Ceaseless pursuit

Ceaseless pursuit

Back in time: Even after 26 films, 42 documentaries and 700 ad films, 82-year-old Shyam Benegal shows no signs of slowing down.

Ceaseless pursuit

In the last 58 years, Shyam Benegal has made 26 feature films, 42 documentaries, five TV serials and over 700 ad films! He has been decorated with the Padma Bhushan and numerous film awards, including the Dadasaheb Phalke Award.

It is, therefore, difficult not to be in awe of him when you enter his office in Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi area. There are about half a dozen employees in the office. Several posters of his films are neatly lined on one of the walls. It looks like a typical filmmaker’s place. But the moment you enter Benegal’s room, it seems like you have entered into a writer’s workplace.

Clad in a white shirt and pale yellow trousers, Benegal is surrounded with books. There are books on his table, on the floor and in the glass-fronted teak bookshelves, which cover an entire wall. There’s a book in Benegal’s hands too. Its title reads: Short Stories From The History Of Indian Army Since August 1947. In his rich baritone, Benegal informs me that he is researching all the wars India has fought since Independence for a TV serial he wants to make.
An early start
Benegal’s love for movies started in his childhood. His father was a photographer, whose studio was located in Secunderabad Cantonment. Using his father’s 16 mm camera, he made his first film, Chutiyon Mein Mauz Maza, when he was just 12! The cast comprised his siblings and cousins. And its story is about a child who gets lost on a picnic and everybody else goes searching for him. “The film taught me three things,” says Benegal, “Writing, shooting and editing.”

From then onwards, his desire to become a filmmaker grew stronger by the day. “As a young boy, I watched films all the time,” says Benegal. “While I was at school,” informs Benegal, “my aunt’s son, Guru Dutt, had made several good films. So, my ambition to become a filmmaker wasn’t looked down upon as strange by my family.”

In college, Benegal shifted from Science to Arts and completed his MA in Economics. The reason? He felt that certain subjects, like History and Economics, help in getting a better world view. In 1958, when Benegal came to Bombay and met Guru Dutt, he realised that his famous cousin had not one but several assistant directors. Guru Dutt said to him: “Why are you doing this? You might end up becoming one of these assistants.”

Benegal wrote a script for Guru Dutt, but the film never got made. This could have dissuaded a lesser mortal but not Benegal. He was willing to wait but never give up on making films. He also realised that the kinds of films he wanted to make were very different from Guru Dutt’s. “I joined advertising, first as a copywriter and then as an ad filmmaker,” he says.

Benegal began doing extremely well in his career. “Although I was making many ad films, winning awards year after year, I thought if I make advertising my career, it meant goodbye to making feature films. By then, I had already made close to 500 ad films.”

Around this time, Benegal came in contact with Mohan Bijlani and Freni Variava, who ran Blaze Film Enterprises, which was then India’s biggest ad films distribution company. “They had a sort of business monopoly. At that time, India had about 7,500 cinema halls. They had contracts with 2,500 cinema halls to whom they supplied ad films,” says Benegal.

Benegal was good friends with Bijlani. One day Benegal told him, “I want to make a feature film, you produce it for me. You have an advantage. You can distribute it yourself.” Bijlani’s faith in Benegal was so much that even without reading the script, he agreed to invest five and a half lakh rupees in the film. “It was little money. My actor Shabana Azmi got more money for the film than what I got. But it wasn’t the money that was interesting to me. It was the film,” says Benegal.

Benegal resigned from his job to make Ankur, his first film. “After the film was made,” tells Benegal, “Bijlani released it in select theatres frequented by discerning audience. It was a good marketing strategy. Ankur was very successful. It won 39 awards all over the world.”

His vision on screen
It opened a window of opportunities for the 39-year-old Benegal, who started making one powerful film after another. Nishant, Manthan and Bhumika followed. In a film age dominated by big stars like Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan, Benegal sought out FTII and NSD actors like Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda to make films that informed, provoked, and left one with a deep emotional impact.

In 1978, Benegal made Junoon, a period film based on Ruskin Bond’s famous novella, A Flight of Pigeons. It was a love story set in the backdrop of the 1857 War of Independence. Benegal went on to direct 18 more films after that, which include Mandi (1983), Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (1993), Sardaari Begum (1996), Zubeidaa (2001), Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005), and his last film Well Done Abba (2010). 

In 1986, Benegal made Yatra — a TV series shot on a train for Doordarshan. Two years later, Benegal directed the unforgettable Bharat Ek Khoj. It proved to be such a phenomenal success that even today, its DVDs are sought after. Why did it resonate so powerfully with the audience? “It was extremely well researched,” explains Benegal. “That it is also being used by schools in many parts of India to teach history gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

Benegal’s prolific body of work and his enthusiasm to add more to it is amazing. Doesn’t he consider retiring? “I can’t stop working,” he says, “unless nature steps in and does something terrible, I want to work as long as I can. Work keeps me alive, mentally and physically. It keeps me open to life’s experiences. If I say I’ve retired, it’s the end of all that. Why should I live then?”

One wonders that at his age from where does he get the energy? “If you do the things that you love, it gives you a lot of joy,” explains Benegal, “I enjoy making cinema and don’t see it as a job. Very few people have the option to do what they truly enjoy. And if you earn your living from it, there is nothing better than that.”

What is his advice to budding filmmakers who want to make films of their choice? Benegal thinks hard on this. “There is no advice that can be given by anybody on such matters,” he says after a brief pause. “No two cases are alike. A lot of people from outside Mumbai come to make films: some of them succeed, some fail. The only thing is that when you choose to do something, you must have the necessary strength of mind and will to do it.”