Saturday, September 18, 2010

Shyam Benegal - A Master Storyteller

Of all the makers of Indian offbeat cinema that got its second wind in the 1970's, the most consistently interesting artiste for me has been Shyam Benegal. In my humble view, Benegal is the film-maker that can be regarded as the spiritual successor to the legacy of Satyajit Ray . Both of them did not restrict the kind of film they made, displaying their interest in a wide variety of subjects, viewpoints and styles. What they really wanted to do, and what to me is the most appealing quality of their work, was tell interesting stories; and unlike some of the other names of 'arthouse' cinema, tell them in a straight, approachable way, esoterica be damned. What I am attempting here is a list of Benegal offerings, culled from all his films I have seen, which I can heartily recommend to all the people who are interested in films that tell interesting stories in a sensible and entertaining manner. What is fortunate is that many of these films are available in home video format. There may be other worthy films that I have missed but I hope to give a decent representation of his far-reaching body of work. So here goes...

Charandas Chor aka Charan the Thief (1975)
It is not perhaps what I would recommend to a complete newcomer to Benegal's films, because the style runs contrary to the measured approach that he is better known for, but this raw and intensely flavored “slapstick comedy slipping into satire and surreal territory” based on a Habib Tanvir play about two rural con men has several moments of delight, be it the hyper-speed cops n' robbers chases or the absurd and ironic trial proceedings. Also notable for the first appearance of Smita Patil in a Benegal film. 

Nishant aka Night's End (1975)
What could have been a routine 'arthouse' story of social exploitation is fashioned into a far more interesting enterprise. A school-teacher's wife is abducted and gang-raped by the brothers of the tyrannical village landowner. While her husband at first makes frantic and fruitless attempts to get the law to rescue her and then sinks into resigned acceptance of the situation, the woman leverages her hold over the landowner's timid youngest brother, for whom she was 'procured', and demands verily the position of a second wife. The film ends in a hastily arranged revolt of the villagers against the landowner's family, the closing scene being that of the teacher's wife running away with the landowner's brother in escape. A biting irony-laden script, and a fiery performance from actress Shabana Azmi are the highlights. 

Manthan aka The Churning (1976)
Manthan is one of the more unique examples of film production, being funded by voluntary donations from farmer-members of the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation. The film does not content itself being an extended plug for the milk co-operative, but provides an interesting narrative with sharp comment on the venal machinations of the various power-broking factions and how they keep the villagers submissive to their exploitation. The film is not to my knowledge available on video, but can be viewed in streaming format at the Amul TV website (video link).

Bhumika aka The Role (1977)
Bhumika is one of my personal favorites in Benegal's oeuvre. Unlike his trademark successes which carry an ensemble cast, Bhumika is squarely focused on its lead character. Smita Patil, queen of Indian offbeat cinema, gives a towering performance here as an actress (broadly based on the autobiography of old-time Marathi star Hansa Wadkar) who was forced into films at an early age to save her family from destitution and ended up becoming a star, but remained starved of true companionship. She goes from era to era, and man to man, searching for the elusive happiness. Benegal uses the background to give us a glimpse into the history of Indian cinema, starting from the early talkies. His sense of humor finds release in sly asides like the matinee hero, whose proposal of marriage has been rejected by Smita's character, with a liquor glass in front of a mirror, arranging his hair Devdas-style, or the director who becomes one of her lovers revealing that he made up a story of his daughter having died during the Holi festival so people wouldn't shower colored powder on him. Bhumika is also one of Benegal's most stylish efforts visually, combining B/W and color footage to show the passage of time and the advent of newer technologies in the film-making process (although Benegal has revealed that it arose from the need to save on the cost of color film stock). 

Kondura aka The Sage From The Sea (1978)
Social concern meets dark fantasy in this uneven but still strong entry from Benegal. Anant Nag plays Parsuram, initially a no-gooder chided by his family for his lack of gainful employment, then transformed after an alleged encounter with the sage Kondura, who grants him a boon which calls for various manner of sacrifice at his end, including complete celibacy. Parsuram finds himself talking to the village goddess and concerns himself with the task of building a temple in her honor. Ironically, the funding for the temple comes from the local zamindar who is a debauch that ill-treats his mentally affected nephew-cum-heir, and is also possibly infertile. Parsuram's increasing fervor to build the temple and restore values of righteousness to the village bring him increasingly bizarre experiences leading to a climax that perverts the cause of religious mania. The film can be shrill in making some of its points but it is undeniably effective in its good moments.

Junoon aka The Obsession (1978)
Based on a Ruskin Bond book A Flight of Pigeons, Benegal's most grandly laid out film of that time (funded by Shashi Kapoor's Film-Valas company) tells a story set during the 1857 mutiny of Indian states against the British colonists. A trio of British women of different generations barely escape from blood-crazed mutineers who have massacred a church-ful of whites and, after running hither and thither, are captured by the patriotic Pathan warrior Javed Khan who would cut them down in an instant...but he has fallen for young Ruth. Ruth's mother constantly rejects Javed Khan's proposals and advances towards her daughter, severely trying both his obsession for Ruth and his Pathan culture which requires him to protect guests against all harm, including himself and his jealous wife. Finally she works a deal in which he agrees to give Ruth's hand to him...if the Indian rebellion wins Delhi. A strong character-driven narrative and rich production are further enhanced by a razor-sharp lead performance by the immensely underrated Shashi Kapoor as Javed Khan

Kalyug aka The Machine Age (1981)
A contemporary interpretation of the Mahabharata played out as a boardroom battle between two business families that will not allow ethics to get in the way of conquest. Nothing more to say here other than that it is highly recommended viewing.

Mandi aka Market (1983)
This racy black comedy set in a brothel is one of Benegal's most openly outrageous efforts and one that, with its themes of incest and stinging digs at morality and politics, would doubtless be suppressed by the plunder-happy so-called 'culture guardians' if it were to be revived today. A richly talented ensemble cast compiled from the who's who of Indian parallel cinema probe into their bawdy parts (hah!) with unabashed relish and the end result is a film that sometimes shocks, often has you in splits and never fails to hold your interest.

Trikal aka Past, Present, Future (1985)
Possibly the closest Indian cinema gets to a Gabriel Garcia Marquez style narrative - a fairly good plot summary can be found here. Surreptitious affairs of passion cross paths with spirit summoning seances and political revolution in a multi-generation Goan family getting painfully shorn of its Portuguese moorings. Again a visually sumptuous film with mesmerizing candlelight photography by Ashok Mehta. Benegal also employs stylized tools like using the same actor to play an archetype across generations.

Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda aka Seventh Horse of The Sun (1993)
Possibly the last of Benegal's 'great' films. I remember seeing this one in its theatrical release in Liberty cinema (Mumbai), and it was, along with Ismail Merchant's Muhafiz (In Custody), the highlight of that year in movies. Adapting a Hindi novel of the same name by Dharamvir Bharati (and apparently simplifying it, I am told that the original work is a lot more labyrinthine, requiring frequent lookbacks to keep track of the characters and situational time-lines), Benegal plunges us into a multi-threaded storyline, each thread of which looks at a different aspect of Love, the sum giving us a picture of this supposedly ethereal emotion in the context of social mores and inner character. If this sounds too academic, I profusely apologize because SKSG is a comedy, and a brilliantly accomplished one at that. Starting off with its scathing dismissal of Sarat Chandra's Devdas, it brilliantly exposes the absurdity of the romantic sentiment as drawn in popular culture. There are no obvious banana-peel jokes but anyone with a smidgen of rationality will find plenty to smile (and frequently guffaw) at in these irony-laden proceedings. All the actors here are superlative but Rajit Kapoor as the narrator and Amrish Puri as a colorful lecherous father who thinks nothing of flirting with his son's mother-in-law deserve special mention. Again one of the best Hindi films I have seen.


  1. I've only managed to see three of his films so am very glad to have a guide like this. Isn't Shashi amazing in Junoon? All that lusty rage and disappointment.

  2. Yeah. He was also great in Utsav with all that, as you say, lusty rage and disappointment :D

    In a way I find Ajooba tragic because up till then his banner had been associated with aesthetic cinema, and after the financial disaster of that venture, he stopped producing altogether.

  3. Oh true! I actually really love Ajooba (and not just because Shashi is involved with it), but even if I didn't, it's very sad to think that may have put him off, or just flat-out prevented him from, making films forever.

  4. the other movies of Shyam Benegal i enjoyed was Samar and Making of Mahatma. Samar is an outstanding movie but because of distribution issues and some shenanigans by another company never got released

  5. Thanks for the comments.

    For me Ajooba the movie was in itself a tragedy. Shashi getting into a genre he was obviously none too comfortable with as a debut feature, the end product had nothing to recommend apart from kitsch value and a banner associated with off-beat cinema of refined sensibility (Junoon, Utsav, Kalyug, Vijeta) got plugged as a result.

    Making of the Mahatma was quite interesting for its subject matter and involved lead performance by Rajit Kapoor (I saw it at Liberty theater on its release). Samar I'm not too enthused by, because beyond a point it was just a little bland for the sort of issues it talked about. IMO :)


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