On the eve of the DVD release of “Bharat Ek Khoj”, the veteran filmmaker speaks on this and his forthcoming films.

In our history, we often have a misconception that not much happened on the other side of the Vindhyas

That he has an eye for detail we all knew from his celluloid essays. That he is no less unforgiving to the printed word comes through in the latest chat. Picking up a brochure of his tele-serial “Bharat Ek Khoj”, based on Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s book “Discovery of India”, he points out a couple of errors almost instantly. The brochure is out in the run-up to the DVD release of the serial this Friday, and Benegal rues, “They have used the expression ‘moderators’ instead of moderates. They have called it ‘separation’ instead of ‘separatism’.” He could have gone into greater detail without effort, but one thought it wiser to deftly change the subject.

So, how did “Bharat Ek Khoj” start off, considering 20 years after it was serialised on Doordarshan it remains a benchmark for socio-historical essays on the small screen? It is something that has not been attempted since.

“It is not that nobody will ever attempt it in future. I am sure there will be talented directors who will do a better job with a better budget, a bigger canvas. But when we were shooting for the serial, we were conscious that it is not something that is going to be attempted by anybody for the next ten, maybe 20, years. It was like a feeling that we had history in the making.”

And so it has proved. The small screen is full of mythology and an odd serial or two dedicated to an emperor of ancient India, a sultan of medieval times. But nobody has tried to bring 5000 years of Indian history in a format intelligible to the common man without leaving the connoisseurs squirming. The reason is not far to seek: the serial talks of the Indus Valley civilisation and the Vedic Age, there are stopovers for the Mahabharat times as also the Sangam Age before getting into a more conventional mode with the Cholas, Delhi Sultanate, the Moghuls and Shivaji, etc.

Intense research

It took research of more than three years and painstaking hunt for locations and actors. “When the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi broached the subject of serialising Pandit Nehru’s book that had been written some 40-odd years before he thought of bringing it to television, I said yes instantly. It was both a challenge as well as a responsibility.” To execute this responsibility, Benegal had to research for a little over three years. “We had 22 scholars to guide us. Luminaries like R.H. Sharma, Champak Lakshmi, Irfan Habib, K.N. Pannikar all helped us out with various periods of our history. We had the ‘other voice’ of Roshan Seth, 144 sets and 500 actors for the 53 episodes.” All of them were shot on film and have now been brought out by Doordarshan as 18 interactive DVDs with 44-hour content. Each DVD covers three episodes.

Benegal is happy. And for once ready to soak in nostalgia. “The serial was something that had many things going for it, also many places where we had to take some dramatic liberties considering the book was written without the idea of bringing it to television. We had Om Puri all along.” He played Ashoka as also Aurangzeb. He was there in the Mahabharat episodes. He was there during the British period too! Indeed, Om Puri’s was a constant presence. Then there were proven performers like Naseeruddin Shah, Amrish Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Sadashiv Amrapurkar, etc.

The serial deserves credit for another first. Benegal devoted lots of time and energy in depicting the Sangam Age and Silapaddikaram. Also, contrary to common tendency, South Indian history was not given a short shrift with detailed depiction of the Chola Age, and later the Vijayanagar Empire. “In our history, we often have a misconception that not much happened on the other side of the Vindhyas. We were conscious that we must do justice to that aspect. Also, we did not want to confine ourselves to merely political projection. So, we covered the Bhakti movement, later the education reforms led by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, and still later Mahatma Phule. But at no stage were we under pressure to show certain slant in history or a particular depiction according to any party’s predilection. The idea was to have a dispassionate look at our history and made it accessible to the coming generations.”

Film projects

Through with the past, Benegal is ready to talk of the future. “My film ‘Mahadev ka Sajjanpur’ is almost ready. It will be released on 5 September.” Isn’t “Mahadev…”, a Shreyas Talpade-starrer which relates the story of a man who writes and read letters for villagers, a bit of an oddball considering rural India has fallen of the film map? “There are so many factors. The main crowd for films is of upwardly mobile urban youth. So films tend to depict characters they can identify with. However, it is not that rural India is not there anymore. My film is an example. I believe if you do show something with conviction and sincerity people will like it because emotions are universal.”

Talking of universal, Benegal is going international too. Not with one film but two. He has lined up a story of the spy princess Noor Inayat. Lord Meghnad Desai is doing the script. And Benegal assures there will be a number of foreign actors in this spy drama that travels from India to Germany, France, UK, etc. But the lead actress “will be an Indian”. Also in the early stages is a film on Buddha, for which it is said, Hrithik Roshan has been approached for the key role. Benegal adeptly covers up. “We have not signed anybody yet. The script is still being written. It is true certain actors fit the persona of the leading man. But nobody has yet been finalised.”

Never mind. With Benegal one can be certain, it will be worth waiting for. After all, this Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner just has to do his usual bit, and it challenges greatness! An eye for detail helps too.