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'Manthan Is My Most Influential Film'

May 18, 2024 12:50 IST
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'The censor board asked me for some strange cuts.'
'Otherwise, they would have given me an 'A' certificate.'
'One cut was where Girish Karnad was explaining artificial insemination in cattle.'
'These cuts never made any sense to me.'

IMAGE: Smita Patil as Bindu and Girish Karnad as Dr Manohar Rao in Shyam Benegal's classic Manthan.

Manthan, Shyam Benegal's film made to support Dr Verghese Kurien's milk co-operative movement, was screened at the Cannes film festival on Friday, May 17, 2024.

The plot about an activist-doctor (Girish Karnad) encouraging the women of an impoverished village in Gujarat to become self-sufficient is a coiling collage of arresting anecdotes.

To this day this wonderful slice-of-life cinema's revolutionary resonance echo a message of social equality.

Smita Patil's portrayal of the rural Gujarati woman was to originally go to Shabana Azmi. But she fell out with her mentor, Shyam Benegal. Ah, destiny.

"The film achieved an impact most entertainment films don't," Shyam Benegal tells Subhash K Jha.

Shyam Babu, do you remember any particular incident about Manthan that has stayed with you?

I remember the censor board asked me for some strange cuts. In Manthan, there were two cuts. Otherwise, they would have given me an 'A' certificate.

One cut was where Girish Karnad was explaining artificial insemination in cattle. These cuts never made any sense to me.

IMAGE: Girish Karnad and Naseeruddin Shah as Bhola in Manthan.

Manthan is your most influential film to date. How did the film reach so far and wide?

At the time of the film's release Dr Kurien took charge of showcasing it in Gujarat. It was a resounding success.

Distributors wanted to release it all over the country. The National Dairy Development Board used it as a propaganda film, and that was the real success.

I then took to the film to the United Nations. When Morarji Desai became prime minister, he asked for a print of Manthan and presented it to the government of the then USSR.

The film achieved an impact most entertainment films don't. It's by far my most influential work

IMAGE: Smita Patil and Girish Karnad in Manthan.

Manthan celebrates the life of Verghese Kurien who pioneered the milk movement in India. What inspired you to make a film on his life?

I can't help but talk about him in hyperbole. To me, he was one of the two greatest men who helped in the development of the country in the first 50 years of independent India.

The other being M S Swaminathan, the father of the Green Revolution.

IMAGE: Ratna Pathak Shah and Naseeruddin Shah in Cannes for the screening of the restored version of Manthan, May 17, 2024. Photograph: Stephane Mahe/Reuters

How would you describe Dr Kurien?

Dr Kurien was a wonderful person with a great sense of humour. He didn't suffer fools. He would get people to join his movement and never cow down to anyone. He always held his head high.

Interestingly, he never went to anyone for help for the movement. People came to him.

He could have got a job anywhere. But he chose to remain an Amul employee.

IMAGE: Amul Managing Director Jayen Mehta, Naseeruddin Shah, Film Heritage Foundation's Shivendra Singh Dungarpur and Prateik Babbar, Smita Patil's son, in Cannes for the screening of the restored version of Manthan. Photograph: Stephane Mahe/Reuters

Maybe he saw that position as sturdy base for his movement?

Maybe. Because of Dr Kurien we became the leading milk producers in the world.

We were low down in the world list of milk producers before Dr Kurien. It's an extraordinary achievement.

IMAGE: Naseeruddin Shah, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur and Prateik Babbar in Cannes. Photograph: Stephane Mahe/Reuters

How did you meet Dr Kurien?

Before I became a film-maker, I used to work for an ad agency called the Advertising & Sales Promotion Company. It was run by Sylvester d'Cunha. We were associated with the brand Amul. I met Dr Kurien in the 1960s.

IMAGE: Dr Verghese Kurien. Photograph: Kind courtesy

To Dr Kurien goes the credit for eliminating middlemen in the milk business?

You may be aware of the presence of these middlemen, because of whom the milk farmers in our country suffer a lot.

Dr Kurien saw himself as a servant of these farmers. Once his milk co-operatives in Gujarat got going, milk farming got rid of middlemen.

Dr Kurien produced Amul milk powder for babies, and that too from buffalo milk, for the first time in the world, which seemed impossible at that time.

IMAGE: Dr Kurien with then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1964. Photograph: Kind courtesy

Then came Amul butter?

Yes, his next big step was Amul butter.

The prime minister then, Lal Bahadur Shastri, saw the success of Dr Kurien's movement in Gujarat and wanted it replicated in other parts of the country. That was how the National Dairy Development Board started in Anand.

As the movement started to spread its wings, Dr Kurien started touring the country on a war footing. He started Operation Flood 1 and 2.

IMAGE: 'Red carpet of Shyam Benegal's classic at Cannes film festival!', Amul posts on Instagram. Photograph: Kind courtesy amul_india/

I believe you got the chance to observe Dr Kurien from close quarters.

I had been making Amul ads for Dr Kurien during my days at d'Cunha's agency.

I travelled with Dr Kurien and saw first-hand all the things that were happening through his efforts.

I felt there was a need for a feature film on the movement. When I asked him, he jumped at the idea.

IMAGE: Shyam Benegal. Photograph: Kind courtesy Satyen K. Bordoloi/ Commons

How did you get the idea of crowdfunding the project?

There was no money since every penny made at Amul went back into the co-operative movement.

Dr Kurien suggested that he would make half the million milk farmers of Gujarat give two rupees each for this film. That's how Manthan started.

Why did you get Girish Karnad to play Dr Kurien?

We chose Girish Karnad to play Dr Kurien. He seemed the perfect fit. And he was!

We got Vijay Tendulkar to write the script. He met Dr Kurien and came up with several ideas. We chose one that became Manthan.

The script won the National Award. Then I made the film.

The song Mero Gham Katha Parey by Preeti Sagar became the Amul song. Not too many people know that Preeti's younger sister wrote the lyrics.

Photographs curated by Manisha Kotian/
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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