By Harihar Swarup
Shyam Benegal, now 86, doesn’t believe in retirement. Life will happen to you anyway, he says, as he prepares for his first film in 11 years.
Benegal likes to joke that he’s always introduced as a man who needs no introduction, a line that is followed by a lengthy introduction. It’s true, and unavoidable. So here he goes: The filmmaker started his career 47 years ago with Ankur (1974), story about a Dalit couple and their upper caste landlord. It was Shbana Azmi’s debut feature and is considered one of the finest works of Hindi Cinema.
Audiences would come to recognize and love Benegal’s art through subsequent films such as Nishant (1975) and Manthan (1976), stark tales, startling real, that followed everyday Indians as they struggled to be seen, heard, acknowledged.
His films shone a light on an India rarely seen on screen. Mandi (1983) was the story of the residents of a Hyderabad brothel: Trikal (1985), of Christian in Goa during the last years of Portuguese rule. What made these movies impactful and evocative was that, beneath the quiet realism, were scathing takedowns of castes, class, disparity, India’s increasing capital society.
Benegal, who continues to work out of the same small office in Mumbai that he has occupied for 44 years (and answers his own landline), is currently shooting a Bengali film, Bangabandhu (friend of Bengal), a co-production by the government of India and Bangladesh. It tells the story of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, founder of Bangladesh. This is Bengal’s first film in 11 years.
Benegal takes Bangbandhu Mujibur Rehman in high esteem. He says Mujibur Rehman’s life is like a Shakespearean tragedy, from a young leader and founder of East Pakistan Muslim Students’ leader to a key figure in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, to become the first President, to his brutal assassination (he was killed at his residence in 1975, along his wife, three sons, two daughter-in-laws, brother and nephew, during a military coup). The tale fascinated Benegal. Even the way his two daughters, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana escaped, because they were not in the country at that time.
He was passionate not only about Bengali as a language but about creating Bengali nation. He gave his life for it. “It was a fascinating journey for me to discover Mujibur Rehman from various archives”, says Benegal.
Do you think about movie making differently after all these years, he was asked? Benegal replied “when you are eating a meal every day, do you stop and think about the fact that you are eating? Movie making is the same for me. I’m a film maker; this is what I do. When I started my career 50 years ago, I used to think how to be one. Now, it is like speaking a language. It comes naturally.”
Technology has changed, he says, adding “When we shot on celluloid, the kinds of exposure were adjusted manually. Now, it is manual. But what if one does not want the standard exposure? You have to do it manually. All artistic expression is subjective. We all have to go beyond the standard view.
Asked what next for you, Benegal replied “at my age you don’t think of what next; I am trying to make the most of any opportunity. I plan to work as long as I can. There’s no such thing as retirement life will happen to way any way. I enjoy life as long as I keep in good health and I plan to enjoy it for a long time to come”. (IPA Service)