Pioneer of the wave that was

He shows no signs of a 77-year itch. Septuagenarian Shyam Benegal, lounging in his office in Mumbai’s traffic-strangled Tardeo neighbourhood, is cooler than the airconditioning. We chat about every subject under the moon and stars. In the course of the conversation, the only itch he reveals is that he hasn’t been behind the camera for over two years now. His Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008) was a sleeper hit and Well Done Abba (2010) was more than cost-effective. Yet given the market flip-flops, he hasn’t been able to reactivate his dream project Carmen. Vidya Balan was to portray the eponymous role of a fiery gypsy but after the whopping successes of The Dirty Picture and Kahaani, she pulled out of the project. Reasons: Hitchockian.
Posters of Benegal’s groundbreaking films from the 1970-’80s enliven the main office area, which has been lately painted and deco-lamed. “I was getting tired of the same old look, the renovation had to be done,” he says, offering a sugar-happy tea from a vending machine. Ask him about the whereabouts of the prints of some of his most cherished films, like Ankur (1974), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976) and Mandi (1983), and he shrugs stoically, “I have no idea… I just have the DVDs. My secretary could burn you a copy if you like.” Kondura (1978) is the one I have to catch up with, and also his children’s film Charandas Chor (1975), which featured Smita Patil in the part of a defiant princess.
Benegal, Rajya Sabha MP and unarguably the most incisive speaker on myriad aspects of Indian cinema, continues to believe in his brand of filmmaking: socially concerned, filmed largely on authentic locations and narrating stories with a solid structure complete with songs if essential, besides giving popular stars an opportunity to deliver some of their most memorable performances. Not the sort to go into raptures of “those were the days” — after all the ’70s did witness the Indian nouvelle vague — he’s rooted in the here and now. According to him, the post-new-millennium decade isn’t barren of directors of guts and entrails. Anurag Kashyap bent the rules with Dev.D, and he has a special word for Dibakar Bannerjee. “That boy’s work is full of surprises.” The reference being to Khosla ka Ghosla (2006) Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye (2008).
When I insist that the 1970s was a far more exciting era for the rule-breakers, what with the phalanx from the Pune Film Institute — notably Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Kundan Shah, Saeed Mirza, and Ketan Mehta — Benegal nods in agreement briefly, “Yes, yes, of course.” To push him into comparing the early batch of unconventional filmmakers to today’s leaner crop would be unfair perhaps. After all, every era spawns a cinema arising out of the prevailing conditions, be it societal or political.
Speaking for myself, there was an element of the adventurous and even the bravely suicidal back in the 1970s. A collaborative team of filmmakers fashioned a stubbornly experimental version of the forceful theatre play Ghashiram Kotwal (1976), which couldn’t be comprehended by its writer Vijay Tendulkar. It wasn’t storytelling — linear or leapfrogging between time spans — but subjective essays and formal exercises which were somehow being seen and heard. The canard then remaining in the cans was just a voguish affectation. The aesthetic films of Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani stand out as stellar examples of uncompromised cinema. Other forms existed, co-existed and that’s what made the ’70s a wonderland for cineastes. A thousand flowers bloomed. Almost ideologically, a few critics supported the intellectual against the medium-wave. Bikram Singh of Filmfare was an influential critic whose home and workplace desk was an adda for the “rebels”. The magazine’s editor, B.K. Karanjia, chaired the National Film Development Corporation, the fountain of parallel cinema, today drier than a desert.
Small was meaningful. Satyajit Ray, with his continuing chain of humanitarian films, presided over Indian cinema. Ritwik Ghatak, who had passed away at the age of 50 in 1976, was canonised — deservedly but needlessly pitted against Ray. Mrinal Sen, Aravindan, Girish Kasaravalli and Goutam Ghose gave the audience repast for thought and distinctive stylistic forms. Today? In my eye, that wave has ebbed.
In the conversation with Benegal, I do not get into details and hair-splitting. For instance, I do not say that it is impossible to find the poetry of Aravindan anywhere. Shaji Karun, the creator of the intensely moving Piravi, has regressed instead of evolving. And see, even Benegal has to spend two years — and still more — waiting for a financier who will break even on his investment even in a worst-case scenario.
I left the office with a beam of optimism though. The market rules are about to be rewritten with the onset of far more affordable digital technology. A thousand flowers will surely bloom again, and Carmen will be made, Balan or no Balan.

The writer is a journalist, film critic and film director

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I want to begin with a little story that was told to me by a leading executive at Aptech. He was exercising in a gym with a lot of younger people.

Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen didn’t make the cut. Neither did Shaji Karun’s Piravi, which bagged 31 international awards.