No such thing as retiring as a filmmaker: Shyam Benegal

The industry veteran wants to continue to make films, and has a script ready. ‘I’m just waiting for some funding,’ he says

Published - October 19, 2018 05:25 pm IST

As a child, my only ambition was to become a filmmaker: Shyam Benegal.

As a child, my only ambition was to become a filmmaker: Shyam Benegal.

At 83, Shyam Benegal has had a rather peripatetic career: from advertising and documentary and feature film-making to television. One gets a sense of the filmmaker’s life sitting in his cosy Mumbai office, where he is surrounded by books, which keep him busy currently, and his national awards that mark various milestones in Hindi cinema. “As a child, my only ambition was to become a filmmaker,” he says, sipping from a coffee mug that has a caricature of him, “And I did become one.” Benegal will be presented the Excellency in Cinema Award India at the 20th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with Star, and when I meet him he says he is embarrassed by a “lifetime achievement award”. Excerpts:

What’s the relevance of the MAMI festival today?

A little before India became independent, there was the Bombay Film Society. It was very small, of course, but they had screenings of films at Eros. It was run by different people and run like a little club. A lot of filmmakers who came to Mumbai, particularly documentary filmmakers, were felicitated there, and interactions were held with the press. That became moribund after a while. After that, we had two other film societies. One was started in the early 1960s, called Anandam, and was very active. They occasionally did film festivals. Almost about the same time, there was another film society called Film Forum, so Anandam essentially had members from South Bombay and Film Forum had members from Central and North Bombay. They had their usual festivals and so on. But the international film festival was the domain of the government. From 1952 onwards, there was the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) but it wasn’t held very regularly. 1952 is a landmark year because very well-known international filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and [Akira] Kurosawa attended the festival. So that became a kind of festival that led to other festivals taking place.

MAMI itself as a film society began 20 years ago. There was another film society run by Sudhir Nandgaonkar, which was called Prabhat Chitra Mandal, which was, by far, the most active. They continue to have regular screenings to this day. With Prabhat Chitra Mandal, we began to put together an international film festival and that was the beginning of MAMI. It wasn’t very big at that time and we depended a great deal on sponsors. It was a huge problem getting the money to run the festival. But it was a boon to have Anupama Chopra and Kiran Rao. Between them, they took over and managed to get sponsorship, and not in the manner we did, by scrapping the bottom. MAMI suddenly had the opportunity to get the cream of world cinema because they could afford to pay for them. Once you have [made it to] two or three major film festivals like Cannes and Venice, filmmakers don’t normally send their prints unless the distributors or producers get a little money for the screenings, and for the wear and tear of prints. Because money wasn’t an issue any more, MAMI became bigger and started, according to me, challenging the quality of IFFI. MAMI, in qualitative terms, is a better international film festival than IFFI itself.

What went wrong with IFFI?

It became a routine. Film festivals work on people who have a passion for cinema. They must have the passion, curiosity and energy to find the best work from different parts of the world. You must be a film lover to start with to seek out the best. For IFFI, it’s a job where they get paid, and everything becomes a routine. But good festivals are not run like that.

At MAMI, you’re getting the Excellency in Cinema Award this year..

Well, this is something I feel very embarrassed about. It’s an institution that I’ve been associated with for a long time and you don’t give yourself an award. Also, I feel it is best to give it to someone who is outside of the institution.

But it has indeed been a long career…

You see, I have got this award elsewhere as well earlier. And I try and avoid getting a lifetime achievement award because it is like a goodbye award. It’s like when you retire, an institution gives you something. I hate that. I don’t wish to retire. I guess it’s a measure of goodwill.

You started off with advertising and then ventured into cinema. Was that a stepping stone to the movies?

It turned out to be like that. I always wanted to be a filmmaker. As a child that was the one ambition I had: to be a filmmaker. Unfortunately for many, childhood ambitions are never met. In my case, I wanted to become a filmmaker and I did. There was no other ambition. But the difference is that I wanted to be a filmmaker but the place I was growing up in had no film industry at all. So the way into it was not easy. By the time I made my first feature film, I was already 38. Most people today make their first feature at 25 or 26. But in my case, one of the major problems was that although I had started making advertising films very early in my career, when I was 23-24, and then made documentaries, it took me a long time to make my first feature. In other words, it’s from the age of 38 that I see myself as a complete filmmaker.

You made several films on state funding...

Well, not too many. Just a few — Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (1992) and a couple of others. In fact, most were actually made by private producers, which tells you another story, which is that private producers will not produce your films if there is no likelihood of recovery. In other words, except for a few films which collapsed, the rest of them recovered, otherwise I would lose the private producers. So I didn’t necessarily depend on the finances from the government.

Was it difficult convincing private producers of the kind of subjects you dealt with?

In filmmaking, you have to accept that it is always difficult to put money together to make a film, whether it is your first or your last. Whether you have been a successful filmmaker or not, it is not always terribly easy to make the film you want to make. To make a film, you can make one but it may not be your choice of film.

Did you always want to make cinema that’s more art than entertainment?

A film has to have artistic merit. I don’t like this division between commercial and art film. I never agreed with that. Film is a creative output of somebody and being a creative projection through the medium of cinema, it can be a work of art. The intention always is to create a work that would be artistic and it will have a high aesthetic content and quality. It may be commercial or not.

Do you see the lines blurring between the two?

Because cinema is a medium and a form, it costs a fair amount of money to make. It’s not like painting or singing a song. It requires investment. That investment needs to be recovered and the recovery of that investment is what you’re concerned with, and therefore, for a lot of people, it turns into a business. So films must also have monetary value and not just aesthetic value. Because it’s a product of that kind, that’s where the confusion usually is. So when you say this is an art film, in common understanding it means this is not something that will make money. It doesn’t have to be like that. Public acceptance of a work that has artistic and aesthetic sensibilities is an achievement. It’s a tough business and you have to have a hole in your head to be a filmmaker.

Talking of finances, Manthan (1976) was probably one of the earliest crowd-sourced films in India. How did that work and do you see it being a successful model today?

It can work but it depends on so many factors. Manthan worked primarily because, imagine this, you had half a million dairy farmers who had put a couple of rupees to make a film. They were also the primary audience so it was an automatic insurance that there is no likelihood of that film failing. I remember when we made that film, Dr. Verghese Kurien, the famous ‘milkman of India’, said we will release it on a regular basis. So when it was released, members of the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd. were told that your film is being shown, and you are the producers. So they became the first audience. So it had already paid for itself. Later on, it became even more successful. We tried doing that again with a couple of other projects. One of them was with weavers in Susman (1987). It didn’t do that well but I wouldn’t say that it failed because it didn’t have good infrastructural support and distribution. If it had, it would’ve probably done as well, if not better because it was a good film with Om Puri and Shabana [Azmi] playing the lead.

Over the years, narratives changed but the themes of women’s issues and empowerment remained consistent in your films. What drew you to them?

It happened naturally. I don’t think I was really conscious of it. But when you grow up in India, you start seeing the automatic inequality between the sexes and how gender roles get defined. Today’s life is such that you transgress those lines. You are challenging traditions, and because you are challenging traditions, there will always be a certain amount of tension. So, if you’re a filmmaker, you notice it because you are a student of the society in which you live. Women’s role in India, urban or rural, or in different caste or class, all of that becomes interesting in story form. That’s how most of my films tended to automatically centre on a woman protagonist.

With Bhumika (1977), you turned the gaze inward and looked at women in the film industry. How do you see the industry today in terms of the space and treatment it gives women?

Since Bhumika was based on the autobiography of a Marathi actor, half my work was already done. It also gave me the opportunity to look at the evolution of the film industry itself, which is why I made it. On one level, it was the evolution of the industry from the silent era to sound era. On the other, it was the story of a woman trying to make her way in a man’s world. Then, of course, the individual story of the woman seeking something she herself doesn’t understand. In a society, gender relations are a bit skewed, it’s not always easy for people to know what they themselves are seeking.

Do women have more agency in the industry today?

I’m not sure if it’s happening fast enough. It is happening. Now with this MeToo business that is going on, you wonder that in gender imbalance, where people don’t feel equal, sometimes what happens is you’re also imagining things. It may not be real. Yes, in a patriarchy it becomes difficult but in the film industry, I personally think, what stops an actress from turning around and giving a tight slap to the person who is trying to be funny with her?

The power dynamics aren’t equal...

That’s the problem. How many women-centred films are made? Hardly any. Even when they are made, they are mostly revenge stories. How many women stars get close to what male stars make, in terms of remuneration? There is an automatic belief that women-centred films don’t do as well as male-centred ones. If that actually is so, then you’re making a comment about Indian society itself where patriarchy rules.

In these times, do you see your films having a different relevance?

Films have a very short shelf life. I’m not one of those people who think their films that won awards can challenge time. Films are a creature of their own times. Very few films go beyond their time. Charlie Chaplin films maybe.

Does that drive you to make films today?

Of course! I’m a filmmaker and I will continue to make films. I’m just waiting for some funding, and I have a couple of scripts ready. There’s no such thing as retiring as a filmmaker unless you’re sick and unable to make films.

Your films had a political urgency to them. Was that a comment on the times?

Absolutely. You’re living in a politically alive world. You are also living in a socially changing world. You are at a certain point in history. All these things matter.

What about censorship of political stories?

These are things you have to fight. You have to either accept or fight them. When you are doing any form of creative work, you are challenging social norms. If you don’t challenge them, nothing will change.

Your advice to young filmmakers?

Today the opportunities are so many. They can explore so much more, which is actually wonderful. They may not be able to see it the way I can because I’m looking back now. When they are looking forward, they probably don’t see the numerous possibilities available to them. It’s a struggle to keep up sometimes because the proliferation of opportunities and challenges is a lot more.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.