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Doing his own thing

Filmmaker Shyam Benegal continues to make films he believes in.



Shyam Benegal... 'Uncle' of parallel cinema. Photo: K. Gajendran

HE BELONGS to the league of extraordinary ladies and gentlemen - including the likes of Mrinal Sen, Govind Nihalani, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri. His films on the social and cultural reality of the time were hailed for their acute sense of observation and played an important role in the birth and growth of parallel cinema.

Asked about the parallel cinema movement, Shyam Benegal crisply comments, "Titles do not define anything. And there was no movement. It was just people making films they wanted to make, which were different from the mainstream."

"That is what is happening even now. There are people like that boy Shekhar Kammula (Dollar Dreams, Anand) and Nagesh Kukunoor, who are making movies they believe in. There was no movement then and there is no crossover cinema now. What does a term like that mean? Crossover from where? To what?"

Reacting to being called the father of parallel cinema, Benegal laughs as he says, "Why father? Why not uncle? On a more serious note, I do admit it was a route some of us chose to take and I do have a place on that route."

Benegal does not feel the parallel cinema movement has died out. "I have not died! At least not yet! People will continue to make the kind of films they believe in. We are all creatures of the times and we made films on the scenario at the time. There were certain sociological facts in the 1970s, which are not current now. One cannot make the same kind of movie, it would be boring."

Entertainment first

"Movies are meant to entertain primarily. No one is mad to buy a ticket if they are not going to be entertained. If, however, a film is entertaining and edifying and gives you some insights to take home, then it has served its purpose. If the film has made you think, or marvel at the aesthetics, then so much better."

Aesthetics brings us to the present crop of films that are all style and no substance. Most of the films with super-slick technical effects are made by ad-men turned directors. Benegal, who also came into films from the glitzy world of advertising, feels the "IT revolution is to blame for the present scenario. Earlier, we could not execute our vision to the fullest, as the technical tools were not available. So we relied on creating the experience. Now technology offers you umpteen choices. But it has also overwhelmed creativity. How can you take credit for something a machine has created? Instead of technology being our slave, it has become the master."

All is not lost however, as Benegal feels this is "a temporary phase. Once you internalise and absorb technology, it will not stick out like a sore thumb. Like an intricately woven carpet, which you have to turn around to see how it is put together, technology should merge seamlessly with the content."

Fascinated with history

Benegal's interest in history comes through in his biopics, like the brilliant Making of the Mahatma and the soon to be released Netaji: The Last Hero. "History fascinates me. Particularly Indian history, as I like to figure out how we have become what we are. I like to fill in the missing pieces in our history to make a composite whole."

While admitting that history gave Subhash Chandra Bose the short end of the stick, Benegal says he decided to make the movie because "Bose's life is an incredible adventure story. Think of a single man with no credentials (he was expelled from the Congress) hoping to start an army. He travels the length and breadth of the world putting the army together, then he leads the first Indian army of 80,000 and succeeds in hoisting the Indian flag. Is that not an exhilarating adventure?"

Though Benegal has given some of the most memorable serials on television, including Kathasagar, Yatra and the wonderful Bharat Ek Khoj based on Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India, he finds television "creatively deadening. One can make a lot of money, but money never interested me when I was younger, so why now?"

Benegal explains his focus on women's rights as "they are traditionally disenfranchised. I wanted to study why Indian women are stronger than men. It is a matter of survival that has made them stronger."

The exploitation of women brings us to the infamous casting couch sting on actor Shakti Kapoor. Benegal dismisses the incident as "pathetic. To see a national channel mount this kind of operation on such a soft target is just not funny. And if this man is making an ass of himself, it is because he is an ass. However, he is not a criminal, he has not killed anyone, all he did was proposition a woman."

The renowned filmmaker insists the casting couch "is a reality of the times. In this age, when people seem to feel that to go up vertically, they need to get horizontal, I would say it is something that happens across professions."

For someone who counts Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola as his favourite filmmakers, how is it that we have not had a gangster flick from Benegal?

"That genre does not excite me and anyway Ramgopal Varma makes wonderful underworld movies. Let me put it this way, I am interested in the underclass and not the underworld!"

MINI ANTHIKAD-CHHIBBER

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