Shyam Benegal could barely conceal his annoyance as the moderator kept fluffing his lines confusing his new film Well Done Abba, shown at the ongoing London Film Festival on Sunday, with his Welcome to Sajjanpur which was shown at last year’s festival. And when he did it a third time, Boman Irani, the “star” of Well Done Abba, couldn’t resist a jibe.
“It is W-E-LL-DONE-A-B-B-A,” he said slowly spelling out the title of the film, “Get on your bike, go all the way to NFT (National Film Theatre) and see it so that you can get Welcome to Sajjanpur out of your system!”
This is Mr. Irani’s first film with Mr. Benegal and, he says, he regards it such an honour that he would happily “live off it” for the rest of his life.
Set in a village, near Hyderabad, Well Done Abba (yet to be released in India) is a political satire on corrupt middle men who dominate Indian rural politics. In recent days, Mr. Benegal has been repeatedly asked whether Well Done Abba is based on real events and his answer is: both “yes” and “no.”
While not a literal reconstruction of an actual event, the nexus between “babus” and middlemen depicted in the film is very real and things that happen in Well Done Abba is a common occurrence in most Indian villages.
“It is based on events of this kind that have taken place. There have been cases where government has spent money on building a road or a bridge but no road or bridge has actually been built. We have seen how the bureaucracy in India instead of helping development often becomes an obstacle to development,” Mr. Benegal says.
The film is inspired by Urdu writer Jeelani Bano’s short story, Narsaiyyan Ki Bavdi, about how money meant for digging a well in a village is siphoned off by corrupt elements who then attempt a cover-up claiming that they did build a well but it was “stolen.” The mystery of the “stolen” well lies at the heart of Well Done Abba which was, in fact, originally titled Abba ka Kuan.
Mr. Benegal said that Ms Bano’s story, also made into a television film, had since become part of Indian folklore. When the script was first offered to him, the writer said he had heard the story from his driver who told him that he heard it from a friend who had apparently heard it from another friend.
“It has a universal appeal and that’s why Well Done Abba has gone down so well with even a foreign audience,” he said.
Speaking to a group of film buffs and journalists at Nehru Centre, Mr. Benegal laughed at the suggestion that he was some sort of a “martyr” in the cause of independent cinema. He said he made the kind of films he did because he felt at home making them and there was “nothing heroic about it.”
“It is just a survival instinct. There are certain kinds of films that I am not simply capable of making,” he said pointing out that, for him, making a good film was more important than making “loads of money.”
His “USP,” he quipped in response to a question, was that he had never wanted to make money.
“So I’m here where I am -- happy making the kind of films I want to. But I am not some kind of a martyr,” he said.
However, it was not always like this. There was a time when -- like other independent film-makers of the time -- he saw himself as ranged against the “system” and had a slightly snobbish view of mainstream cinema. He consciously rejected the ``entertainment” values that he associated with it and thus, for example, there were no songs in his early films.
But as he evolved he realised that there were elements of mainstream cinema which, if used properly, could be made compatible with “good” cinema. Songs were one of them. So, most of his films now have songs.
“I came to films reacting negatively to mainstream cinema but over a period of time I realised that Indian cinema was unique because of its entertainment background. After all, all Indian performing arts have made use of songs and acknowledged their importance. Guru Dutt made serious films but they also had wonderful songs. Songs can be used in different ways -- for instance to help move the narrative forward. I realised that by rejecting them I was damaging myself,” Mr. Benegal said.
Today, he is perhaps the only major Hindi film-maker who remains unfashionably -- and defiantly -- rural-centric with most of his films set in villages. He believes strongly that villages are where the real India lives and treating them simply as props -- as Bollywood does -- is to miss the Indian reality. He regrets that the village has “gone off the consciousness of Indian cinema” and there is this “no, no” attitude to depicting rural life.
“Even when they do they make it clear that they are not part of it,” he said.
Mr. Benegal whose association with British film festivals goes back a long time (his presence at the launch of Bradford’s Bite-the-Mango international film festival 16 years ago is still fondly remembered by its organisers) was clearly happy to be back but was disappointed that serious Indian cinema no longer got the kind of critical attention in Britain that it once did. Bollywood, on the other hand, was thriving thanks to a growing Indian diaspora whose taste in cinema appeared to be similar to that of mass audiences in India.
A sign of the times, Mr. Benegal, someone in the audience mumbled.