Of life, liberty and love

THE MASTER Shyam Benegal   | Photo Credit: PHOTO: K. GAJENDRAN

Shyam Benegal on his kind of cinema, his influences and his latest film

The humanist in master auteur Shyam Benegal exults that the road less travelled is now turning into a fast lane. Having been in the vanguard of socially committed cinema, he says that often a wave triggered moves in a subterranean manner, only to surface in the most unexpected manner. Benegal was speaking in the context of meaningful cinema expanding slowly, but surely. Despite being a colossus of contemporary cinema , Benegal is self-effacing about the social impact of his films, but concedes that he gains satisfaction when they make a mark. He cites the example of his television serial Bharat Ek Khoj, which was history as he wanted to tell it. That generations of people have wanted to go back to it again and again to understand history in the right perspective brings immense satisfaction, he says. At the awards function, Benegal dwelt on the paradox where Indian art works command astronomical prices in the global market, while at the same time artists have to struggle to get a niche in the market without compromising on their artistic values and creative freedom. When his managing to get funding, box office success and critical acclaim for most of his films is pointed out to him, he disagrees, saying it is a constant struggle to make meaningful cinema without worrying about funding and getting the right value for the creative endeavour. Yet, he represents creative survival at its best. Benegal's career of 30 years spans the genesis of the movement for realistic cinema in the `70s to an exciting trend today when arthouse cinema language is being appropriated by mainstream films. In this period, he has made 21 feature films, two full-length documentaries, a television serial and several hundred short films. All his films have won immense critical acclaim in India and abroad. Benegal, an ardent admirer of Ray on whom he has made a documentary, counts him and his own cousin Guru Dutt as the most abiding influences in his cinematic career. He however refuses to concede that Guru Dutt successfully managed to marry realistic cinema in the mainstream format. That was another era when the urban middle class was the sole audience. Today's milieu is different and a lot tougher, he says. Benegal's cinema is a class apart - searing and often explosive in its chronicling of social change. It took close to two decades for him to get a producer for his first film Ankur which he had scripted in his college days. Since then, there has been no looking back. There is no socially thought-provoking subject he has not dwelt upon.

A feminist

Benegal as a feminist is at his best. In every film that he made, he has severely criticised the gender politics of proprietorship that men display over women. This includes the regressive patriarchal mores in royal families ( Zubeidaa) and urban rich ( Kalyug). But, Bhumika starring Smita Patil is one of his most seminal works in delineating women's predicament and their struggle to gain their own identity. His newest venture, Chamki, delayed due to casting problems, is based on Prosper Merimee's Carmen, the oft-told story of a classic coquette and the subject of the best known operas made by Georges Bizet. Although Carmen has been made and remade all over the world several times, Benegal's version will be a Bollywood style musical set in a tribal community of musicians and mendicants who live close to the Indo-Pak border in Rajasthan. And Benegal's take on another feminist character, the seductive gypsy woman Carmen is that he would like to focus on love as liberation rather than love as possession. In the story, a soldier Dan Jose, who wreaks revenge on Carmen because the sensuousgypsy woman who aggressively seduces him promising everlasting love she refuses to be tied down to him. In helping her to escape, he has lost all, his job and dignity and seeks revenge. It is here that Benegal steps in for the female protagonist declaring that love has to be liberating and not possessive.