Shyam Benegal Curated
Indian Director & Screenwriter
CURATED BY :
Would you like to say something, share something from your experiences with today’s generation?
See, if you choose to do something in life, you cannot harbour ifs and buts. You have to be fully committed. If you have alternatives, check them out before you make a commitment. There is no looking back once you make a commitment. When I was shooting my first feature film, Ankur, I had to travel to a location over 30 km away from our hotel every day. Along the way, we would pass by a centre that housed a tank regiment. Their motto was ‘Bash on Regardless’. That gave me a great deal of confidence and continues to when I have a particularly difficult challenge to overcome.
I was told that when you go to shoot a film in any location, you take your main crew and actors to the location of the shoot to mingle with the locals. Why?
I did do that in the past, when all of us had the luxury of time. It was also not as expensive to do as it is today. However, I still think it is an excellent opportunity because it helps everyone get familiar with the world that is going to be recreated in the film. Today, this may be seen as a needless indulgence that is unnecessarily expensive. Nowadays, you rarely have the actors with you through the entire schedule as it is unaffordable. When I was shooting Nishant and Ankur, my actors were with me from the first day of the shoot to the last, even those who were not required for most of the days. For instance, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, who played an important part in Nishant, used to get into his costume and make-up and be on the sets every day even though I shot with him only on the last six days of a forty-five-day schedule. By the time I filmed with him, there was no question of my directing him. He was already steeped in that world and knew his part very well. During Ankur, I made Shabana eat her meals seated on the floor, just like the character [Lakshmi] she played. All the others ate their meals at the table. During Manthan, I made the actors wear their character-costumes, which were stitched in the village, all through the period of the film’s shooting, so that their clothes looked properly worn. In Bhumika, which was set between 1930 and 1950, I got the actors to wear costumes from Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959). The music composer Vanraj [Bhatia] used the music style of that period.
What is the difference between writing a novel and a film script? What makes for a good writer–director relationship?
There is a difference between a novelist and a film scriptwriter. A writer who writes novels only uses his imagination. A film director wants the scriptwriter to customize his or her writing according to the director’s vision and requirement. That is the fundamental difference. The writer and director relationship can work only when both of them understand each other well. If somebody gives me a script and asks me to make a film based on it, and if the script does not inspire me in any way or does not suit my sensibility, the film I will make from such a script will be mediocre at best. I believe, the director has to be the author of the film, only then will they be able to harness and give direction to the creative contribution of the others involved in the process. There will always be some difference in sensibilities between two individuals. Although, there can be shared sensibilities. For instance, the sensibility that writer Abrar Alvi shared with his director Guru Dutt. They had a fine relationship. The way the characters were etched in Guru Dutt’s films matched both their sensibilities. This is very important. You don’t often see examples of that kind. I have had an excellent working relationship with eminent writers such as Girish Karnad, Shama Zaidi and Atul Tiwari, apart from late Satyadev Dubey.
How do you normally cast actors? What are you looking for in actors when you hold auditions for them?
I have never held any auditions for any of my films. As and when I did, those films never got made! [Laughs.] The only actor whom I have ever held an audition for was Kulbhushan Kharbanda, for my second film, Nishant. He came all the way from Calcutta to Bombay for the audition. His audition was simply a formality. I took him directly to Hyderabad the next day for the shoot. He had come to the audition without any real hope of getting a part in the film. Therefore, he had parked his car at the Calcutta airport to travel back home on his return the next day. I presume that his car remained at Calcutta airport for a long time until it was finally towed away by the municipal authorities. I generally judge actors on the basis of the personality they project, and whether they can assume the personality that I need to create for the film. I usually observe their body language and also whether they are photogenic, by this I mean, whether they are capable of projecting a distinct personality that could be captured by the camera. I also look for commitment in an actor. Take someone like Naseeruddin Shah. He is a highly committed actor and always gives his very best to whatever he does. Commitment is as important as talent. Commitment to their craft and instinct are primary requirements in an actor. Smita Patil, for instance, was very instinctive. She had no formal training as an actor. She developed her craft as she went on.
What path did you choose to learn direction?
I was never an assistant to any director. I began as a director. There were experienced film-makers, both documentary and fiction, who used to produce advertising films, such as Clement Baptista, V. M. Vijaykar and Durga Khote and Fali Bilimoria. Therefore, I never felt any kind of anxiety about my own ability to direct, even though I had to learn from scratch and all by myself. I am not sure whether it was easier to direct since the script was also written by me. I am not sure whether doing it my way was better than going through a film school prior to becoming a director. Perhaps, it would have made the learning process quicker and easier had I studied at a film school. FTII started much later in 1961. At one time, I used to regret not having been formally educated in cinema. I would have learned more systematically than the way I was compelled to. Learning on your own means that you have to learn everything from the very beginning. If you come via a film school you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
When did you arrive in or Mumbai to join the profession?
I came to Mumbai looking for film-related work in 1958. I lived with the director, Guru Dutt, for a month and later, with his mother for a year. He asked me to join him as an assistant. I did not want to, because that way I would be just one of the several assistants and gofers (go-for) under him. Moreover, I really did not want to make the kind of films he made, even though he was someone I held in high regard and he inspired me. Later, I took my script (Ankur) to various producers. No one agreed to make it. I was told that no one would be interested in seeing a film about an upper-caste landlord sleeping with his Dalit domestic help. The script did the rounds for the next 13 years till I finally found a willing producer!
Of course you can react. But not with violence or threats, wouldn’t you agree?
In a country of such immense diversity you cannot look at things in black and white. We are a very heterogeneous people although we do have an overall definition of being Indian. We have learnt how to negotiate the heterogeneity, the different kinds of beliefs. In such a situation if you are going to look at the world in black and white terms, then you are bound to offend. And that kind of offence should not be there.
Hasn’t there been an unwillingness or inability to protect artists in the past?
It’s a complex question. You can either be pragmatic, opportunistic or principled. Most people are a mixture of all three. In this case, the fact is that the publishers were worried because they are in a commercial business, and they want to remain in the marketplace. They don’t want controversies which will not help them. So there’s a bit of pragmatism as well there, no?
The freedom of expression of Indian artists is increasingly being hampered by social and political groups that threaten violence. We’ve got to a stage when even before getting a court ruling, the publishers of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus agreed to pulp the book. Are you worried as an artist?
The publishers of Wendy Doniger’s book functioned as censors. Isn’t it a shame? There was no reason to do that, but they might have done it for commercial considerations and nothing else.
Right now everyone is talking about the emergence of a New Wave in Hindi cinema, and the coexistence of very offbeat films with hard-core commercial films. Yet Zanjeer starring Amitabh Bachchan released in 1973, the year before your film Ankur. Bachchan simultaneously did Abhimaan, which wasn’t in the same commercial mould. So, didn’t all kinds of cinema coexist then, too?
No, it was very difficult in those days. General audiences were not accustomed to seeing anything other than what was considered our mainstream cinema. This meant films made in a song-and-dance format with the basic staple being melodrama, in which you had doses of comedy, farce, justice, the works. When most people defined cinema in those terms, it was obviously a challenge if you were making something different that was hard to define. That’s what happened to Satyajit Ray in the 1950s in Bengali cinema, and later to others in other states, and finally to people like me in the 1970s in Hindi. Of course there were different challenges in each state. For instance, the sociology of Kerala is different because of the high literacy level and the fact that it has more readers than other states. We always shy away from the unfamiliar, but reading gives you a wider worldview and makes you more open to new ideas. Those who read will obviously accept a different kind of film more easily. In that sense the situation was ideal in Kerala for people like G. Aravindan and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Hindi was India’s largest film market, therefore its revenue-earning capability depended entirely on films that would run widely all over the country. So it was hardest to have a Hindi film that was different from the mainstream.
The Mahabharat is filled with archetypal situations. If you were to remake Kalyug, because you have moved on, the world has moved on, would it be a completely different film?
Absolutely. No question, it won’t be the same film. Circumstances change but the Mahabharat stands the test of time. For just about any experience that you go through in life, you can find a quotation in the Mahabharat. That quality is what makes it always possible to use ideas from Mahabharat in any work. Kalyug dealt with Indian industry at a particular time that’s now long gone. Corporates today function differently from the way they did 35 years ago.
Of your films Ankur, Manthan, Kalyug and Junoon, which one would you say has transcended time, and is most relevant to today’s political and social reality?
One or two films may have done it but, by and large, I don’t think most of them have. I’m naturally subjectively connected to my films, I’m either over-critical or partial, so I won’t name them. The problem with films is that they are more time-bound than any other art form, if I may call cinema art. When you make a film, you’re relating to the environment in which you are, and the way you think about things at that time. Whether it is in the way people clothe themselves, the way people speak, the idiom they speak in, all these things are very much a part of that particular film, so it remains a creature of that time.
Once you’ve released a film, do you tend to re-watch it, and each time think of ways you could have done it better?
No, because it’s no use at all. There’s a time and place for everything. When you make a film, you are making it in certain given circumstances of time, location and so on. Whatever you do, you try to rise above that time by doing it. You want what you’ve created to transcend that time. After you have done it, after the public has seen it, there are lessons to be learnt, but not on the same film. Lessons for the future.
You have been associated both with MAMI and IFFI. There is a perception that young filmmakers don’t prefer Indian Panorama any more…were things different in your younger days?
It has to do with perception. One can learn from Cannes Film Festival where they try to push French cinema. In India the focus should be a lot more on Indian films. It was always like this. The festival is scheduled towards the end of the year. By this time the critics and buyers have usually seen all the important films of the year. Film Bazaar is doing a good job in buying and selling but again a perception should be created that it is all part of the same thing.
Could you have made “Kalyug”, which drew from Mahabharat or a political film today without evoking extreme reactions?
I don’t think I would have faced problem. I can still make it in a different setting.
You are also making a docu-drama on the history of Punjab. What do you have to say on this?
It is more or less complete. It is about the evolution of Punjab as a geographical, cultural entity starting from Maharaja Ranjit Singh to the present day. It will be shown in the theatre which the Punjab government is building in the Karatarpur complex. It is a hub that will have hotels, an amusement centre and a museum with a screening area where ‘Jang-e-Azadi’ will be screened on a loop. People of Indian origin and NRIs of Punjabi descent come to India to look at their heritage. The film gives you a sense of your background and history.
Be it “Bharat Ek Khoj” or “Samvidhan”, canvas and scale hasn’t stopped you from taking up grand projects. There is news of you working on a series on wars. What do you have to say on this?
This is an individual choice. Rajya Sabha TV wants me to do a series on all the wars that India has fought in the 20th Century. It is a very important programme where we will capture Indian contribution from the First World War to Kargil. It may not be for cinema, it may not have the biggest scale but we can still make it a relevant document. When I started for “Bharat Ek Khoj” with 30-odd historical consultants, people showed apprehension but it has withstood the test of time. Twenty six years have passed since it first appeared but youngsters still like to watch it. Similarly, “Samvidhan”, was crucial for me because this generation should know how we created our democratic institutions. How much it was debated upon before the constitution got the final shape….
What is your position on intolerance debate and filmmakers returning awards?
I have a simple position. You can and you should and you must raise your voice against intolerance particularly related to the minorities of the country. We are constitutionally bound to protect our minorities. There are different ways of protesting and what Aamir Khan has done is fine. The point I was making was don’t return your National Awards because they are essentially awards given by the nation and not a particular government.
Is that what inspired you to become a filmmaker?
No, I always knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. It’s more that the film absolutely blew my mind. I went back to Hyderabad, where we had a film society, and this was one of the films that we put up there. After that, every Ray film that was made was shown there.
What is your favourite memory of kolkata?
I have so many, I don’t think I have just a favourite memory… Oh, no, wait, I do, I do! You know what my favourite memory of Kolkata is? When I was in college, I used to be a swimmer. I captained my state. I came for national swimming championships here, and we would go to a pool near College Street. This was one such year, I think it was 1956. I came here for a competition, in which I think I placed third, and after that I went to visit my uncle. He used to be a commercial artist. And he casually said, “Have you seen a film called ‘Pather Panchali’?” And I said, “What’s that?” “There is this film,” he replied, “by this chap who used to be a commercial artist and did book covers- you remember ‘Discovery of India’? He did that. His film is running, you should go see.” We went to a hall in Ballygunge somewhere and my cousin and I went for a matinee show. Then we went for the evening show. Then we went for the night show. I spent twelve hours in a movie theatre! I remember that day extremely well. And that’s my favourite memory of Kolkata.
With the rise of YouTube and an increasing number of young filmmakers turning to short films, do you think more people are daring to try these subjects?
Yes, they are. The risk is much lower online. But the earning is not there. Ultimately, you do it out of your own volition and for your own pleasure. Otherwise, it cannot really be a business proposition. You put things up on Youtube because you develop an instant audience of vast numbers in different parts of the world. It’s available for everyone to see. And it doesn’t cost the viewers any money.
Your film, Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero, deals with the issue of Netaji’s life, which is quite controversial. Bollywood tends to shy away from such topics. Do you think this is changing now?
Everybody shies away from risk. The entertainment world is such that you want the largest number of people to come, so you want to minimize the risk. It is like any other business. Let’s say, a film like “Aligarh.” If it wasn’t for this director (Hansal Mehta), a lot of people would never touch a subject like that. Homosexuality is a very high-risk subject. A lot of people may not want to see it. There will be other kinds of backlash. This is where a lot of very good subjects don’t get done. You fear that it will alienate people, rather than appeal to them.
Can we get to see something different in this television series on constitution?
What was the necessity to make a television series on constitution?