It was born in 70s, mid 70s. The conception was taking place for a very long time but it was delivered late in the mad mad world of 70s. I am talking about what was named the ‘Parallel’ or ‘Art’ cinema. The parallel or the unconventional cinema was a felt need in a world which was becoming largely commercialized and superfluous. It was a promise to portray the reality as it really is without any embellishments of astutely rehearsed and decorated drama. It was a promise to provide new dimension and meaning to Indian cinema. It was smartly called ‘parallel’ so that it could run its own course without interfering with the mainstream. It was unconventional too because of the avant-garde methodology it adopted in saying what it wanted to say. It marked the birth of neo-realism in Indian cinema. It was a dream which was painted by stalwarts like Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, V Shantaram and many others who had to even see it getting tainted in the age of commercialization and style. It would not be unfair if a large part of the credit goes to a man named ‘Shyam Benegal’, a cousin of Guru Dutt, hailing from Andhra Pradesh, originally a documentary filmmaker, who made his mark with his first full length feature film ‘Ankur’ starring Shabana Azmi, Sadhu Meher and Anant Nag in the year 1974. The movie was received with a critical acclaim and bagged Shabana Azmi her first national award. It was a sensitive portrayal of rich poor divide and the place of a second woman in our society. Thus was born a filmmaker who had the courage to be different and stubborn in an era of blockbusters and superstars. There were of course intellectual filmmakers like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gulzar and Basu Chaterjee who were running a parallel brigade but their cinema still had certain limitations of sticking to the popular and politically correct themes unlike Shyam Benegal who adopted an entirely different format of movie making and often narrated stories that were not only difficult to be told but also had never been told before. He introduced theatre in the arena of cinema. He always worked with his own team of gifted actors. Some of them were remarkable theatre artists of their time and some of them were products of National School of Drama. His actors were not conventionally good looking and attractive but had the vigor and brilliance of representing a common man on celluloid. They wore simple, unfashionable clothes, sometimes even torn, to highlight the poverty and demise of our social structures. His characters conversed in local dialects to connect to the reality and ecology of the subject. Most of his movies were impressive adaptations of important plays and novels. Shyam Benegal was unique in his approach of vividly conceptualizing the entire scenario, bringing it out on screen and reaching out to his target audience.
Justice is well denied and needs to be snatched from the people responsible. In 1975 he used this concept in ‘Nishant’, based on Vijay Tendulkar’s play and introduced Naseerudin Shah and Smita Patil with this movie. The movie was a modern adaptation of ‘Ramayana’ and showed the brutal feudal system of rural India oppressing the poor and miserable section of the village. It portrayed the helplessness of an honest and humble man who has to literally crawl and beg for justice in a dynasty ruled by ‘Ravanas’.
Liberation is highly desired and largely deprived. In 1977 he came out with a brilliantly carved story of a Marathi actress titled ‘Bhumika’ inspired by the book ‘Sangtye Alka’ by Hansa Wadkar and starred Smita Patil in the first major lead role of her career. The film was an excellent portrayal of the complexity of a female mind in a society which drags her in different directions bruising her sexuality and individuality. I must add that Bhumika is one of those rare movies of Indian cinema which has managed to break certain barriers while narrating a controversial and complicated story based on the sexuality and life of Indian woman.
Mahabharata is an everlasting war and a never ending struggle. Nobody could have come out with such an intelligent adaptation of the world’s largest epic ‘Mahabharata’ other than Shyam Benegal who made a multi starrer movie titled ‘Kalyug’ in 1981 with Rekha, Raj Babbar, Shashi Kapoor, Amrish Puri and Anant Nag in lead roles. Kalyug was followed by ‘Arohan’ and ‘Mandi’ in subsequent years.Brothels provide a breathing space to the sexually discontented members of a society which pompously considers marriage an everlasting spiritual and hallowed bonding between two individuals destined to be made for each other. ‘Mandi’ starring Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Neena Gupta, Soni Razdan, Ila Arun, Ratna Pathak, Naseerudin shah, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur, Amrish Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and other geniuses of Indian cinema was a hard hitting satire on the fundamental social, political and cultural inadequacies of our society.
Our present and future are incomplete without the past and howsoever we may try to get away with it, we are ordained to revisit it someday in our lives. It was Benegal’s 1985 venture ‘Trikal’ (Past, Present, Future), again a multi starrer and a striking illustration of the tradition and chores of a soon-to-be-drifted-away Portuguese family settled in Goa.
Following years Benegal got busy with some of the famous television series of his career namely ‘Yatra’, ‘Katha Sagar’ and ‘Bharat Ek Khoj’. Dreams form a momentous and indispensable ingredient in the lives of middle class people and keep them moving ahead in their hopeless and barren existence as human beings. This was the concept of his next important work based on Dharamvir Bharti’s famous novel ‘Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda’ in 1993 starring Rajat Kapur, Rajeshwari Sachdev, Neena Gupta and Pallavi Joshi in lead roles. The highly experienced cast and talented production team managed to cook up a rich tapestry of semi-dream-like experiences of a young man, entering into adulthood with a creatively written rich and unusual screenplay. In 1994 he came up with a novel project about a loud, vivacious, opinionated and funny, partition stricken woman, ‘Mammo’ with Farida Jalal in lead role. The movie written by Khalid Mohamed was a brilliant take on the mindset of an adolescent boy growing amidst the financial inadequacies of his family and his complex bonding with his old mother and eccentric aunt. ‘Sardari Begum’ directed in 1996 was a story of a popular singer and courtesan killed by a stone thrown by an agitated person starring ‘Kiron Kher’ in title role. ‘The Making of Mahatma’, ‘Samar’, ‘Hari Bhari’ and ‘Zubeida’ were his other noteworthy projects in coming years. In 2005 he directed a biography of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose starring Sachin Khedekar in title role.
Benegal changed his filmmaking format in following years seeing commercial and parallel cinema merging into each other with the advent of new century. His last two movies ‘Welcome to Sajjanpur’ and ‘Well Done Abba’ were hilarious social satires on the corrupt and inept social and political system of our democratic set up with new age actors like Shreyas Talpade, Rajeshwari Sachdev, Divya Dutta, Ravi Kishan, Boman Irani and Minisha Lamba in lead roles. His latest works have seen him completely transforming as a filmmaker who still manages to amuse and surprise the audiences while keeping the promise of authentic and unconventional cinema alive. Besides devoting himself into directing full length feature films he has also made some of the very important documentaries including ‘ A child on the streets’, ‘Sinhasta’, ‘Why Export?’, ‘The Pulsating Giant’, ‘Tala and Rhythm’, ‘The Shruti and Graces of Indian Music’, ‘The Raag Imam Kalyan’, ‘Suhani Sadak’, ‘The Quiet Revolution’, ‘Epilepsy’, ‘Jawaharlal Nehru’, ‘Satyajit Ray’, ‘Sangathan’, ‘Vardan’, ‘Animal Reproduction and Artificial Insemination in Bovines’ and numerous others stressing the core social issues and forgotten art forms of our country. Shyam benegal is really the master, master of the unconventional.