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Looking back with Benegal

Auteur’s take:Shyam Benegal says today’s digital generation doesn’t understand the discipline of shooting on film.— File Photo  

If watching his films is cathartic, speaking to Shyam Benegal is comforting. As the TV channel Zee Classic revisits three of his important works made when India was coming to terms with liberalisation; we take a walk down memory lane with Benegal.

The Mahatma film

It doesn’t take much to make the veteran rewind to the days when he was shooting The Making of The Mahatma (1996) in South Africa. The year was 1993.

Benegal says, “The majority of actors were from South Africa. What was very interesting for me was the Great March sequence. When we were shooting I met many people who were very old: in their late 80s and 90s. They remembered Gandhiji and this march. It was astonishing for me, but for them it was reliving those moments. It was their history that we were recounting and they would fondly describe those times. I didn’t even know that in those large gatherings; it was the pre-microphone period and Gandhiji didn’t have a big voice. When he spoke then somebody would relay it to people around him. They had many such relayers. It was very fascinating.”

It was a big challenge because the film was going to be measured against Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi . “I never had that worry, because the films belong to two different periods. My film in some ways was the first part of his film. His film dealt with Gandhi as Mahatma. Mine was about Gandhi who was about to become Mahatma. Also, as an Indian it was easier for me to get into the ethos and mind of Gandhi. I could understand his psyche better than a foreigner could.”

Stories within stories

The conversation shifts to Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (1992), where he turned Dharamvir Bharti’s intricate novel on human relations into a cinematic experience. “The novel had a series of stories and some of them were stories within stories. One required a form which would be fairly close to the literary form of Dharamvir Bharti. A film cannot take you to multiple actions simultaneously very easily as it manifests in terms of visuals and sound. The process is unlike writing where your experience is very internal one. The reader’s imagination can work at different levels at the same time, but when you manifest it in terms of visuals and sound then it becomes sequential rather than simultaneous.”

So he shot the same scene from the points of view of different characters to “give it a sense of simultaneity”.

Rajeshwari Sachdev, who played the character Jamuna, was as equivocal about her choices as Rani. Benegal agrees and adds that one should not forget that Bharti wrote the character in 1950s. Characters like Manik Mulla (Rajit Kapur) still strike a chord, for such people continue to exist around us. “I wanted to create human beings and not types. There is certain uniqueness in the characters of Dharamvir Bharti and I remember when he watched the film he found it very engaging. He felt the form worked well.”

But he had no such luck with Mammo (1994), the director says. For when the real Fayyazi watched the film, she felt that she was five times better looking than the actor (Surekha Sikri) who played her on-screen. It is another matter that Sikri went on to win the National Award for the role.

With Mammo , Benegal says the bigger challenge was to create a period within a tight budget. “Recreating Marine Drive was tough, as we could not show taxis of a certain generation,” he says.

But then limited budgets never stopped Benegal from mounting grand projects. “ Bharat Ek Khoj was like a 53-hour movie shot on 35 mm film. It was the last such attempt. When I watch some of the episodes now, I wonder how we managed. It was like a miracle.” One of the tricks he used was placing the camera behind a wooden grille and beneath lamps to create grandeur. “Many don’t know that it was shot on synchronised sound.”

Benegal says today’s digital generation doesn’t understand the discipline of shooting on film. “We used to rehearse umpteen times to ensure that we could get an okay take after two, or at the most, three retakes. These days if the actor has the energy to perform, you can go for 30 retakes.”

A cautionary tale

As the head of the committee formed to suggest changes in the working of Central Board of Film Certification, recently, Benegal came under criticism when he said films with an Adult with Caution certificate (AC) would not be screened in residential areas.

“The idea is we should not use scissors; instead we need to have more categories. AC means restrictive screening of films that are not meant for families. You cannot screen such films in cinemas in residential areas.”

Benegal adds that the adults who got to watch such a film should be cautioned about the kind of film they are about to see. In that case the process will remain subjective. “It is not difficult. If a film has got explicit sexual content and graphic violence, which you don’t normally see, it will get AC certificate. Such films will have restricted screening like you can show them at 11 p.m.”

But won’t that limit the audience and hence restrict the interest of producers?

“Of course it will limit the audience. It is in some ways a disincentive. I have no problem with that. Adult with Caution is also cautionary for the person who makes such a film. The maker may be convinced to make a film with such content and we do not prevent him from making such a film but he should be forewarned that don’t expect that we are going to encourage this kind of cinema.”

Does Mandi , Benegal’s stinging comment on the socio-political scenario set in a brothel belong to this category? “Not at all,” he laughs. “It is U/A.” But a Pahalaj Nihalani could think otherwise. “I won’t comment on that.”



Bharat Ek Khoj was like a 53-hour movie shot on 35 mm film. It was the last such attempt. When I watch some of the episodes now, I wonder how we managed. It was like a miracle






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