Bash on Regardless – Shyam Benegal

“I never give any kind of message, because every person has to find his own way…” ShyamBenegal, is amongst the people meeting whom is a privilege. A veteran Indian film director and rather a visionary. Interacting with a wise person such as himself whose office’s simplicity to start with was an eye soothing sight and getting to know his way of making films, technically referred to as “middle cinema” was indeed an experience. A highly learned and soft spoken gentleman, who’s appealing personality and his talks full of fruitful and fulfilled experiences, he has shared with The Analyst World Team.

A word with Shyam Benegal

VEDCHETAN PATIL : The reason we wanted to have this “Dialogue” with you is because when the film industry was moving towards glamour, yours was an absolutely different approach. So, in accordance to that, we’d like to know more about your thought process especially about the movies.

SHYAM BENEGAL :  Well, what is glamour? You have to define what glamour is, because to me when you say somebody is glamorous…How do you define galmorous?….. For me the person with painted lips and wearing fancy clothes is not necessarily glamorous.

“Glamour for me is something that which comes from the innate self.”

 Some people are glamorous by nature, some people are not. But, making somebody add this  doesn’t make any difference. Basically, beauty is important. It’s like saying, TajMahal is very beautiful, but does it need whitewash to make it look more beautiful? We don’t need that. Similarly, glamour doesn’t mean anything to me, beauty does. And beauty can be of so many types, there can be beauty in personality, in looks, in action, in speech. All these things are a part of the same thing, so what you need on top of this to whitewash the TajMahal? I’m not interested; it’s about how you define glamorous. Like, for instance, when I started, I didn’t do any make up on my artists, neither girls, nor boys. In fact, if they had any make up on their face, I’d make them remove it. If girls had lipstick on, I’d have it removed. The reason being, there is natural beauty to people. You don’t need to do this artificial thing to make them look more beautiful. You have to recognize beauty the way it is. You don’t need to add to that, in fact, if you add, you’re denigrating, what is already there.

SIDDHARTH ACHARYA :  Sir, talking about the Indian cinema, it has just completed 100 years. you started back from 1970s and that was the time, when your contemporaries Mohan Desai and others  they all knew how to attract the audience towards the theatre. So, that was the time, when you had come up with movies like ‘Ankur’, and ‘Nishant’.  How challenging was it to make a movie like ‘Manthan’ and to attract the audience towards the theatre.?

SHYAM BENEGAL : It definitely was a challenge, there’s no question. It is indeed challenging to make a movie like ‘Manthan’, but I’ve always done things that are challenging to me. People said it’s difficult, how are you going to do ‘The history of India’? I did it, it was very difficult. But, I took discovery of India based my history, on the basis of history of India, but we did all the necessary research, so that the history is accurate. Now, I am doing a 10 part television series on making of Indian constitution. Now, if anybody says, why do you want to do this? It’s a challenge. It’s a huge challenge to tell the story and also have enough drama to attract people to watch it.

As there is, in reality there was, a lot of people don’t see that. I remember lot of people were saying, why are you making something like ‘Manthan’? Such a dry subject. The word used in those days was, “dry subject pe movies kyu bana rahe ho”, so, yeh “dry” subject ka kyamatlab huwa?

The point is that there are only good and bad subjects. Bad subjects are those, where the story is been told a million times and it is ‘banal’, meaning where the story is too common for it to hold interest. Only that kind of stories is pointless to tell, but all other stories, if they are real, they are connected to life and also there is a challenge to make them well. So, for me, Manthan was a huge challenge and an important challenge. Because I had made a couple of documentaries for Dr.Kurien one of them was on Operation Flood. Operation flood, you see, has a history… In 1965, when Lal Bahadur Shastri was the Prime Minister of India, at that time, AMUL, which had started the ‘Milk Co-operative Movement’ with marginal milk farmers, because in those days, milk was largely produced by marginal farmers, except in places like Bombay, where you had the big cattle people and they used to make milk, but they used to import cattle. So, on the country side, you always had people who had one or two cattle, since most of them were even landless people. So, they used to earn their livelihood by selling milk. So, he (Lal Bahadur Shastri) created co-operatives, so they could all jointly produce it. Anyway, it was usually successful. And therefore, Lal Bahadur Shastri came to Gujarat when he was Prime Minister to see what Dr.Kurien was doing. Because, Lal Bahadur Shastri was a great believer in rural upliftment, and not just upliftment, where village India had a lot to do for itself as well.

(With a silent pause- and eyes poised by those days Shyam Bengal continues)

 but you just have to be the catalyst. So, he came and saw for himself, he spent a night in a village, without anybody knowing he was the Prime Minister of India. And, he was so impressed; he told Dr. Kurien himself, I want to do this in other parts of India, where you have milk shed areas.

So, Dr.Kurien said, only at one condition, firstly, I am not going to take any salary from you and secondly, I am going to have my head office in Anand and not in Delhi, so the National Dairy Development Board continues to be in Anand and not in Delhi, while most of the National Boards are in Delhi, he (Dr.Kurien) chose and said, “I have to be in the village to be in touch with farmers”

Now, he started a whole scheme to develop co-operatives in different parts of India and is known as the “Anand pattern.” Now, the first phase of that is known as the Operation Flood 1, the second phase was Operation Flood 2. Altogether, it was called ‘The White Revolution’.

I made two documentaries on it and while I was making the documentaries for him, I came across many case histories, wonderful stories where it showed the ability of people to help themselves and the fact that they can. When they can see, value themselves in that, they’ll do those things. With those stories, I told Dr.Kurien that I have made these films but the fact is these films are going to be seen by government officials, other people, may be WHO, FAO… but, not by the people, the general public. I suggested we make a feature film. But, he said, we don’t have the money for it. And that was his idea when he suggested, he could get it done, because he’ll then tell the farmers, that he’d take only Rs. 2 from them and they won’t even feel the pain of it, because morning milk’s when they’re collecting money in the evening, 2 rupees. will be cut from them. So half a million farmers of Gujarat put together this money, I made the film and they were the producers. It was a unique experiment, but it worked. It was a huge success. Now, that’s a challenge. And I’ve always maintained that if the job is not challenging enough, it is not worth doing. So, what’s the big deal then!

SIDDHARTH ACHARYA:  Was Girish Karnad always the first choice for the role of Kurien for you?

SHYAM BENEGAL: Yeah, for that particular role, yes. Girish was even my first choice for ‘Nishant’. He is a good friend and of course, he also helped in writing scripts, different scripts since he worked with me both on ‘Manthan’ and later ‘Bhoomika’, most of the script was written by him, then he helped me with ‘Kalyug’ also. He has been a friend and a colleague for many years, and I certainly have a great respect for him because he is also the finest play writer we have in our country.

SIDDHARTH ACHARYA:  This question comes out of curiosity, I’ve been a big fan of Ruskin Bond, Sir, when you made the ‘Junoon’, how was the association?

SHYAM BENEGAL: I hardly had any association with him. You see, he had published this story ‘Flights of Piegon’ in a magazine in Bombay, I had read it and thought it’d make a good film. It was a short story, we added a lot to it. The important thing is, I had asked, if I could get the rights to that story and he said yes. I never met him, I have met him only much later. Much  later, not even after I wrote the film. I met him, may be 20 years later and that too a brief passing. He had written a story and I got interested in it because it said two things to me. One was, I got very interested in British-Indian relationship at the time of 1857. The ambivalence that we had, we have both love, hate for the British and this was a really interesting thing and also between communities, how we saw each other and this story of an Anglo-Indian family caught up in the 1857 rising was a wonderful story in Shajahanpur and then I did the research of my own.

I went to Shajahanpur, went to the church where the killing had taken place, I went to the graves where the old man was buried and later the rest of his family, except for the daughter who was buried in Calcutta much later, 50 years later. And, then I researched that period and I went to  the Lucknow art gallery to look at the gazettes, state gazettes of the time and later throughout central gazettes for Shajahanpur. A lot of other material came in, which I put together in order to tell the story. But, otherwise it’d have been a very short story, if I had gone only by his story.

SIDDHARTH ACHARYA: Sir, talking about the transition face, from the 1970s to the 1980s after ‘Kalyug’, the time came, even Mr. Govind Nihalani, your ace photographer, he started making films on other subjects like Ardhasatya which the Indian cinema has ever seen, then the ‘Discovery of India’ came in 1980s, so what is the main reason for the rise of this (parallel) cinema, because there was a time in the 1980s where a few classes preferred watching movies that you and Nihalani made. Youth and Intellectuals started getting fascinated towards “parallel cinema”. So, this was a transition. And what according to you lead to the rise of this phase?

SHYAM BENEGAL: Well, you see, there is no major reason. One of the things is, we developed the audience, a fairly loyal audience. Not a very large audience, but fairly loyal. Particularly, middle class was one audience and middle class urban meaning, professional middle class, service class, not businessmen. Business people, I only interacted during Kalyug. Lot of corporate people saw the film and liked it and today also some of them tell me as that being my best film. So, you have that kind of thing. To me that was not of consequence, what was of consequence to me was that different subjects have attracted different kinds of people, audiences. And it is important, that is how it should be.  The film should be like that, in any case because you see, there is a difference of approach in the kinds of films I might make or a kind of film, say Dabbang, there the ambition is very different. There the ambition is that you want to break world records in terms of the amount of money you earn. So, the approach of making the film is very different. Mine isn’t that approach, because I am concerned with telling a story that makes sense to me and that has some measure of human experience, that is worthwhile. That offers some kind of insight about life and also tells us something about ourselves. Both as human being, as maybe Indians or even as communities, this is important. So, I am not competing with anybody.

VEDCHETAN PATIL:  Sir, as you mentioned, it has always been your motive of making a movie on human experience, but you never thought of commercializing/ monetizing it?

SHYAM BENEGAL:Monetizing it is built into the process. But, by certain ways you can monetize some things, by certain ways you can’t. Let us say, I can monetize a little more, if I put an item number. Why not? Lot of people do that. But, I don’t see it like that, because I feel it will distort what I am doing. That’s the only reason. I can add a lot of violence in order to attract the audience. I can create a super human character, a superhero, but I don’t see human beings as superheroes. So, it’s pointless -my even attempting to do that because I don’t believe in it. I believe human beings are human beings, the shades of grey. I don’t see them as either heroes or villains. I see human beings functioning in the world and in an environment in which they’re partially affected by that environment and they trying to make an impact in the environment themselves. And both these activities, eventually offer you some kind of insight about life itself. That’s what is important to me. I am concerned about gender justice; I am very concerned about social justice (unclear word at 20.49); I am concerned about the nature of caste in India and it’s resistance to change the caste system has. The inbuilt inequality of the Indian society and how difficult it is to breakdown these structures, because we are guilty of preventing that breakdown, we ourselves. Now, all of these things interest me. So, I would naturally be interested in telling stories of this kind. Whether I do it as comedy, whether I do it as satire, whether I do it as a serious story.

VEDCHETAN PATIL: Sir, what is your intention beyond just telling a story?

SHYAM BENEGAL: As I said earlier, my intention is that somewhere, some aspect of human experience must come through with insight, it must have an experience, which you can take home with you from the film. Like, what happens when you read a good book? There is something in it that stays with you. That’s what I am attempting to do. It may not always happen, but that’s what I am attempting to do.

SIDDHARTH ACHARYA: Sir, talking about ‘Mammo’, 1992, movie is based on a lady who has come from Pakistan and she somehow develops an emotional attachment with her sister’s grandson. Well, even our magazine, sir, is based a lot upon subjects such as indo-pak peace. So, how tough and difficult was it for you to translate that human emotion into cinema?

SHYAM BENEGAL: I don’t think it was difficult, as in any case, it was based on a real story and was written by Khalid Mohammed, who is that grandson. Grandnephew of Mammo. He had written that story. I had met the old lady also, Mammo. So, that was not a major question. For me, it was interesting, the human tragedy that was involved in the division of a nation, of a country into two nations. The human tragedy involved in it. It’s true, it is a reality. Pakistan’s reality you can’t miss it away.

Nor do you want Pakistan to suddenly become a part of India. I don’t think that is even reasonable to expect. They should live happily, we should live happily. But, when the divide actually took place, it left a lot of people torn. Families were torn apart, relations were torn apart, so many things happened. A huge mega tragedy took place and then it left its impact over the generations in different ways leaving people with attitude of both, hate to some extent, may be empathy, sympathy or distaste for various things that happened which led governments totally suspicious of each other and of its citizens. So, some of those things are explored in the film.

VEDCHETAN PATIL: Sir, can you share your experience as a Member of Parliament (MP)? What was your intention behind getting into politics?

SHYAM BENEGAL: At best, I must have been an amateur politician since I am not a career politician. I was nominated to the Rajyasabha and I found experience. It was a worthwhile experience, indeed. Not always easy and also you get to see from that point which is a vantage point, right at the top of this country. And how difficult it is, to legislate a country like India. How complex it is. Outside you can think of solutions from our own point of view. You cannot see the solution that as to meet some aspect of people’s requirement in different part of the country so when you legislate the laws, those laws not only have to make sense but have to work, for the maximum number of people, not just one section of the population  (society). So, it’s a very difficult thing, it’s not easy. But, it’s both, interesting on one side, difficult on the other and sometimes you feel that probably we are wasting too much time in inter-assigned politics. You know, between parties and try to win brownie points instead of concerning ourselves with national problems. So those are some of the things you come back with.

VEDCHETAN PATIL: Sir, have you ever considered making a film on politics? Like in today’s date, issues like Kashmir or North East or India-Pakistan?

SHYAM BENEGAL: Not like that. Not on macro political looks. But, politically yes, my last film was political. ‘Well done abba’ was a political film. It dealt with politics, not only politics, but so many of our social legislations which are supposed to help people. and what happens in the execution of it (social legislation)? It never reaches where it is supposed to reach.

SIDDHARTH ACHARYA: Sir, talking about ‘Netaji’, how tough was it to choose such a difficult topic and making it on such a large scale?

SHYAM BENEGAL: Not tough you see there were many views and in the Bengal itself, very strong views and attitudes about Netaji, it wasn’t that big a problem for me to make the film.

SIDDHARTH ACHARYA: Sir, rough things were said about the film and…

SHYAM BENEGAL (Cuts in): the fact that I believe and continue to believe that he died in that air-crash. Lot of people never did, then the ‘Justice Mukherjee Commission’ which was the last one to set on the thing for which they took about 5-6 years and they came out with an inclusive conclusive result. I was in Parliament at that time and I had said, it was pointless and why waste time over that. The fact is that the man died. If he didn’t die, he’d have returned, or you’d have found him somewhere. But, it’s rather silly, that a person like ‘Netaji’ is going to go around incognito into a holy man? A lot of people said, which I think is patently silly, if you know the kind of person he was.

VEDCHETAN PATIL: To conclude, what message would you like to give to the youth of today? Especially in the film industry…

SHYAM BENEGAL: see, I never give any kind of message, because every person has to find his own way. All I can say is, when you’re interested in something seriously then you shouldn’t let go, you should, take it to the very end. Many years ago, I keep saying this frequently untill I’ve got tired of telling it, when I was making ‘Ankur’, there were days, when I used to find it very difficult. WhetherI’ll be able to finish the film or not and we used to pass by a military regiment centre,  and the regimental centre had a motto, and the motto was “bash on regardless”. So if there is anything that I believe in is, that- if you believe in something, “Bash on Regardless”

VEDCHETAN PATIL/SIDDHARTH ACHARYA: Thank you very much, Sir.

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