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April 4, 1997


'I discovered the human side of the Mahatma'

Shyam BenegalThe man who made his entry into feature films after notching up an impressive record of over 700 ad films with the startling and dramatic Ankur, the man who has through the medium of stark, hard-hitting cinema, discussed issues ranging from the domination of landlords, to the fact of prostitution in Mandi, to the surrealistic Suraj Ka Satwaan Ghoda is - who else? - Shyam Benegal.

He is the man, Guide magazine rated as one of the five best living directors in the world. He has to his credit today 18 feature films, serials and documentaries, and his latest credit is The Making of the Mahatma - a daunting subject, given Richard Attenborough's definitive film Gandhi.

Benegal's latest, deals with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's life in South Africa in the period before he came to India and took up the leadership of the freedom struggle. And so well did Benegal tackle the subject, that he has even won his lead actor, Rajit Kapoor, the national award for Best Actor.

Benegal, however, has never been one to rest on his laurels - so off he is again, with his next project, Thumri, based on the life of Sardari Begum and directed from a script written by Filmfare editor Khalid Mohammad, who also wrote the scenario for Benegal's Mammo.

Benegal, exclusive to Rediff On The NeT, in conversation with Suparn Verma:

You first sowed the seeds of rebellion against commercial cinema with Ankur. What has happened to that seed today?

Hopefully, it has grown into a tree. I have made 18 films, television serials and documentaries and it goes on. It is very difficult for me as a film-maker to talk about his own films - I make one, and move on to the next. Films have their own life - they are like children, once they grow up into adults, the connection is no longer there with the maker. At that stage, the film develops a relationship with the audience, which is even more significant than the relationship with the maker.

Your films have always dealt with politico-social issues relating to the country, so what in your view are the greatest problems facing us today?

Shyam Benegal Our biggest problem is with governance, with the fact that our legislature is no longer effective. The majority of time in Parliament is spent discussing trivialities, while the pressing problems remain undiscussed. There is also the nexus between politics, business and the underworld - another worrisome factor. And, last and most important, is the fact that we have no ideals today. Every society needs ideals to look up to, and that is what we lack today.

But unrest has always inspired creativity - why then is it that our film-makers have not drawn from the unrest to come up with realistic cinema? Why is the cinematic solution to our problems still the old outsize hero with his fists and his machine gun?

Our trouble is unfortunately that we have become reactive, whether in politics or in entertainment. We do not discuss ideas in our films, we only react. There is oppression - so, kill the oppressor, that is it, nice and simple. It makes it easy for the audience, for they identify with villains and heroes, not with ideas. But the truth is there are no individual villains. There are modes and processes in which a society gets caught up, and individuals react depending on which side of the fence they happen to be on.

You made Parrot Tales for the western market, does it mean that you have succumbed to the lure of the foreign market?

Parrot Tales is based on the stories that came under the title of Tutinama, originally written in Sanskrit and later translated in many languages. It has tales that are erotic, funny, sad - they are based on the classical premises. A young girl is about to be married. Her fiancee goes on a journey in his absence, the girl meets an attractive man. Her fiancee has, however, left her with a talking parrot which tries to distract her from her lustful thoughts by telling her stories. In one version, she strangles the parrot, in the other she remains chaste.

At the moment, we have prepared a pilot and are searching for a foreign buyer because it is too costly a project for Indian television, it's not a soap opera, each episode requires new costumes and sets. Each episode is like a film in itself. And that is why the foreign connection, not because I have succumbed to any lure.

Making of the Mahatma In Making of a Mahatma, what new aspect of the Father of the Nation did you discover that has not been cinematically discussed before?

I discovered the human side of the Mahatma. The vulnerable side. I discovered a human being behind the public persona.

From the early seventies to the mid-eighties there was a movement towards good cinema, and you were right in the thick of it. Today, that movement has apparently petered out - could you tell us why?

There is no media support for good cinema, and that is the main reason. This year, 25 films have been sanctioned by the NFDC, but not one of them has received any kind of media attention. But I must mention this - the movement is not dead yet. Such films are still being made, not of the same quality maybe, but the big thing is they are being made.

But within you, is there a sense of betrayal that the movement that was so strong then is no longer as strong now?

Films depend on the person who makes them, on their ideas. I don't feel betrayed, if they wish to make films like that, it is up to them.

We have been making films for 100 years now, where would you rank Indian films in context of world cinema? Why?

In terms of quantity, we are the largest. In the process, Indian cinema has developed its own cinematic language. The kind of cinema we make is for our audiences, not for the world. Indian films have an appeal only here. But even this is likely to change, thanks to globalisation. In the past two or three years, films like Mani Ratnam's Bombay had big releases abroad, Bandit Queen and Salaam Bombay are other films that have been successful abroad. And they use the global language to communicate.

Essentially you need to analyse more deeply, superficial analysis won't do for Indian cinema. On the surface, it is vapid. In truth, popular Indian cinema goes back to the morality plays of good man-bad man, virtuous and vicious. Today, though, we are slowly moving beyond the simplistic.

When you look back at your career what are your most cherished moments ?

Shyam Benegal I really have not thought of that. I cherish the experience of every film . As a film-maker there are some days when you are on top of the world and you have everything under control, and on some days you are a manic depressive. That's the dark side.

Good actors have been wasted in doing crass commercial roles. Why is this? A commitment to money more than to art, perhaps?

No, it's not greed. See, new cinema never developed a critical mass. In India we have 900 to 950 films made a year - unless at least 100 of them are part of the new cinema, you are never likely to develop a critical mass. And without this critical mass, this movement will not be able to provide livelihood to the actors and actresses - and this is the reality of film-making in India.

The manner in which films are made here is akin to a cottage industry. Now with Plus Channel and Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd entering we just might develop more of a method to our madness.

What are your views on violence in cinema?

Violence in cinema is not just on the screen but a reflection of what is projected in the total media. The danger is that this constant exposure will in the eyes of the audience legitimise violence.

Photographs: Jewella Miranda