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July 29, 1999


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'Samar is a successful experiment'

Shyam Benegal. Click for bigger pic!
Awards have pursued Shyam Benegal ever since he started making movies. But last week, for the first time, he won the overall award for the Best Film in the national film awards declared by the government.

For Samar, his brilliant new film on social oppression and the problem of the Dalits. What is he saying inSamar? How is it different from the rest of his oeuvre? Pritish Nandy finds out in an interview.

Did you expect Samar to win the Best Film award?

Not really. One sends films to the national awards out of sheer habit these days. One has ceased to expect anything. But, frankly, I was keen that Ashok Mishra, the person who has written the screenplay and dialogues for Samar, gets an award.

Luckily, he did. It is a very complex, well-written screenplay and the film-within-a-film format worked so well for the film because he had done such a fine job of it. He used cinematic techniques very effectively to help me explore the more subtle nuances of the theme. Oppression. That was the challenge of the story.

But oppression has been the theme of many of your films?

A still from Mamo. Click for bigger pic!
You are right. There have been so many oppression stories, including several of mine, that had he not innovated with the treatment it would have been difficult to convey so many things at so many levels. A straight narrative would have been no new experience. The powerful crushing the less powerful. The privileged walking all over the underprivileged. The strong intimidating the weak. How many times can you tell the same story the same way?

Plus, this time, I wanted to put forward many different viewpoints. The Dalit problem is not just restricted to the countryside. It is as present in urban India, of course, in a very different way. I was keen that all these different viewpoints be incorporated into the text and its subtext.

That is why I needed a different kind of screenplay. Where you get a whole lot of different viewpoints placed side by side. The urban characters who are playing out the original rural story come with their own baggage of beliefs. This creates its own contradictions and gives you different kinds of insight into the nature of the problem.

Is that why you went for the film-within-a-film format?

Yes and the screenplay exploited the format rather effectively. That is why I was keen that he should be recognised for his attempt. As for me, I don't count awards any more. . I just make my kind of films. It came as a happy surprise that Samar won the Best Film award.

A still from Samar. Click for bigger pic!
The danger with films like this is that if you do not get it right, if you keep just the social content and do not bother about making the film in an engaging if not entertaining way, the audience will walk off mid-way saying, 'O my God this is just another of those lectures!'

You keep winning awards all the time. This must be your umpteenth national award.

Not quite correct, Pritish. I have won many national awards but I think this is the first time I have won an award for the Best Film. I mean the Best Film overall. There have been awards for Best Director, Best Film in the Hindi category and so on. But, if I am not mistaken, this is the first time I have got the national award for the Best Film and I am happy it has gone to Samar. It is an experiment that has succeeded.

Are you sometimes tempted to take the easy way out and make one of those sassy, big budget, typically Hindi films?

It is very difficult to afford one. They have become far too expensive and those who put their money into such films expect from their directors a successful track record in terms of earning money from such films.

But you have in the past made pretty good money out of films like Ankur, Nishant, Manthan, Bhumika, Junoon and Kalyug. So why would not your financiers invest in such films again?

Click for bigger pic!
Because the kind of films people are watching has changed. It is like the media business. It has evolved, become very different from what it used to be. Entertainment is the big thing today and few people are ready to risk going beyond the conventional definitions of entertainment.

Do you think the industry status accorded to movies and bank financing can help change that?

Banks cannot change that. You need venture financing. People who are prepared to share the risks and the profits of film-making. That has still not developed out here and, frankly, unless that happens you are unlikely to see film-makers ready to go beyond the frontiers of the entertainment business. It is far too risk-prone for the traditional financier.

But small films, different kind of films have started working once again. Like your Ankur once did. Hyderabad Blues and Bombay Boys are doing the same today, finding new audiences, pushing back the frontiers of the entertainment business.

That is why this award to Samar is a good thing. It opens up the windows to a larger role for cinema. The special mentions for Kishore Kadam and Seema Biswas also highlight the fact that the key performers in the film have done a good job. These special mentions are meant to compensate them for the fact that they must have missed the Best Actor and Best Actress awards by a very small margin.

A still from Samar. Click for bigger pic!
Best Actor and Best Actress or Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress? In your film, it is difficult to figure out who plays the actual leads and who plays the supporting roles.

There are no supporting roles in the film. All of them are principle roles. It is an ensemble film.

What are the films you are currently working on?

Two. One will be partially shot in Rajasthan and partially in Bombay in December. It is part fictional; part biographical and is called Zubeida. It is part of my trilogy: Mamo, Sardari Begum and now Zubeida.

When you see Zubeida you will see its connections with Sardari Begum. You will realise how the trilogy integrates and tells what is essentially one story.

The other, Hari Bhari, is being shot in Hyderabad. It's for the ministry of family welfare.

Just as Samar was a film for the ministry of empowerment and social justice?

A still from Samar. Click for bigger pic!
Yes. This is a film about women's rights. Women's reproductive rights. The main roles are played by Shabana Azmi, Surekha Sikri, Alka Trivedi, Nandita Das, Rajeshwari Sachdeva. There is also a sixth woman, Seema Bhargava. They are a formidable team of actors. They put into life some actual case studies. Just as in Samar. There is a umbrella story that encloses all these individual case studies. It is all within the context of a family. One family.

I am sure you are using an innovative screenplay to hold it together, like you did in Samar?


All your three new films have used, in other words, essentially cinematic techniques to drive their narratives. Where has the great novel gone? Or the powerful short story that inspired film-makers to attempt a celluloid rebirth? Have movies finally turned away from great literature?

I do not think so. I have adapted a novel as difficult, as complex as Dharamvir Bharati's and tried to film a story that was very complicated, very literary in its treatment. It is not that we are moving away from great literature but that we are always attempting new experiments with cinema to see how far we can go.

That is the challenge. The challenge before Satyajit Ray when he made the Apu trilogy. The challenge before Kurosawa when he made Rashomon. To create a different language for cinema; not blindly reproduce great literature on celluloid.

'I have no silly delusion'

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