'We think we know him because he's written about every day.'
'But how many of us know him as a person?'
After making biopics on Mahatma Gandhi (The Making of the Mahatma) and Subhas Chandra Bose (Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero), Shyam Benegal has made yet another biopic, this time on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder and the first president of Bangladesh, who was assassinated along with his family at his residence on August 15, 1975.
Mujib: The Making of a Nation is co-produced by India and Bangladesh to mark their leader's centenary.
The film was scheduled to start production on March 18, 2020, a day after Bangabandhu's birth centenary, but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a freewheeling conversation at the screening of the film, Shyambabu tells Patcy N/Rediff.com, "What Sheikh Mujib didn't realise was that his life was almost like Macbeth; he trusted his people fully, but when you are in politics, you cannot do that... When the Indian ambassador told him about the conspiracy, that some officers from the Bangladesh army were trying to do something, he said, 'Not a soul from Bangladesh will touch me'."
How aware were you about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's life before you decided to make a film on him?
Not much, but this was an opportunity I didn't want to miss.
So the next thing I did was read up everything I could possibly on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman until I got so interested in him that I was doing nothing but thinking and dreaming about him every single moment of my life.
I sat down and wrote a few things about him and the kind of film I wanted to make even before we worked on the script.
I felt it was very important for me to get Bangladesh's contemporary historians to help us work out the script.
It took time but finally, we thrashed out the script, which was satisfactory for everybody.
The prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, happens to be Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's daughter and so she knew him better than anybody else.
She was there when many of the events that I have depicted in the film took place. The only thing she and her younger sister missed out was the time before he was assassinated in his own home because they were in Germany.
Otherwise, they would have also been assassinated because the conspiracy was to eliminate the entire Mujibur Rahman family.
I showed the script to her and told her that unless she approves, I would not make this film.
She was extremely helpful.
When I finished the film, the most important thing for me was if she liked it or not, everything else was secondary, because she was the daughter of the man who created that nation and she is a prime minister. Unless she said it was alright, I didn't want the film to release.
She liked it a lot.
What fascinated you about Sheikh Mujib?
You'll find that people of political eminence or of that kind of responsibility usually sacrifice their family life.
There was one interesting thing that came up when we were studying his life, how he balanced his political life and his family life.
He balanced his private and his political life perfectly. He had a very happy family and also had a strong support within his party.
What he didn't realise was that his life was almost like Macbeth; he trusted his people fully but when you are in politics, you cannot do that.
You cannot be blind to their faults because you have too much responsibility.
There were hints of what was likely to happen but he was so confident.
When the Indian ambassador told him about the conspiracy, that some officers from the Bangladesh army were trying to do something, he said, 'Not a soul from Bangladesh will touch me.'
It's almost like a Shakespearean tragedy and it struck me that this was an important quality that I had to get into the film.
Tell us about the film's brilliant climax.
It has been extremely well described by a lot of people, but particularly those who were very close to him.
A little before his assassination, his daughters, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana, were on their way to Germany.
The whole climax assassination scene is from the people who were part of that group who carried out the assassination. It came out when the trial took place, that's when one came to know what exactly happened that night.
On basis of that, we worked out the scenes. It was choreographed because I wanted it as one continuous action.
Cameraman Akashdeep (Pandey) and my associate director Dayal (Nihalani) worked out how the movements would be, how we would shoot and go up the stairs to his bedroom and how each of them would be killed, including the 10-year-old boy, the youngest member of the family.
The whole thing was terrifying, the way it was described to me, and I felt that character should come into the film.
I wanted the audience to experience the terror of that time and also how Sheikh Mujib was not frightened. He went directly to confront them and got shot.
There was a ruthlessness of these people who were attacking him and his family.
Is it difficult to make a biopic on politicians?
Yes. It is very difficult to say anything from another point of view because there are so many points of view which have already been covered by so many people like historians, reporters...
There's a lot written about them, and through that jungle of information, you have to find that one thing that reveals the man.
We have our prime minister, how many of us really know him?
I don't know him.
We think we know him because there's a public image of him.
He's written about everyday.
His photographs appear in the papers every day.
You see him traveling abroad, meeting world leaders.
But how many of us know him as a person?
This happens to public figures, it's like peeling an onion.
India played a crucial role in the birth of Bangladesh.
As you know, Sheikh Mujib was breaking away from Pakistan and creating a Bengali nation. That was one aspect.
India didn't want to get involved because whatever happens, Pakistan would immediately say, India is doing it.
But you couldn't just sit there and keep your eyes closed.
You had to take some steps because there were 10 million refugees that came from East Pakistan to India and we had to look after them and repatriate them.
In a situation like this, the question went up to the United Nations.
Pakistan kept saying that we were being aggressive, but the fact was that we got trapped at that time.
When 10 million refugees came in, this became a problem for India.
I must say the Indian government functioned with the greatest maturity.
Have you taken any cinematic liberties?
You have to be as true as you possibly can to what happened at that time, otherwise, you will be guilty of a lot of things.
It's not my story being told, so I can't (take liberties).
What did Bangladesh feel about this film?
First, of course, I had to show the film to the family, which means the prime minister had to see the film.
She had no objections.
Then we released the film in 170 cinemas all over Bangladesh and they were running houseful. We did not get any negative views, very few, maybe three or four.
Fortunately, the film has done extremely well in Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh government has seen that where there are no cinemas, they are showing the film in community halls.
You highlighted Indira Gandhi in the film. Is today's regime tolerant about that?
She was very much there. In fact, it is Mrs Gandhi who decided to confront Pakistan at that time.
Otherwise, the United Nation was saying, 'We'll sit down and discuss.'
Discuss where? In New York?
Is today's regime tolerant enough to show her taking charge?
I must credit our present prime minister on one thing -- that historically speaking, there was no reason why this should have been co-produced by India, but it is.
He's a State's person, not just a politician.
A lot of Indian film-makers have tried to make biopic on politicians or political scenarios, but they have always been whitewashed. Why do you think film-makers are bowing down to political or social pressure while making films?
Obviously, it depends. If I am making a film about the Opposition leader, the government will obviously want to see that it does not challenge the present regime.
As far as our contemporary history is concerned, I must say that our present government -- which has nothing in common with the government that was there at that time -- did not stop the film from taking the shape it was taking.
How are you so fearless?
I'm not fearless, I am just scary.
Everybody has fears.
But if I make a film, I have to be honest to the subject.
What is your next film? You were making a film on Syama Prasad Mookerjee
That was a long time ago, that film never came through. It needed to be financed properly.
Do you still face challenges of finance?
Of course, because I don't take subjects that 90 percent of the films have.