In Search of Shyam Benegal

Parallel life: Benegal sizes up a shot.

When I first learned that the Indian director Shyam Benegal would be the subject of a tribute at this year’s Telluride Film Festival (August 31–September 3), I had seen exactly none of his films. Now, I have seen nearly a dozen, and I hunger for more. Benegal is a giant of India’s “parallel cinema” movement, sometimes referred to as “new cinema” or “middle cinema” — in short, films whose style, subject matter and themes run quietly alongside, but rarely intersect with, the dominant concerns of mainstream Indian cinema (a.k.a. Bollywood). Admittedly, those distinctions have blurred somewhat in recent years, as commercial Indian filmmakers have absorbed many of the innovations of parallel cinema, while the decline of independent financing and distribution has forced mavericks like Benegal to find ways of working within television and the Bombay studio system. But when Benegal began, his was a voice shouting in the wilderness, breathing life into characters and conflicts all but absent from Indian screens.

Benegal was not, of course, the first Indian director to make realistic, socially conscious movies that stood in sharp relief from Bollywood’s bourgeois family melodramas and storybook musical fantasies. For starters, there was Satyajit Ray, whose legendary 1950s trilogy Pather Panchali, Aparajito and The World of Apu had put Indian cinema on the international map, and who would prove the single greatest influence on Benegal’s own filmmaking career (a kinship evident in Benegal’s superb feature-length 1984 documentary Satyajit Ray). In addition, there were the Bengali-language filmmakers who followed in Ray’s immediate footsteps: Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. But by the early 1970s, their work had received greater exposure internationally than they had within India itself, whereas Benegal’s films were made in Hindi and played to a surprisingly wide audience both at home and abroad, forming a fragile bridge across that perilous chasm between art and commerce.

His breakthrough in this regard was also his first dramatic feature, coming after a post-college career making documentaries and advertising films: Released in 1974, Ankur told the story of a wealthy property owner’s ne’er-do-well son who is dispatched to oversee his father’s land in a rural village, whereupon he embarks on an ill-fated affair with the impoverished housekeeper Lakshmi (Shabana Azmi). Filmed by Benegal in a deceptively simple, neo-realist style, enhanced by the use of location shooting and direct sound recording (both uncommon in the Indian cinema of the era), the film offered a blistering critique of the country’s feudal caste system and provided a brilliant showcase for Azmi, soon to become one of parallel cinema’s major leading ladies, in her first screen appearance. It also offered the earliest evidence of two recurring Benegal concerns — the plight of India’s itinerant poor and the injustices suffered by women under the thumb of a patriarchal society.

What I have seen of the rest of Benegal’s work from the 1970s and ’80s is no less impressive. These are films made with the kind of detail found in V.S. Naipaul’s writings about India, a feel for ordinary lives measured against the processional of history worthy of Balzac or Zola, and the restless tugging of past upon present that one associates with Proust. That is especially true of Trikal (1985), an enormously ambitious, multigenerational family chronicle set in Goa during the last gasp of Portuguese rule. But if Benegal’s films have the reach of great literature, that shouldn’t suggest they are less than visually ravishing, especially if we are to speak of Nishaant (1975), a Western of sorts about a village living in fear of a callous landowner and his debauched brothers that culminates in a desert pursuit among great rocky outcroppings that surely would have met with John Ford’s approval.

To my mind, Benegal’s greatest work of this period may be his most intimate. Set amid the bustle of Bombay and against the backdrop of the Bollywood movie industry, 1977’s Bhumika: The Role is nothing short of an Indian A Star Is Born, featuring Benegal’s second great muse, Smita Patil, as a celebrated film star (based on 1940s actress Hansa Wadkar) whose lifetime of failed, abusive relationships (including one with a husband who keeps her locked away inside his sprawling estate) provides a bitterly ironic contrast to the idyllic romances she enacts on the screen. See it once, and you will never forget its devastating final moments: a woman who has traded one form of captivity for another, unable to respond to the unworthy lover who beckons her from the other end of a telephone line. In many ways Benegal’s ultimate tribute to feminine resilience, it is also a revealing film about the art of performance, and our preference for cinematic illusion over hardscrabble reality.

In the ’90s, it became fashionable for some of Benegal’s critical champions to dismiss his recent films as lacking the dynamism of the earlier ones. As one who is new to Benegal’s entire oeuvre, I can only assume these are people who haven’t seen The Seventh Horse of the Sun (1992), a playful and lyrical examination of storytelling and authorial perspective, and Zubeidaa (2001), an ebullient, wide-screen musical that at once invokes and critiques the conventions of Bollywood cinema. I should add that Benegal is not entirely unknown in the West: There exists an English-language book about his body of work, he has been in competition at Berlin and Cannes, and some of his films have been commercially distributed in Europe. Yet, it seems a fair wager that for most of you reading these words, Benegal’s name is as alien as it was to me only a short while ago. His exposure in the U.S. has been limited to occasional festival appearances and the Hindi-language film circuit, and while I am encouraged to learn that eight Benegal titles are available through Netflix (with a little Googling, you can find several others for sale by Indian DVD retailers), I hesitate to think about how many renters have them in their queues. “We need to see things not with the filter of what is given, but to see things as they are,” Benegal has said. This weekend in Telluride, festival-goers will be able to see Benegal’s films as they are, after which there will be a retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and, with any luck, in L.A.

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