As 'Well Done Abba' seeks public approval, auteur Shyam Benegal tells Anuj Kumar what inspired him to make the film

Is there an expiry date for a director? It seems harsh to begin a conversation thus with a living legend, ready with his 24th feature film, but with Shyam Benegal you can take such liberties because the man never escapes from reality.

“To me, a director ceases to exist when he loses touch with the present. As you grow old, you have lots of the past and very little of the future, but one should not start living in the past. Clint Eastwood has given some of his best works in his 70s; so did Akira Kurosawa,” says the 75-year-old.

“Cinema is the only medium of art that is totally technology-driven. As technology changes, the way of telling stories also changes, and if you have to transcend generations, you better learn. Today, a TV commercial says a complete story in 30 seconds. The attention span of viewers is getting shorter. In this scenario, you have to economise on what you say and how you say it.”

Some say it is this approach and his flexibility to cast mainstream actors that has kept him floating when others who rode the New Wave drowned one by one. “When I started, I was lucky that my producer (Blaze Films) was also the distributor. My films were never deprived of a theatrical release. Multiplexes opened the door for all kinds of stories; you no longer have to fill 800 seats of a 1000-seat single-screen theatre to break even. But, it has also made the first three days crucial, and only stars can bring in that rush. However, I continue to cast actors according to the script.”

He cites the example of Boman Irani who plays the title role in his latest Well Done Abba. “I saw him in Let's Talk many years ago, and wanted to cast him all along, but found a role for him only now. He is not only versatile, but also immensely personable and a great asset. Similarly, Ravi Kissen is an actor who can deliver in any genre.”

Another new wave?

Does he see another wave emerging with the likes of Anurag Kashyap, Nishikant Kamat and Dibakar Banerjee? “It's more of a trend than a wave. I like their sense of humour and the way they use it to tell grim stories. We were more idealistic. They are cynical, probably because they are exposed to a lot of media.”

In fact, Benegal is playing with humour these days. “My films always had humour. Habib Tanvir wrote ‘Charandas Chor' as a tragedy; I adapted it as a comedy. Now, I want to explore comedy as a form. Our films have promoted buffoonery; to me, satire and situational comedy are much more potent. I tried it in Mandi and Welcome to Sajjanpur, and now with Well Done…, I am taking it one step forward.”

The script is drawn from different sources — ‘Narsaiyyan Ki Bavdi' by Hyderbad-based Urdu writer Jeelani Bano, ‘Phulwa Ka Pul' by Delhi-based Hindi author Sanjeev and ‘Still Waters' by actor-writer Jayant Kriplani.

“All three are linked. It is a comment on social legislation with the focus on how water schemes are turning into a hotbed of scams.”

His fascination with rural India continues. “For 10-15 years, our filmmakers are largely delivering aspirational cinema. It is attractive and has its place, but we need alternatives in a country such as India where the experiences are incredibly varied. It is this absence that has resulted in the growth of subaltern varieties such as Bhojpuri cinema or the one in Malegaon.”

Was he always interested in cinema? “Well, I wanted to be a filmmaker from the age of six. I discovered very early that there is nothing in the human experience that can't be depicted through this medium. It can reflect the very act of living,” says the Dada Sahib Phalke Award winner.

But when he started, times were different.

“Of course! I wanted to create a believable and credible, if not natural, world on screen. But, when you start there is so much that has been said before that you advertently or inadvertently start copying the past. It took me a long time to find my voice,” he observes.