Bollywood Legends - Shyam Benegal
There is the main cinema; there is the parallel cinema epitomised by Shabana, Smita, Nandita Das and then there is the middle cinema—that has the flavour of both kinds. None symbolises the middle cinema better than the prolific director Shyam Benegal. He has made films with the speed of rapid action fire gun. But despite a copious filmmaking career-spanning decades, Shyam Benegal, has rarely compromised with quality that has been a hallmark of all his works.
Shayam Benegal announced his arrival on the Indian cinema scene with Gher Betha Ganga (1962). But it was only in the next decade that his film quartet of Ankur (1974) Nishant (1974), Manthan (1975) and Bhumika (1976), made the world to sit up and appreciate his directorial abilities. All four films were narratives of India’s socio-economic scene in the backdrop of gender bias, domestic violence, social prejudices and atrocities committed on women. In fact Benegal, who is credited to have inherited the legacy of Satyajit Ray, was deeply influenced by Ray’s Pathar Panchali (1955) in his formative years. So much so that the great Satyajit Ray expressed his admiration for the reincarnation of his loved themes by Benegal.
Shyam Benegal’s documentary film ‘Satyajit Ray’ (1984) only brought to limelight, how much these two contemporaries were kindred. His later films like Junoon (1979) and Kalayug (1981) made on the evergreen subject of Revolt of 1857 further portrayed his imagination and to the extent he could dabble with the sensibilities of filmmaking. In order to impart the specific cultural context to a film Benegal made full use of local language and idiom of the province, where the film was being done.
His films, which were much more than mere entertainers, provided the perfect springboard to the budding talents of the likes of Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Smita Patil, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Amrish Puri in his films. The International Film Guide in 1979 ranked him as one of the five best directors of the world.
But later years were marked by a paradigm shift in the focus of his films. Shyam Benegal eventually tried to walk the chartered course, now and then infusing his ingenuity, into what was current. In 1986, Shyam Benegal made an epochal TV Serial ‘Bharat Ek Khoj’ based on Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s memorable work Discovery of India. The serial vividly portrayed 3500 years of existence of Indian civilisation as written in Nehru’s classic work.
But by 1991, when he returned to the mainstream cinema, the scenario had undergone a metamorphic change. Benegal nevertheless continued to toe his own line and came out with a trilogy of Mammo (1995), Sardari Begum (1996), and Zubeidaa (2000). All there films were vivid depiction of the plight of Muslim woman – a repressed, yet a significant section of our society. In the din produced by romantic entertainers of Ram Gopal Verma, Sanjay Leela Bhonsali, Yash Chopra and Karan Johar Benegal’s works stand apart, for their profundity of thought and vision. Benegal himself is a severe critic of this pseudo -- Indian culture portrayed by the modern cinema, which is far removed from the realities of everyday life. Samar (1996) introspects the caste bias and Hari Bhari (1999) deals with the lack of control on procreation in Indian women in the twenty-first century. ‘Suraj Ka Satvan Gora’ (1993) is yet another example of his trying to swim against the current. No wonder popularity of Shyam Benegal in the West is only next to Satyajit Ray.
Benegal laments the decay in the parallel cinema movement in India. He feels that in the modern day market driven by global commitments, the loss of art work in cinema could have more to do with lack of right packaging and market management then the viability of its content. But then these thoughts could be wishful thinking of a die-hard optimist.
On 31st October Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh conferred on Benegal the Indira Gandhi Award For National Integration for his role in strengthening the values of society.
Shyam Benegal, a veteran of over 1000 advertisement films, documentaries, TV serials, and feature films was born on born 14 December, 1934 in Aliwal, Hyderabad, British India (Andhra Pradesh) in a middle class household. The late Guru Dutt, who was his uncle, initiated him into the fine art of filmmaking. We wish Benegal many more years in the service of the community.