Shyam Benegal’s charisma is central to the history of the alternative cinema movement in India.
Benegal’s career of 37 years spans the genesis of the movement in the 7O’s to an exciting trend today when art house cinema language is being appropriated by mainstream films.
Shyam Benegal has been considered one of the leading filmmakers of the country ever since his first feature film, ANKUR was released.
His films have been seen and acclaimed widely in India and at International film festivals for the last four decades. The core subjects of his films have been varied in nature but mainly centered around contemporary Indian experience. Problems of development, social and cultural change appear on many levels as a continuing thread in practically all his films.
Apart from 23 fiction features, he has made a number of documentaries on different subjects ranging from cultural, anthropology and problems of industrialization, to music and so on.
He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1976 and the Padma Bhushan in 1991. On 8 August 2007, he was awarded the highest award in Indian cinema for lifetime achievement, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for the year 2005. He has won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi seven times.
In fact, no single director in the Hindi film industry – or in the Indian film industry – has contributed as many major actors as Shyam Benegal has, including Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Amrish Puri, just to mention a few; and they all continued loyally to work for him. He has been more than a director – he was also a friend, a very good host, a banker for his impoverished actors; a psychiatrist on whose shoulder one could cry; and most of all a father figure.
His illustrious love affair with films began at the age of twelve, when he made his first film, on a camera given to him by his photographer father Sridhar B. Benegal.
He started his career working in 1959, as an advertising copywriter, at a Bombay-based advertising agency, Lintas Advertising, where he steadily rose to become a creative head. Meanwhile, he made his first documentary in Gujarati, Gher Betha Ganga (Ganges at Doorsteps) in 1962. His first feature film though, had to wait another decade, while he worked on the script.
In 1963 he started a brief stint with another advertising agency called ASP (Advertising, Sales and Promotion). During his advertising years, he directed over 900 sponsored documentaries and advertising films.
For him, cinema has always been a passion. Not a job or money earning device, but as a mission. It is a means to an end…not a means by itself. Filmmaking by itself means nothing unless he can make a statement…touch people’s lives. It doesn’t matter what he made, features or ad films, eventually he has touched people’s lives.
His first film “Ankur” was made at the time the Hindi film industry was an absolutely closed shop; with doors and windows locked and bolted. No-one was allowed inside. That was also the period of the multi-starrers. Sholay had just succeeded, and each film had not just one star, but many, and the whole industry had become overweight and inward-looking.
There was no possibility for any young film-maker. It was at that time that Shyam Benegal appeared on the scene. He came with his own ideas and always followed his heart. He only made films on stories that he liked. “Ankur” was based on a story that he’d nursed for many years. He took actors he liked: not little-known people who had not succeeded elsewhere, but just entirely new people, who had no standing at all in the film industry.
In his early films, he didn’t use songs, or dances, and he did them in a sort of neo-realistic fashion. Most extraordinary of all was that he found money to make these films. There were several directors of that period who made art-films and then just disappeared. The great thing about Shyam Benegal is that he was not just a dreamer, but he could always face the harsh reality.
Probably, his lessons in understanding reality began, when Guru Dutt (Guru Dutt was not only his cousin, but also his role model) made Kaagaz Ke Phool which failed miserably. This failure truly shattered Dutt, because he couldn’t understand why it failed.
That, for Shyam Benegal, was the turning point as he understood that it was no longer possible, even using the traditional Indian form of cinema, to make films like Mother India, or films such as Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt were making, or even the early films of Raj Kapoor, like Awaara.
Shyam Benegal once commented- “The film industry talks about entertainment, I talk about engagement but the engagement and entertainment concepts must meet at some stage”.
His first film “Ankur” is based on a true story that occurred in Hyderabad, apparently in the 1950s. It is a story of economic and sexual exploitation. He had written this story when he was in college, and he searched for producer for 20 years before he finally got one to put a little bit of money into that film.
His first producer was the sole distributor of all advertising films in India that time. Even though, he himself was very unsure of the success of the film and just wished that it runs in “Eros cinema” in Bombay over a weekend, Satyajit Ray (who was one of the first viewers) said it would probably run over many weekends. It actually ran for 25 weeks.
Ankur depicted his ability to cast correctly. One of the strengths of that film is the casting. It introduced two entirely new people: Shabana Azmi and Anant Nag. Whole crew of the film was inexperienced too, except Govind Nihalani, the cinematographer. All of those associated with that film went on to make a very successful career out of film-making, in their different lines of work including the editor and sound recordist.
The success that New Indian Cinema enjoyed in the 1970s and early 1980s could largely be attributed to Shyam Benegal’s quartet: Ankur (1973), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977) which were artistically superior yet commercially viable films.
It would be wonderful to sum up the life and work of Shyam Benegal with the quote of one critic: “Benegal has put up a model of committed film-making in a thoroughly professional manner that could be eminently useful for both the mainstream, with its recklessly expensive habits, and art cinema, with its holier-than-thou attitude and amateurism”.