The World According to Shyam Benegal

Ameen Merchant interviews the celebrated filmmaker at the Vancouver Film Festival
By Ameen Merchant

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Shyam Benegal is one of the most celebrated filmmakers of India's parallel cinema. Known for his path-breaking and award-winning films, which include Ankur, Nishant, Manthan, Bhumika and Trikaal, he is also the director who is recognized for introducing fine actors like Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Anant Nag and Deepti Naval to the Indian film viewer.

Shyam Benegal was in Vancouver to promote his most recent work Suraj Ka Saatvan Ghoda (The Seventh Horseman of the Sun) at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Ameen: I would like to begin with the issue of context. Your films, I know, are set in a specific Indian cultural milieu and portray a particular Indian reality. But your audience in North America—especially at an International film festival is predominantly white. Given this fact, how do you deal with the problem of a imminently possible de-contextualized viewing?

Shyam: You see, for a film the context is, broadly speaking, the human context. At least, thematically. As long as your theme is not restrictive—like if you're dealing with the human condition—your film has an eventual reach. It points to an identifiable human condition. Thematically speaking then, you have touched the whole world and there is no difficulty in comprehension. However, the problem of comprehension is essentially in the area of language and imaging because these two components are culture specific. This really has to do with semiology, or the semiotics of the culture, and hence there is a chance that the specificity may be lost in an international context.

Ameen: Exactly. And that is the point I'm making. Given such a specificity, couldn't the lack of cultural awareness on the part of the audience lead to a dangerous decontextualizing? For instance, let's take the recognition of the myth you allude to in the title of your latest film, Seventh Horseman of the Sun

Shyam: Well, the mythic aspect of this film is yes, specific. It refers to the Sun's chariot, which according to Indian mythology is drawn by seven horses—one horse for each day of the week. This points to the perennial nature of life, an eternal cycle, so to speak. Beyond that there is no deeper significance, and in any case, the allusion is made clear in the film. But then again, decontextualized films are fairly common. This happens most when you exploit cultures for their exotica because they are different, colourful and have a perceived romantic aspect to them. And some films indulge in such romance as they allow the audience to fantasize, but that is not the kind of film-making I'm into.

Ameen: Yes, I am aware of that. In fact, you were at the vanguard of what is today referred to in India as the Parallel Cinema. Your Ankur was the first milestone in this movement. I am curious to know the response to your films in the international film circuit especially with reference to the 'human condition' you have just talked about. Do you think something crucial is lost in 'universalizing'?

Shyam: No, you see, it becomes universal not because you wish to 'universalize' it. It becomes universal when you are dealing with the human condition. And when you are dealing with certain fundamental aspects of humanity or when you are dealing with humanity as such, and your concerns are human, then they go past all cultures. Your milieu can be very culture-specific because that is very important for the film to remain authentic—you must be able to smell the soil as it were—and that is very important for me. Otherwise I find it very difficult to make a film. For if you don't have that specificity you wouldn't have any hook to hold on to and as a result your stories will not carry the same kind of insight because of the lack of authenticity. And that's very important. Certainly, for me, it has been very important. But mainstream Indian cinema never relies on any of these things, as you know. Mainstream Indian cinema is not culture-specific.

Ameen: Mainstream Indian cinema is another chapter altogether, and this leads me to my next question: How do you situate your films in the Indian context?

Shyam: I have not found it difficult in the Indian context, nor even in the context worldwide. Take for instance the films of the Japanese film-maker Yasujiro Ozu. Even in the Japanese context his films are extremely culture-specific. Yet, with the fact that they are so specific to Japanese life— they transcend such a specificity because they are human—they deal with the way human beings relate to each other. Human relationships—it doesn't matter where you are—they translate themselves anywhere, because you know they are the same anywhere. How people relate to one another is not very different from one place to another. Yes, they may be different in form; but in content they hardly ever change. So it doesn't really matter what form you take then.

Ameen: I know that the Television industry in India has in some ways facilitated, and has also been a major source of accessibility for the practitioners of the Parallel Cinema. Doordarshan (Indian Television) has helped in the expression of non-mainstream talent and ideas…

Shyam: Yes, as far as public exposure is concerned, it has been helpful. Not in the economics of film-making though. The economics of such film-making can only be helped when more people see these films in the cinema-houses which in turn depends on the factor of adequate distribution. And in India we do not have distribution systems that cater to more specialized kinds of films or those that reach what one might call minority audiences. I mean, for instance, if you make a film which most people will not claim as entertaining and only a few people believe that these are the kinds of films they would like to see and be engaged and entertained by, then you have a huge and significant divide. Now, film-makers like myself do not have the means and the methods to be able to reach that audience because such an audience is also dispersed and you have to go to where the audience is often. Particularly, if you are talking the urban middle-class audiences, who are usually literate and are exposed to a wider range of entertainment, and the arts they enjoy—like painting, music, theatre and so on. So to reach an audience like that we don't have the adequate infrastructure. This is because the biggest urban entertainment medium, which used to be the cinema, is today also the biggest rural entertainment medium in India. And unless you make films that are likely to become popular with everybody you get caught and tend to be marginalized especially if you make the kind films I make.

Ameen: As an artist then, as somebody who wants to practice a certain aesthetic, how do you cope with this marginalization?

unless you make films that are likely to become popular with everybody you get caught and tend to be marginalized

Shyam: You carry on regardless. There are certain conditions under which you find it difficult, and the conditions in India are difficult for such film-makers, but they still aren't so difficult that I would have starved. I can still get to make the sort of films I want to make. And to me that's the most important thing. As long as I am able to make the films I want to make and not be forced into making films simply because this is the only thing that I know to do well and therefore be caught in it as though it were some chore. I would hate to have to churn out films if that were the only way I could be successful. I haven't, thankfully, been forced into such a fate yet.

Ameen: What about reach, though? Every artist likes to have an audience...

Shyam: Sure. That's true. And I do have an audience, an audience that grows slightly every year. Yes, it's true that it has not grown to the extent that I would have liked it to have grown, but there's precious little I can do about that. Considering the films I like to make, films that express besides the views I may have and also my own sensibility, I am at least sure that those who respond to this sensibility are definitely going to see my films.

Ameen: Your films Antarnaad and Suraj were screened at the Vancouver International film festival (1992). I'd like to know how Indian films are selected for the festival circuit? What are the criteria?

Shyam: Film festivals by and large deal with the art of cinema. And since that is the emphasis, most of the Indian mainstream fare is not likely to find a place in such an arena...

Ameen: You wouldn't call mainstream Indian films cinema then?

Shyam: Well, I would call it cinema, to a certain extent, for it is broadly defined as such. But mainstream Indian films are not concerned, most of the time, with the development of the art of cinema.

Ameen: What do you mean when you say 'the art of cinema'?

Shyam: For instance, cinema has a legitimate claim to be an art form. It is creative, it has a body of aesthetic and has a certain kind of manner and vocabulary, which grows all the time. Simultaneously it's grammar is also evolving. But if you are not involved in any of these things and you work out a certain formula film then obviously you are not involved in developing the art of cinema. You are involved in another kind of way: simply on the level that film being a product needs to be consumed, like you have any number of products. Now, I think consumption per se is the minimal aspect of cinema. But there is more to it than that. I think it is possible to get some kind of insight into life through cinema, an insight into human experience, into something fine. Cinema offers many such possibilities. The fact that it has the ability to become a metaphor says that it has poetic potential. But when you are thinking of it only in terms of it being a product, which it has to be of course…but it has to be something beyond that as well. If you are stuck with it as just a product, then you don't have to see it as an artistic venture at all. You can think of it as purely commercial by which you sell a fair number of tickets and make a huge profit.

Ameen: How then would you counter the charge of a certain elitism in your definition of 'art'? Mainstream Indian cinema claims to provide a necessary escape from harsh, everyday realities. Could the large need that it fulfills be all that misplaced?

Shyam: There may be a certain harshness to reality, a grimness to everyday life, but as I've said earlier, a film should deal with insights into human experience. And that goes beyond anything like grimness and harshness alone because cinema has a way of saying something about life that takes it out of the grimness, out of the harshness of everyday life—it gives you an insight into that predicament. And that's very important. I think, yes, cinema can also function to transport you into fantasy, into a world outside your own—it has all those wonderful qualities. But that's certainly not the end. For instance what is the end of a painting? The end of a poem? The end of a piece of music? Somewhere, as I've said, it points to the human condition, something universal, something which tells you to look at life in a slightly different way from the you've been accustomed to looking at it.

Ameen: A new perspective…

Shyam: Precisely. One that strives to re-define dimensions of space and time; one that fills your space in different ways. Now all these things are part of art. There can't be any argument about this because the raison d'être is in the work itself. Similarly you don't need another reason for cinema. You cannot narrow it down to mere escapism. If it was only that, it would surely be very ephemeral indeed.

I think, yes, cinema can also function to transport you into fantasy, into a world outside your own—it has all those wonderful qualities. But that's certainly not the end. For instance what is the end of a painting? The end of a poem? The end of a piece of music? Somewhere, as I've said, it points to the human condition, something universal.

Ameen: I know you have collaborated a lot with Shama Zaidi on the screenplays of your films. How do you determine a subject, one that you feel offers an insight into the 'human condition'?

Shyam: Well, that depends on the frame of mind you are in at any given time and what you happen to be going through during that phase. One morning something quotidian may look extremely interesting. Now this is not because it has not been there all along. It's just that you happen to notice the potential in it at that specific moment in time and realize that there might be a film somewhere in it. There is no conscious way of determining a subject, at least not for me. I don't decide on a subject and then go to work on it. Perhaps unconsciously, even subconsciously perhaps, there are a whole area of your own concerns, that do play a part in the way you happen upon and choose a subject. And later when you look at your own body of work you notice that there is a pattern, but the paradigm has shifted everso slightly with time, with every new film. It reveals other aspects of the same area of concerns. You have moved in life, your ideological positions have also imperceptibly been altered and that shows through every new film.

Ameen: Talking about ideological underpinnings, I have noticed—and this may just be my reading of your films—a strong feminist subtext in your work. I am thinking of Bhumika, Nishant, Trikaal and Mandi, to name a few…

Shyam: Yes, I am concerned with the social conditions in India. This concern includes the attitudes towards women in Indian society. I am also affected by the non-egalitarian nature of Indian life, as it has been for over many centuries. Here I am thinking of the social hierarchies of Indian society based upon the caste system and the complexities that come with it. These issues do exercise my mind and I do seek clarity, not only in the issues but also in my own responses and attitudes towards all of this. So it's no surprise that these concerns become more and more apparent in my work. However, I must add that I have never made a conscious effort to make these issues stand out. But when I am in the narrative, they seem to emerge, maybe because I am sensitive to these realities.

Ameen: How did you get to make Kalyug, a significant departure from your other films, a film that alluded to itself, in its very title, as a modern-day Mahabharatal?

Shyam: I am fascinated by archetypes and have always been interested in exploring how they work. Our epics are full of archetypes. Kalyug then began with a simple question: Why does something become an epic? One answer to this that they have characters that are so true—that are universally true— and have remained so for centuries. Since the character of Kalyug were based on such archetypes. I wanted to see how they would fit into the present-day context and still retain that essential truth about them. Although Kalyug was about two warring industrial families that have reached an extreme point of decadence, and are collapsing under the burden of their own power. It was the re-contextualizing that I found really interesting. This, of course, brought with it some complexities. After all, re-visioning and re-telling the Mahabharata is no easy task.

Ameen: Well you have returned to mythology, however obliquely, with Suraj. What is it that draws you more and more these days in you cinematic vision?

Shyam: I am now getting to be concerned with the nature of reality and our perception of it. I am also getting concerned with the ability or the inability of cinema to express certain thoughts and ideas. This state of inquiry started with Trikaal and Mandi and continues into Suraj. I am fascinated with how human perceptions have a way of creating and altering reality constantly. I am intrigued by how human imagination liberates truth from fact.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Shyam Benegal
Shyam Benegal is one of the most celebrated filmmakers of India's parallel cinema.
Ameen Merchant
Ameen Merchant is an author.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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Britannia Art Gallery
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