Cinema, Benegal and Reality

by Nihal Rodrigo
Shyam Benegal is one of the major personalities of the "new cinema" in India. His father gifted him a movie camera when he was twelve, which is when his interest in the cinema was kindled. He has a Master’s in Economics and has worked in advertising. According to recent count, he has made 21 feature films, 45 documentaries (including the epic 53-hour documentary, Bharat Ek Khoj (the Discovery of India) and over 1000 commercial film-lets. Shabana Azmi, the late Smita Patil, Girish Karnad, Om Puri and Amrish Puri got their break in Benegal’s films. In addition to several national and international awards for his films, Benegal has been recipient of the Indian Padma Shree and the Padma Bhusan. He was in Kathmandu in early October to chair the Jury of the Film South Asia festival of documentaries. Shyam Benegal took some time off to discuss his vision of the cinema, the responses his films have evoked, the relationship between film and literature and some aspects of the South Asian film market.

Benegal spoke of his concern for contemporary political and social issues and how most of his films reflected these concerns. His first feature film, Ankur (Seedling) in 1974, which introduced Shabana Azmi, dealt with social and gender discrimination in feudalistic society in rural India. Manthan (The churning) in 1976 dealt with social mobilisation and empowerment — concepts of the South Asian development dialogue — of rural dairy farmers and their struggle against exploitation.

Benegal conceded that the cinema or individual films were not capable of really effecting huge political and social changes in India or anywhere else. He was convinced, however, that the film was a powerful medium for "bringing to the fore, subjects which otherwise would be lost to public discourse. Cinema can give social urgency and highlight the need to deal with the plight of groups who have no lobbies. That is the primary thing politically and socially conscious cinema can do. You have to work towards an attitudinal change. This must be preceded by a change in perception. It won’t happen with one film. It is a process."

The director has sought to reach out to audiences beyond those already conscious and aware - "people of the same feather" as Benegal described them. "Film must be engaging, engrossing to a very large number of people. Films must entertain. Popular acceptance and appeal is essential." Ankur, his first film, was commercially successful in India and did well in showings all over the world.

Ankur to Hari Bhari

Manthan was a unique film in more than one respect. Benegal explained the actual context of the film. In the 1970s, the movement to establish milk cooperatives had begun in Gujarat, spear-headed by Dr. Verghese Kurien of the Indian National Dairy Development Board and involving about half a million dairy farmers. Benegal himself had already made a documentary on the subject and gathered a great deal of research material. He had discussed with Dr. Kurien the possibility of making "a commercially viable fiction film which would also have an important real story to tell." Dr. Kurien had agreed and suggested that the dairy farmers themselves be the producers — i.e. financiers — of the film. "Each member of the milk cooperative", said Benegal, "half a million of them, contributed two rupees each. The funny thing is that not only was the film, therefore, produced by the farmers themselves, it was also popularised by them. Farmers travelled in lorries and buses from all over to see the film at the nearest town. It had a second usage as well. There were no video players then but with Super 8 and 16 mm portable projectors, spear-head teams went to villages in milk producing areas to engage them in dialogue as to how they could increase milk production, maximise their earnings and improve the breed of their cattle. The film was, therefore, very important to stimulate the discussions."

Benegal then made an observation which may be of some interest to scholars and to cine-historians: "The film was seen by more people than any single film made in India. It was shown in over 150,000 villages in addition to the cinema circuits. It was a springboard to develop new cooperatives all over India. 25 years later, today, in new areas, the film is still being used. In 1977, the Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai presented the film to the Soviet Union and to China where it was shown widely. The UNDP also took the film and showed it in different places in Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania after dubbing the sound-track into different languages from the original Hindi version." Benegal added modestly, "largely, the person behind all this who helped to promote the film was Dr. Kurien himself."

Susman (The Essence), made in 1986, dealt with what Benegal described as the "second largest trained human resource in India" - the handloom and textile workers. However, the film did not have the popularity and spread of Manthan but helped to bring to the surface an issue which involved such a large section of the population as well as a cottage industry and an art that were threatened. Samar (1998) was a comedy on caste prejudice which Benegal said "would make a lot of people uncomfortable and unhappy". Its commercial release has, however, been held up and Benegal is still agitating for its release.

The following year, the director made Antarnaad (Inner-voice), a film based on the teachings of Parwan Shastri, who lectured on interpretations of the Gita. According to Shastri, "The real cause of the vicious cycle of under-development was a lack of self-esteem" among marginalised people. This inhibits the emergence of their creativity, talent and capabilities. Benegal explained further that thousands of village communities in Gujarat and Maharastra had been transformed by the Swadhyayi concept, which shuns charity handouts. "Philanthropy is not their idea. The basic concept is that you create wealth by sharing: not by giving or selling your surplus but by sharing what you have. For example, in the family, when parents and children give, they are in effect sharing. Antarnaad promotes this concept, extending a familial relationship into a wider community into society."

More recently, Hari Bhari (2000), which starred Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, took up the controversial issue of fertility and family planning. Antarnaad and Hari Bhari have had successful commercial runs and were films that touched many of the most relevant issues to South Asia’s social and economic development. Shabana Azmi, who acted in many of Benegal’s films, is now a member of the Indian Parliament and an important social activist. Benegal: "She has moved from her screen image to her real persona."

In Manthan, uniquely, producer and subject were in a sense one. But Benegal worked with the different Bollywood financiers who may not be interested in sponsoring films beyond the call of booty and did he face any restraints from them in making the films he liked to. "I have had several private producers, private individuals who were naturally concerned about earning money which they did. Producers know me. In no way can they push me around. I won’t allow them to push me around."

The luxury of introspection

Given Benegal’s reputation for making films which take on challenging social and political themes, was he comfortable with films which were introspective, and which probed deeply into the individual psyche? His reply: "Deep psychological inquiry is, to some extent, a middle-class luxury as far as cinema is concerned. This is particularly so for India, where there are so many larger, more pressing concerns around. I would not say the same was true of literature which is more personal and inwardly probing." In this context, he discussed the 1992 film Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda (the Seven Horses of the Sun): "It is based on a Hindi literary classic of Dharamabeer Bharati with many interesting aspects in it. A young man tells three stories to define what love is. They are about three different women with whom he has had relationships, first as a pre-pubescent, than as an adolescent and thirdly as a mature adult. But all these relationships are happening at the same time, simultaneously. There is no time difference. He knows the three girls at the same timme. As human beings, we have this inner psychology and a way of creating a selfimage and behaviour with people at certain moments of that relationship. This behaviour freezes in that position. For example, you sometimes behave with your father even in your adulthood as though you were still twelve years old. That film was a difficult exercise. Literature has the ability to deal with time and space in a way that cinema finds difficult to do. Cinema concretises the image. Symbols and emblems become very definite and concrete in film unlike in literature. Words are abstract, but when put together in literature, they have an associational context. Spaces between words are filled up by the reader in whom things are evoked through his own associations and imagination. Cinema does not always have that associational capability. The evocativeness of literature is very difficult to produce in cinema. In cinema, you see everything through the director’s eye and that becomes totally subjective."

Benegal made the point that the documentary film was attracting filmmakers who had something to say - more than the feature film. He commented on the variety and range of films which were screened at the Film South Asia ’01 documentary festival: "Documentaries by and large tend to deal with the real stuff of life, reality directly observed. Much of what you do in documentaries is not necessarily within your control. When you make a documentary ‘about’ something — the word "about" is important here — you are not in the real thick of it. In fiction films, you can get into characters, into their motivation and into various things even though you are subjective. You bring an ‘inferiority’ into the subject and to be able to do so gives you in fact a greater sense of reality than when you merely observe and reproduce reality. Film fictionalised from real life tends to give you great opportunities to present such a greater reality."