Monday, August 13, 2012

Shyam Benegal

"If Ray reflected the Tagorean enlightenment, Benegal is undoubtedly the chronicler of Nehruvian India. He shares its ‘socialistic’ bias and its foundations in secularism, pluralism, democracy, equality of opportunity, human rights, women’s rights and all their concomitants. His all-India identity is pronounced, obvious. Compare him to Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak and the difference leaps out. Ray was a Bengali and an Indian; Ghatak was only a Bengali; Benegal is only an Indian.” -- Chidananda Das Gupta, Seeing is Believing

Chidananda Das Gupta’s words about Shyam Benegal being “an Indian” certainly ring true. Benegal’s films cover India’s diverse landscape by focusing on a range of characters living in different social circles. His camera is not rooted in a specific region but instead effortlessly takes a journey from rural to urban centers to depict stories about villagers, landowners, priests, politicians, policemen, prostitutes, businessmen and industrialists. Benegal’s camera does not judge but instead presents characters in their moments of agony, suffering or happiness without melodrama thereby creating rich portrayals. Chidananda Das Gupta describes the key component to this style:

But the strand central to Benegal’s ideology and his oeuvre is of the documentary. His feature films turn fact into fiction; they grow out of the documentary approach. One should first look at his Fabian semi-documentaries on the theme of the cooperative movement, best illustrated by Manthan (milkmen and women), Susman (handloom weavers) and Antarnaad (fisher-folk).... -- page 268, Seeing is Believing

Looking at Benegal’s career, it is easy to understand why documentaries play such a fundamental role in his films. He started his film career by directing 22 documentaries in a seven year period from 1967 to 1974. Through these docs, Benegal examined social and economic issues affecting Indian society. He continued this keen examination in his early feature film career as Ankur (1974), his feature film debut, along with Nishant (1975) and Manthan (1976) appear as extensions of his documentary style packaged in a fictional framework. Such a style perfectly balances the villagers way of life, their economic hurdles, social oppression with intimate accounts of their lives. Manthan is a shining example of this approach. The film describes steps the villagers need to take in order to set up a milk cooperative, something which will prevent their exploitation at the hand of the local landowner. The cooperative debate is vital to the story but does not dominate the fictional framework of the film and instead forms just one of the tension points shown between the villagers, landowners and the city workers. As a result, one can understand the concerns and suspicions that exist on the opposing sides because the story and Benegal’s style allows a closeness to all the subjects including villagers, landowner and city workers thereby creating a realistic depiction of events.

In Chapter 8, "Film as Visual Anthropology", Chidananda Das Gupta uses the term "realistic New [Indian] Cinema" to perfectly explains Benegal’s style:

Both [Manthan & Susman] show a singular ability to make fiction out of documentary material without compromising the complexity and basic truth of the material. Technical fluency plus an extraordinary penchant for good casting and for the structuring of material make the films dramatic without being too fictional to be true. A remarkable sureness of feeling for people and places in this prolific film-maker enables him to overcome some elements of contrivance in the mix of drama and documentary. With Benegal we reach the frontiers of documentary and fiction and get the feeling that beyond this point, the portrayal would cease to be recognizable.

Near the end of the chapter, Chidananda Das Gupta also briefly mentions "Direct Cinema" when talking about North American cinema movement:

Later, the 'Direct Cinema' movement in the USA remained mainly peripheral both to the film industry and the corridors of power.

Even though he does not link the movement directly to Benegal’s films, the appearance of the words in the same chapter provide some food for thought. If one had to follow the pure definition of "Direct Cinema", then Benegal’s films won’t fit the bill but his films share plenty of sentiments not only with “Direct Cinema” but also with the “Actuality Dramas” of Allan King. In order to explore some similarities between Benegal’s style and Direct Cinema, I refer back to David Clandfield’s insightful essay From the Picturesque to the Familiar: Films of the French Unit at the NFB (1958-1964) which discusses the difference between Candid Eye movement and Direct Cinema.

Technically, of course, both movements had much in common: shooting without script or conscious staging, use of light-weight equipment, a search for the real which deliberately shunned the dramatic of the heroic.
For the Candid Eye filmmakers, the subject of the film was its subject matter rooted in objective reality. The starting point was a social or human event-- ephemeral, inscribed in an ephemeral world-- the form and meaning of which require the mediation of the filmic process to become evident. The function of the filmic process, then, was not to mould but to reveal form, and with it meaning.

For the cinéma direct filmmakers, the point of departure is the filmmaking process in which the filmmaker is deeply implicated as a consciousness, individual or collective. It is this process--this consciousness--which gives form and meaning to an amorphous objective reality. Instead of effacing their presence, the filmmakers affirm it.

Instead of rendering the technical process transparent (supposedly), they will emphasize its materiality. Instead of standing apart from their object of study or enquiry, they will implicate themselves within in. Their search for the authentic will involve not only the critical detachment of the empirical investigator in order to strip away “myth” or misconception, but also commitment to the social project under investigation in order to avoid the pitfalls of he aesthetic or the “picturesque.” The overt personal involvement of the subject-filmmaker in the object-reality of the pro-filmic event was, then, the key distinguishing factor of the Québécois cinéma direct from the Anglophone Candid Eye.

1) "shooting without script or conscious staging":

Benegal’s scripted trilogy was filmed with actors so that would not qualify it under a pure direct cinema label.

2) "a search for the real which deliberately shunned the dramatic of the heroic.":

These words apply to Benegal as his trilogy highlights “the real” in opposition to conventional hero vs villain scenarios. Benegal’s films presented both sides of the story and the camera peered into the homes of both landowners and villagers. At times, it is hard to tell who is the hero in these films as most characters are driven by their own fear and insecurities which clash with the needs of others.

3) "overt personal involvement of the subject-filmmaker.":

In Manthan, a milk cooperative paid for the film thereby forming a very valid connection with the filmmaker and the subject of the story. Also, the subject matter of the films show Benegal’s interest in the social plight of the villagers and the story gives a rare voice to the villagers. Although the villagers voice is provided by actors.

Direct Cinema-Actuality Dramas-New Realistic Indian Cinema

Michel Brault’s Direct Cinema, Allan King’s Actuality Dramas and Shyam Benegal’s Realistic Indian Cinema all share traits of portraying pure reality. Not surprizingly, all three directors started their career by making documentaries. Even though Benegal’s realistic cinema are fictional films, they contain elements of documentaries in depicting genuine events. And even when Brault directed Les Orders, a fictional film, it was a retelling of actual events based on interviews. Interestingly, all three directed some of their breakout works within a decade of each other. King’s Warendale and A Married Couple came out in 1967 & 1969 respectively, Brault’s Acadia Acadia?!? was released in 1971, Les Orders in 1974, and Benegal’s debut fictional film Ankur came out in 1974. King and Brault would have crossed paths because they worked in Canada but Benegal was probably not aware of either movements. Just like the 1950’s and 1960’s were a period of rich foreign cinema, it appears that the 1970’s and 1980’s were a period of rich reality based movements such as Direct Cinema, Actuality Dramas and the New Realistic Indian Cinema.

Equal Voice and balanced portrayal

Ankur, Nishant and Manthan are completely realized works because they provide an equal voice to both opposing sides whether it be villagers vs landowners, villagers vs city workers or men vs women. The female characters are essential to all three films and the camera ensures that they are given enough screen time to properly understand their situation. This balanced approach ensures the films are not one-sided. Benegal is also a rare Indian filmmaker who has given women a proper spotlight in his films, not only in terms of acting but also by story focus. Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil are key components of Ankur, Nishant and Manthan and would go on to play relevant parts in other vital Indian films. Later in his career, Benegal directed a women centric trilogy, Mammo (1994), Sardari Begum (1996) and Zubeidaa (2001), films which featured focus on three Muslim women. This equal portrayal just affirms his status of a genuine Indian filmmaker.

The past & present, religion & myth

Shyam Benegal not only depicted current state of events in Indian society but also explored Indian’s colonial past. Junoon (1979) takes place in colonial Indian and is set against the backdrop of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Whereas, Kalyug (1981) is a brilliant retelling of the Mahabharta in the closed Indian economy of the 1980’s when strict quotas for production resulted in corruption and labor disputes. The business model depicted in Kalyug was due to "License Raj", a term going back to 1947. In essence, Kalyug brings together one of Indian’s famous epics, post-British Indian legacy and contemporary Indian society in the 1980’s. So it depicts three time periods, or Trikal, which also happens to be the title of Benegal’s 1985 film which explores three time periods in Goa.

The dangers of blindly following a sage’s advice are perfectly highlighted in Kondura which shows that blind faith can sometimes result in someone being manipulated and committing a grave error. In the film, Parashuram (Anant Nag, a regular in Benegal’s films) gets a vision first from the sage Kondura (Amrish Puri) and then from a Goddess, both of whom warn Parashuram about stopping the growing sin in the village. Their instructions are vague and they never point to a specific case of evil in the village. It is left up to Parashuram on how to interpret their words. Parashuram’s few attempts to correct things, such as rebuilding a temple and the discovery of water in an arid land, lead some villagers to regard Parashuram as a sage. His ego is buoyed by his new found followers and combined with his intent in fulling the sage’s words causes Parashuram to fall into a trap set by the local landowner Bhairavmoorthy. The film cleverly includes some elements which question the authenticity of Parashuram’s visions. Kondura is only shown in one scene and is played by Amrish Puri, who provides the voice for Bhairavmoorthy even though the landowner is played by a different actor. Also, the Goddess that visits Parashuram takes the form of his wife Ansuya (Vanisri) which also lays a seed of doubt about whether Parashuram is imagining his visions.

Mandi stands apart from other Shyam Benegal films because of its sharp witty humor. Despite being light hearted than his other films, Mandi tackles plenty of relevant social issues in its portrayal of the women working in a bordello, the clients, landowners, policemen and politicians whose lives hover around the bordello. In fact, the humor manages to highlight the hypocrisy and selfish nature of the characters perfectly. The film is jam packed with movement where characters are constantly entering and exiting a frame thereby creating a theatrical like feel to the work. All the performances are top notch which is not a surprize given that the film contains a stellar cast of Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Amrish Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Saeed Jaffrey, Om Puri, Neena Gupta, Ratna Pathak, Pankaj Kapur, Satish Kaushik, Harish Patel, Annu Kapoor and Ila Arun. Only Anant Nag is missing otherwise the film would have featured a complete lineup of key actors featured in India’s parallel cinema. Mandi also stars Aditya Bhattacharya, director Basu Bhattacharya’s son and director Bimal Roy’s grandson. Aditya is not well known as an actor even though his few acting titles include Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday and Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi but more importantly Aditya is know for his directorial debut film Raakh. Released in 1989, and starring Aamir Khan, Supriya Pathak, Pankaj Kapur, Raakh is one of the best Indian films to have been made in the last few decades. In fact, along with Parinda, Raakh set the stage for the wave of gritty and dark crime movies that emerged in India near the end of the 1990’s.

The following seven films were seen as part of this spotlight:

Ankur (1974)
Nishant (1975)
Manthan (1976)
Kondura (1978)
Junoon (1979)
Kalyug (1981)
Mandi (1983)

Only Manthan and Kondura were first time viewings while I revisited the remaining five after a long gap. Kalyug is the only film that I have seen multiple times while growing up and the recent viewing was particularly rewarding. Girish Karnad and Shyam Benegal’s screenplay incredibly adapts key characters and situations of the Mahabharta in a corporate business setting. The background score heightens the tension and sentiments of revolution and violence beautifully. For these reasons, Kalyug is a personal favourite film.


Seema Misra said...

This is an extremely interesting article; the similarities you pointed out between Michel Brault’s Direct Cinema, Allan King’s Actuality Dramas and Shyam Benegal’s Realistic Indian Cinema is something I have not really thought about. I will definitely explore it.

I have found Shyam Benegal's Trikal and Suraj Ka Saatwa Ghoa even more fascinating than his social-realism takes because of their cinematic flair, quirky story telling and camera work.

Sachin said...

Thanks for your comment Seema. It is incredible how my perspective changed regarding Benegal's films especially after seeing Direct Cinema & King's Actuality films. I quite enjoyed Trikalbut I have not seen Surag ka Saatwa Ghoa. I will have to hunt that one down.