In the late 1940s, when Shyam Benegal was a college student in Hyderabad, he closely witnessed the Telangana peasant uprising against the oppressive feudal lords. Many of his friends who supported the movement spent time in jail, an event that would go on to define the ideological framework of his films such as Ankur (1974), Nishant (1975) and Manthan (1976).
The three films make an impressive trilogy that not only introduced Hindi cinema to the talents of actors such as Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Girish Karnad and Anant Nag, but also marked the arrival of an alternate aesthetic in films.
At a time when Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Manmohan Desai were dominating the scene with quintessential romances and comedies, Benegal countered the commercial narrative with social realism, foregrounding the caste and class faultlines that were beginning to emerge in a disillusioned nation still grappling with the trauma of partition.
His filmmaking drew stylistically from Satyajit Ray and Vittorio de Sica, but the voice was entirely original, upending conventions and subverting notions of entertainment.
“To me the definition of entertainment is very broad. It includes anything that engages me and is able to bring new insights into my own way of thinking,” the filmmaker said in an interview with Rajya Sabha TV in 2014.
Benegal’s films, all the way until his last so far, Well Done Abba (2010), bear out this statement, investigating how power structures enable the abuse of those marginalised because of their class, caste, religion and gender.
Decades before the term ‘intersectional feminism’ entered the popular lexicon, several Benegal films— Ankur, Mandi, Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda — encapsulated its meaning.
In Benegal’s debut film Ankur, the married, dominant caste Surya (Nag) manipulates a Dalit woman Lakshmi (Azmi), into having an affair with him by pretending to be what people may today call ‘woke’. He tells Lakshmi, his domestic help, that he didn’t “care about caste or society”, only to abandon her when she gets pregnant. While going back on his promise, the hypocritical Surya says, “What will the villagers think?”
“Ankur was a story I had written in the late ’50s,” the 85-year-old filmmaker said in a telephonic conversation with HuffPost India. “When I got the opportunity to make a feature—I had previously made several documentaries and ad films—I knew I had to make it. And when it went on to become a critical and commercial hit, the feeling wasn’t that of accomplishment but of having the satisfaction in the knowledge that I had a future in films.”
While many read the film’s title as a reference to the seedling of rebellion that begins to germinate in a village tired of dominant-caste tyranny, Benegal said that it was cast member Nag who came up with the title. “And the reference was to the three of us—Anant, Shabana and me—who were starting our movie careers,” he laughed. The film would end up sowing the seeds of a parallel cinema movement in India, a term Benegal continues to dislike.
Nag, who went on to have a successful career in Kannada cinema, was rewarded with Rs 500 for coming up with the name.
The first person to watch Ankur was Satyajit Ray, who was holed up in Bombay’s Rajkamal Studios at the time, working on the sound mixing of one of his movies. Benegal, who by then had struck up a deep friendship with the Bengali master (to the point that Ray had recommended Benegal for a Homi Bhabha fellowship in the US), asked him if he’d like to see his film.
And what was Ray’s reaction?
“He loved it. He was completely taken by Shabana Azmi’s performance. He prophesied that she will have a great run in the movies,” Benegal said.
A few years later, Azmi herself would work with Ray, in Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977).
‘Nishant’, Indira Gandhi and the Emergency
While it wasn’t easy for Benegal to immediately replicate the success of Ankur, his commitment to making movies about social oppression never wavered, even when his second film, Nishant, a biting critique of feudalism, was banned by the censor board for being ‘too anti-establishment’.
The film, which starred Nag, Azmi, Shah and Karnad, came months after then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency on India, curtailing all kinds of freedoms, including artistic ones. But the movie had already toured festivals, including Cannes, and generated tremendously positive reviews. How did he manage to persuade the notoriously pliant CBFC?
“Well, you see, I had a friend at the PMO,” Benegal recalled, saying that the friend set up a meeting between him and Gandhi after the director flew down to Delhi. “I had to approach the PMO because all other means of raising an appeal were suspended. When I met Mrs. Gandhi, I told her, ‘Look, I understand you’ve problems of your own. But I have a problem too’ and explained my issue. I told her the film had played at Cannes. She expressed interest in watching the film.”
Benegal had carried a copy of the movie and promptly arranged for the film’s screening at the Films Division theatre in New Delhi. “I thought she’d sit for half an hour and leave but she sat through the whole film. After it was done, I asked, so what’s your verdict? She said, is the censor board stupid? There’s no reason why this film should not be released. I’ll get my office to send in a word to the CBFC.”
While the CBFC finally certified the movie without any cuts, there was a caveat. They wanted Benegal to carry a disclaimer that the events in the movie took place in pre-independent India.
“It was quite funny. Because obviously the film was set in the ’50s and adding that line made the establishment’s anxiety even more obvious. We would hear of people laughing in theatres when the supers appeared. It’s a classic example of bureaucratic stupidity.”
Clearly, not a lot has changed in the present. Benegal laughed.
“Well, the more things change, the more they remain the same.”
Convincing Smita Patil
In 1977, Benegal made Bhumika, a biopic of Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar. The film, about an actress who chooses to live life on her own terms but is still exploited by various men at different stages of her life, presented a depressing picture of the prevalence of male abuse despite the financial independence and public success of a woman. For the role, Benegal pursued Azmi who, while convinced by the story, refused the role, saying she wouldn’t get the character right.
“She had a point,” Benegal recalled. “She said she won’t get the Maharashtrian ethos in the manner of, say, a Smita Patil, who was from the community. I pursued Smita even though she, too, was very unsure of the role.”
Patil’s reservations came from the character’s complexity—a woman who leaves her abusive husband and pursues other men, only to be disappointed by each of them. “Only beds change, men don’t,” a character warns her character.
It was a difficult role and Patil was just one film old at the time. “Smita understood the culture and context of the character. It took some convincing but eventually she was on board and won a National Award for her performance.”
In the ’70s alone, Benegal made about 7 feature films besides a bunch of documentaries. The ’80s would mark his shift to television after starting the decade with yet another gem, the unabashedly feminist Mandi (1983).
The film featured a number of Benegal’s frequent collaborators who, by then, were on their way to becoming indie legends—Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Ratna Pathak Shah, Neena Gupta, Soni Razdan, Amrish Puri, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur, Annu Kapoor, Ila Arun and of course, Naseerudin Shah.
Mandi remains a peerless masterpiece. It dismantles prejudices against sex workers and normalises the idea of sex work as any other work without presenting the women either as victims of exploitation, unwitting homewreckers or as ‘prostitutes with hearts of gold,’ an oft-exploited Bollywood trope.
Instead, Mandi presents them as characters with agency who choose and enjoy the work they do while calling out self-serving NGO workers and politicians, the self-appointed arbiters of morality.
‘Mammo’ and the ‘Muslim trilogy’
In the 80s, Benegal also made Bharat Ek Khoj, an adaptation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India, and the ambitious 15-part DD series, Yatra, set entirely in a train, chronicling and honouring the secular fabric of India just before it began to derail at the onset of the 90s. In a scene in Yatra, a Muslim intellectual condemns the politicisation of religion in a conversation with a co-passenger, an ominous precursor to what lay ahead for India.
“As a filmmaker, I am a critic of the present. I’ve always had a sense of the world that I lived in. We’ve lived through the worst kind of inequalities and continue to do so. My subjects have emerged from that consciousness,” Benegal reflected.
“Some people are activists, some make films. The idea is to arouse empathy in a class that may otherwise not care about people who don’t belong in and occupy the same spaces as they do.”
This sentiment is most acutely reflected in another Benegal classic, Mammo, a film that came out in 1994, and has to be read against the backdrop of the Babri Masjid demolition, the Bombay blasts and the subsequent communal riots that broke out, altering the city’s inclusive fabric forever.
Set a few years after Partition, Mammo tells the story of a young Muslim boy who lives with his maternal grandmother. One day, they’re visited by the boy’s paternal grandmother, who forms a deeply emotional bond with him. Among other things, Mammo depicted a Muslim family without portraying them as either victims or villains but just as ordinary citizens negotiating life post-partition. Interestingly, it was financed by the State-run NFDC.
Benegal makes a conscious decision of foregrounding his characters’ religious identity, showing them offering namaz, reading the Quran at home and enjoying festivities. These aren’t scenes that precede a raid or an arrest as has unfortunately become commonplace in newer narratives.
Benegal admits that making Mammo was a very political move during a time when there was an “upsurge in an anti-Muslim sentiment.”
“There was a lot of mistrust against the community. There was an anti-Pakistan feeling which was very easy to turn into anti-Muslim feeling. When you make a film, you just start off with wanting to tell a human story and in this case, it was a story Khalid Mohammed wrote inspired by his own aunt,” he said.
While Benegal went on to make yet another trilogy (Mammo, Sardari Begum and Zubeidaa) that looked at Muslim families with all their complexities and nuances, his last feature that released in cinemas was the Boman Irani-Minissha Lamba starrer Well Done Abba, a smart political satire told from the perspective of a Muslim driver who asks his employer for leave so he can find a groom for his daughter. In 2014, the director made a 10-part show for Rajya Sabha TV called Samvidhaan: The Making of the Constitution of India, which was narrated by Swara Bhaskar and written by Benegal’s frequent collaborator, Shama Zaidi.
Since then, he hasn’t worked too much.
The erasure of the worker
As is true for everyone else, except perhaps the government itself, Benegal’s present concerns circle around the migrant crisis that is unfolding on a scale never seen before.
“It’s a human tragedy that’s an indictment of the system. You see, these are agriculture workers who come to the city and make it their homes but they don’t get any benefits, provident funds or any sense of security. They have been disposed to cut losses and it’s just cruel. It’s a stunning human tragedy.”
Alluding to the failure of the State, Benegal points out that unlike the West, there aren’t provisions for migrant labourers such as employment insurance and health insurance. This, he says, is a time to reimagine how the wealthy engage with their workers.
Over the years, the migrant worker has disappeared from Hindi cinema too, a conscious invisibilization that adds to the gap between the middle-class and the working-class, whose stories aren’t reflected on our screens but are reduced to mere statistics in news reports. Is there a correlation between a crisis of empathy and the lack of sensitively narrated stories about those on the margins?
Where is the angry young man, the displaced labourer, the exploited factory worker in our cinema? Those on the margins have remained there even in the realms of fiction as our storytellers fixate on ideas that satiate middle-class or upper-class urges instead of causing them discomfort.
Benegal doesn’t sound too dispirited when presented with the idea that the stories of the working class, which often were found in his films, have disappeared from our screens.
“They haven’t though, right? They’ve shifted,” he said.
“It’s all over our screens on social media, which has become such a potent mirror to society. Having said that, I do think films should pluck people out from their private worlds and establish a missing consciousness. It’s very important that people become aware of their own conditions and exploitations instead of blindly following what political parties are telling them.”
If he were to make a film today—he says he’s putting a project together but wouldn’t give many details—is there an issue that he’d pick? What does he feel most strongly about?
“I’m in a state of semi-retirement,” he said. “Let the young people worry about the issues of today.”