguished gentleman’s polite brush-off, I thought, but then, as I found my feet and thanked him for his time, he added, “We have a copy of Manthan here, if you would like it.”
“And how much would that be, Mr Benegal?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” he smiled.
I walked out of Shyam Benegal’s office at Tardeo’s Everest building feeling I had sighted the mountain itself. For months and then perhaps a few years till it was available on shop shelves. I gloated over my DVD of Manthan, which no one was allowed to borrow for any reason whatsoever.
Looking for opportunities to meet Shyam Benegal has been and probably will always be a preoccupation. When a professor friend visited from the United States and spoke of wanting to meet him, I was only too glad to play gofer. And Shyam Benegal responded, generously giving us all the time we wanted.
There have been other requests made and they have always been responded to with generosity and utmost attention. Perhaps the moment I value most is when I was guided towards restructuring a project that I had not really thought enough about.
There is something to be said for the man who does not patronise or diminish the presence of another, is gifted with the ability to understand contexts with compassion and can speak with perspective, insight, courage and conviction. Signature Shyam Benegal. His work is proof.