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July 28, 1999


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'When I make a film, I have no silly delusion'

Shyam Benegal.
Shyam Benegal is a very busy man -- at least while he is in the midst of a film. And this time he has two films on hand -- so you can imagine how busy he is.

One of his ventures is a little on the serious side, more or less trademark Benegal, while the other is more commercial, starring Karisma Kapoor. And discussing the latter gets him on edge for some reason. He says he won't discuss it now because it's only at a scripting stage. The former film, though, clearly excites him.

Huge posters clamber up the walls and splay themselves all over his office. So huge shots from Junoon, Kalyug, Bhumika, Ankur etc loom over you. On one wall Shashi Kapoor and Supriya Pathak staring you down while on the other Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi do the same thing.

Benegal was the one who introduced some of these super actors on our screen. And then he has brought other actors into the limelight too, like Rajeshwari Sachdeva, Alka Srivastava and Rajit Kapoor.

Born in Trimulgherry, Andhra Pradesh, Benegal made his first film at the age of 12 with a camera gifted by his photographer father. Coming to Bombay in the early sixties, he started making advertising films and then went to make his first feature film Ankur from a 10-year-old script in the early seventies which arguable sparked off what is now termed parallel cinema.

His early work were mostly on commission for clients, for example the National Diary Development Board in Gujarat (Manthan), the CPI-M-led government of West Bengal (Aarohan), the Handloom Co-operatives (Susman), the Indian Railways (Yatra), an feature-documentary for the Indian and Soviet governments (Nehru) and the 53-episode television serial based on Jawaharlal Nehru's book, Discovery of India (Bharat Ek Khoj).

Benegal's films have tended to stress on women and their rights. This recent film is no different in that sense. It deals with five women in a household facing different kinds of problems. And for this, he has called on a dynamic cast.

When we met him, he was, as expected, very busy. But between meetings and innumerable phone calls to convince Alka Srivastava about her role, Benegal spoke at length to Sharmila Taliculam about his film.

You are making two films at the same time. Which are these films?

I would rather speak about the film I am doing now. The film I will do in future is still under speculation. There's lot to be done on that still. That is a December-February project.

The script is ready, of course, but still there is a lot to be done there. So there is no point in me talking about something so much in the future. We don't know whether we are going to be in that or not.

A still from Ankur. Click for bigger pic!
So which is the film you are doing now?

I am doing a film now called Hari Bhari. It is a film about women's rights. It is a story of five women of three generations in a Muslim family of UP. I have a good cast for this film. Perhaps you may have noticed that I was speaking to Alka just now on the phone...

Seema Biswas was supposed to play (the role). But she was busy with something else, so I cast Alka Srivastava. She is a very fine actress from Delhi who, I believe, has not had the right kind of opportunities. She is an exceptional actress.

I have Surekha Sikri as the matriarch, Shabana Azmi, Alka Srivastava or Trivedi, Rajeshwari Sachdeva, and Nandita Das. There are three actors too. One is Vallabh Vyas who has acted in my earlier film Sardari Begum. He acts in a lot of television serials too. He again is a wonderful actor from Delhi.

Then there is Lalit Tiwari who has acted with me for the last 11 or 12 years. And then, I have Rajit Kapoor who has acted in a few films with me. These are the principal parts. But there is another part, that of a maid. It's a big part and its been played by Seema Bhargava. There are other characters too, but they are small parts.

Is this film a very feminist kind of film?

No, this is a story about women's rights generally. But more particularly it is an exploration into the concept of women's reproductive rights. You see it's automatically assumed that the right to have children is that right of the man, which, I think, is an absurdity.

It should be the right of a woman. She should have the right to her own body. It's a fundamental right. But we have never seen it as such. So the story deals with this aspect of human right. It's contemporary and I hope my stars will contribute to make it a nice film.

Why have you chosen a Muslim family? Is there a particular reason for it?

We have just chosen a Muslim family not for any particular purpose. It's Eenie, Meenie, Myna, Mo. India consists of various religions. To me it doesn't matter because they all are Indians. It so happens that this is based on certain case studies and they happen to be Muslim.

It's not because this story is of more consequence to Muslims and less to Hindus. The rights of women are their rights regardless of which religion they belong to. It's a universal concept. It's only in the 20th century and now that Indian women have realised this there is a need to give a lot more attention to the rights of women.

And women themselves have started to become much more conscious that they cannot live in an unequal situation. They have become part of the oppressed over many centuries.

Click for bigger pic!
And as we move towards deepening our democracy, it becomes very important for us to realise that women must have equal rights and privileges that otherwise we took for granted. So if it is a Muslim family, I am not saying that it is a Muslim problem. You can be dead sure that it is nothing like that.

Did you write the script for this film?

This story is based on case studies, which is done over a period of time by several sociologists. But the script itself is written by Shama Zaidi, who happens to be a long-time collaborator on various films.

You must have been following these cases for a long time then. Did you always intend making a film on them?

I was following these case studies, but I didn't necessarily want to make a film on it. Different subjects hit you at different times. As a film-maker, what has always interested me is human rights.

My social concern has always been to uphold the rights of individual human beings. Whether it is a problem of caste, or economics, political oppression has all been of consequence to me. It so happens that this subject deals with another kind of oppression.

Women's rights have played an important part of my films from the beginning, from the time I started making feature films like Ankur, Bhumika, Nishant, even Manthan and more recently Suraj Ka Saatwa Ghoda. So there is always an undercurrent of these concern that show up.

But since the oppression is more in the lower classes and they don't watch such films, how do you think your films might affect them?

I don't believe that is true. What I would say is that if you are thinking in terms of how entertainment has been perceived. If you look at the last 20 or 25 years, you have started to see that entertainment included a lot of social concepts of change -- and they came into the entertainment medium naturally.

From the time cinema started, it was always there. But there is a certain narrowing down that has started to take place, particularly the proliferation of television and certain social consequences of liberalisation, which has brought in essentially ideas of consumerism solidly, amounting to entertainment.

So entertainment has become a part of your consumption pattern. Even news or information of any kind... We have a new word for it now -- infotainment. Newspapers which are supposed to give you hard and soft news that keeps you abreast of what is happening in the world around you today, give it to you couched in entertainment terms.

Rajeshwari Sachdev. Click for bigger pic!
Mass media, proliferation of electronic media had done something else that is very interesting, again a new phenomenon -- celebrity creation. Today, we have many kinds of celebrities.

In the old days we didn't celebrate people for anything and everything. Today, we appear to be doing that. We often celebrate people simply because they are rich, big spenders and like to be seen at expensive places. Now, my interest goes a little beyond this. Where I see that entertainment should not be defined so narrowly.

You can entertain people, but also have a certain content to that entertainment. So when you say that my films only appeal to the well-to-do, I totally disagree. They appeal to everybody. It is just a question of the carriers of the film would like to carry the kind of films I make.

To the audiences that are perfectly willing to see and enjoy it. And also be concerned to debate and discuss about them. Because it is something that effects them everyday. Now people are concerned about what effects them, but you have to focus your attention on these things.

You are saying that your films are watched by everybody...

Entertainment is of different kinds. Some give you insights into your own life. My films do appeal to everybody or I wouldn't be able to survive in this business for so long. It's true that I may have a narrower base of loyal viewers. But I would still like to dispute that because ever since we have had this satellite television and so many channels, practically all my films have been shown over and over again on them. Audiences who were totally unacquainted with my work know of it today.

The first 15, 20 years of my film-making, the only people who saw my work were the ones who went to the theatres. And if you look at the statistics, the total number of cinemas in this country is not more than 12,000 to 13,000 for a population of close to a billion people.

So even if you say I have had reasonable success in the theatres for my earlier films, the numbers have changed over time. Today the number of people who must have seen my films will not be less than 10 to 15 million. This is the minimum I am talking about. The maximum could have been 50 or 80 million -- maybe.

When these films were actually released, they must have been seen by not more than three or four million people. So you can imagine the difference.

Is it also because people today like films with a little offbeat theme like, maybe, Terrorist?

The fact is Terrorist is a little gem of a film. It is not meant to have a wide appeal of a David Dhawan film. Nobody expects it to have that, least of all the film-maker. When I make a film, I have no silly delusion. I don't think Santosh Sivan has it too.

Click for bigger pic!
The fact is when you make a film for the lowest denominator, you are bound to have audiences that are much larger. But certain kind of films where the common denominator is not so dispersed, it would be different. Now the film I making would be of more interest to women than men, I will say that now itself. The same thing would happen with a different kind of film too.

If you want your film to appeal to everybody, then you have to make a film for the lowest common denominator. I have no interest in doing that. I don't want to make a film, which will mean something to everybody. You can't do that unless you want the content to become rather thin.

Except there are certain kind of subjects which have a great deal of content and has the widest possible appeal. And those are subjects which are more like the Mahabharatha or the Ramayana that are religious and historical. So everybody likes them.

How difficult is it to get finances for such films?

It's very difficult to get finance for these films. Because getting finance takes you into the aspect of cinema as a business. And when you look at cinema as a business... naturally businessmen don't necessarily look at the content of the film.

They are really concerned about whether the film is going to make money and what kind of money. So they will put money into situations like that. Then it becomes difficult to finance these kinds of films. But it's always been there. It's nothing new for me. It's always been like that from the very beginning.

When do you think you can release this film?

My film should be ready by November I think.

You have been in the industry for more than 20 years now...

It's been 26 years now since I made Ankur. But I have been making films much before that.

Then why have you made few films? You have mostly concentrated on documentaries and advertising films...

Would you say that having made 21 feature films in 26 years less? Yeah, I have made about over 1,500 advertising films. I have made 45 documentary films. I have done a 53 one-hour episode serial called Bharat Ek Khoj. Which is like making 22 or 26 feature films. Plus I have done so many other serials too. People in a lifetime make about 12 to 14 films. It takes about six months to finish a film. I take less time in shooting than most people. I shoot at a stretch. After which I get on with the other film...

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