Filmmaker Shyam Benegal recalls his mega tele-serial Bharath Ek Khoj

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 instantly. The brochure has been released as the run-up to the DVD release of the serial. Benegal rues: “They have used the expression ‘moderators’ instead of moderates. They have called it ‘separation’ instead of ‘separatism’.” He was willing to go into greater detail, but one thought it wiser to deftly change the subject.

How did “Bharat Ek Khoj” start off, even as it remains a benchmark for socio-historical essays on the small screen? “It is bound to be attempted again too . Talented directors with a better budget and bigger canvas will do a better job. But when we were shooting , we were conscious that it is not going to be attempted by anyone probably for the next 20 years. It felt like we were creating history of sorts.”

Nobody has tried to bring 5,000 years of Indian history in a format intelligible to the common man. The serial talks of the Indus Valley civilisation and the Vedic Age, there are stopovers for the Mahabharat and the Sangam Age before getting into a more conventional mode with the Cholas, Delhi Sultanate, the Moghuls and Shivaji, etc.

It took nearly three years of research and a long huntfor locations and actors. “When then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi broached the subject of serialising Pandit Nehru’s book that had been written some 40- years ago, I said yes. It was a challenge a responsibility.” “We took the help of nearly 22 scholars. Luminaries like R.H. Sharma, Champak Lakshmi, Irfan Habib, K.N. Pannikar had helped them. We had the ‘other voice’ of Roshan Seth, 144 sets and 500 actors for the 53 episodes.” All episodes have been brought out by Doordarshan as 18 interactive DVDs with each DVD covering three episodes.

Benegal is content with his efforts and is ready to soak in nostalgia. “The series had many things going for it; we were 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 and Aurangzeb. He also participated in the Mahabharat episodes. He was there in the British period too! Indeed, Om Puri’s was a constant presence. There were many other performers like Naseeruddin Shah, Amrish Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Sadashiv Amrapurkar, etc.”

The serial deserves credit for another first. Benegal devoted lot of time and energy in depicting the Sangam Age and Silapaddikaram. South Indian history was not given a short shrift with detailed depiction of the Chola Age and 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 education reforms led by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Mahatma Phule. We were never under pressure to show certain slant in history . The idea was to have a dispassionate look at our history.”

Through with the past, Benegal is ready to talk of the future. “My film ‘Mahadev ka Sajjanpur’ is almost ready, and will be released on September 5. 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 consists 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.”

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 working on the script. Benegal assures there will be a number of foreign actors in this spy drama that travels from India to Germany, France, UK, etc, though the lead actress “will be Indian”.

Also in the early stages is a film on Buddha, for which it has been reported that Hrithik Roshan has been approached for the key role. Benegal 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.