Zubeidaa: A “discerning experience” in Shyam Benegal’s Masterclass

Zubeidaa: A “discerning experience” in Shyam Benegal’s Masterclass

The crowd at Abu Dhabi’s Indian Embassy fidgeted in their seats during the introductory remarks. After several speeches, profuse thanks, and an unexpected break for refreshment, the lights dimmed. A red handkerchief fell from the sky: the opening scene of Shyam Benegal’s film Zubeidaa.

The narrative is structured as a story within a story. As journalist Riyaz researches his mother Zubeidaa’s life, her story is narrated through a series of flashbacks triggered by the different people he meets. Through this complex telling of Zubeidaa’s story, Benegal portrays many of the issues in Indian society in the late 20th century: gender inequality, the constraint imposed upon women by societal expectations, the social status of Muslims in a Hindu society, and the political struggles in India as democracy emerged and disempowered aristocratic ruling families. Despite describing his cinematic style as alternative, however, Zubeidaa was certainly the most “Bollywood” of Benegal’s films. Not only did it incorporate song and dance, but Zubeidaa is also, at heart, a love story.

In a master class held with NYU Abu Dhabi students, Benegal was asked why he included these elements in Zubeidaa despite his rejection of the traditional mechanisms of Bollywood cinema. His answer not only resonated with Zubeidaa’s story, but also underlined what he thinks is important in cinema in itself.

“The story itself was like a little fairy tale. Zubeidaa was a kind of fairy tale princess, but she came to a tragic end. I wanted to give it a slightly larger-than-life element of fantasy.” The contrast between the idea of fantasy and the fact that Zubeidaa is based on a true story illustrates the multi-layered nature of Benegal’s cinema. He asserts that watching one of his films is not about blind acceptance of what is happening, but should be a “discerning experience” in which viewers should consider cinematic elements as they enhance the message of the story. While watching Zubeidaa, I was entertained by the dancing scenes and intrigued by the narrative structure. However, as a viewer I was unable to discern how the presence of storytelling and the ethereal dancing scenes turned Zubeidaa into a fairy tale princess. As a modern viewer, I failed to discern Benegal’s message.

Audience discernment, especially about modern Hollywood cinema is eroding, mostly through lack of practice Throughout the master class, Benegal made a distinction between individually created work and films churned out by a “mass machine.” Benegal’s films strive to tell stories that have personal resonance; for example, the three films screened during the weekend were based on the screenwriter’s family.

This personalization is getting harder to accomplish each day. Sophomore Hasan Nabulsi noted the growing disconnect between people and films and how difficult it is to immerse the modern audience in a film. It is difficult for the audience to transcend the surface of the film to see that every element is used to reinforce a meaning; while watching Zubeidaa, I was swept up by what was going on in the surface and dismissed it as Bollywood entertainment.

In response  to his critique of the disconnect between modern audiences and film, Nikolai Kozak asked Benegal what he thinks about the role of new technology in shaping the voice of our younger generation. Benegal responded, “Often, we become subservient to technology. Instead of becoming masters of technology, we become slaves to it. The technology itself seduces you in so many ways.” As Benegal stated this, I thought back to the film screening and found myself guilty of checking my phone for every text or email while the story was unfolding.  Benegal asserted that it is necessary to clear our minds, to “constantly unclutter ourselves,” not only while watching movies but also while producing them. Mass media plays a role in disseminating the work of a modern artist, but it also presents a challenge; it is the role of the modern artist and filmmaker to go back, relearn, and adapt in order to continue being relevant not only to others, but also to oneself. The process of learning is important to a modern artist and a modern audience. As I took in Benegal’s conversation about Zubeidaa, I went back and reevaluated my experience of the film. It was, in itself, an educational experience.

As the master class came to a close, students stayed behind to thank Shyam Benegal and seize whatever minutes they had left for conversation. In a closing remark, Benegal stated, “When you walk on the road, where do you think it will lead? That’s not important. The journey itself is important. You become the road.”  By telling stories he considers personally relevant to his life, we are able to reflect on Benegal’s lifetime achievement and see it for what it is: a work of art.

Zubeidaa: A “discerning experience” in Shyam Benegal’s Masterclass

Anachronistic Women in Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum

It must be bizarre for a filmmaker to be present at a retrospective celebration of his own life’s work, and even more so to attend a lecture in which someone else spends an hour dissecting it. Nevertheless, Shyam Benegal, the prolific Indian filmmaker, not only attended but also participated in such a lecture as part of the Shyam Benegal Retrospective Weekend on September 27-30, 2012. Dr. Anuradha Needham, Donald Longman Professor and Chair of English at Oberlin College, gave a lecture entitled “Performing Women: The Singing-Dancing Women of Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum.”  The lecture comes from her forthcoming book, New Indian Cinema in Post-Independence India: The Cultural Work of Shyam Benegal’s Films.

Needham’s presentation focused on a genre of Indian music called thumri, which originated in courtesan traditions, to illustrate the power dynamics of post-colonial India and the role of gender in shaping national identity. She situated the art form in both Benegal’s film and in the larger feminist movement. After independence from British rule, Victorian moral ideology continued to shape the new independent Indian national identity, and thumri was removed from its roots in the courtesan caste, scooped up as a form of bourgeois cultural acquisition (think grade school piano lessons or finishing school skills), and purged of erotic elements to conform to a newly imagined nationalistic Indian tradition. This change left an entire group of female artists in limbo: while their art had been refashioned into a part of the Indian musical canon, they themselves no longer retained their place in society as respectable artists. Thumri still, in some senses, carried connotations of eroticism, and while some women aimed to step away from that association, others persisted with their traditional performance methods and courtesan lifestyle in defiance of social acceptability. Benegal’s film Sardari Begum puts this distinctly feminine tension at center stage, subverting dominant patriarchal values—though never expressly favoring either conformity or rebellion—and raising questions about female identity and the transition to modernity.

Dr. Needham’s lecture was followed by a conversation with Benegal and Dr. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, a visiting professor of English from NYU New York. A portion of their discussion is reprinted below.

 Dr. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan: [Dr. Anuradha Needham’s] broad argument is that the performing woman—her commitment to her art, to the creative impulse, and to her own ambition—is at odds with the cultural constructions of femininity. Primarily if you see [these constructions] as good daughterhood, good wifehood, and good motherhood, the two cannot occupy the same space—you cannot be both a performer and a respectable woman. I think that particular conflict is something these films show very powerfully. [Dr. Needham] also stresses the outsider status of performing women in the construction of the emergent nation. On the one hand, the nation’s figuration cannot accommodate these marginalized, excluded figures, and yet it needs the reclamation of their art for the construction of a so-called national culture. They cannot be excluded successfully, because the great performing arts of the nation are important for the construction of a certain tradition and its continuance, so women pose a dilemma for the national question.

I was also interested in asking Anu to think and define whether she sees Benegal in this film attempting a form of recovery, rehabilitation, or revision. I think these are distinct in some ways. The recovery is to bring women from the margins and put them in a place where they would, at least for film viewers, seem absolutely to occupy center space. But also rehabilitation from disrepute to respectability, to rehabilitate them as figures of art and culture, as great singers, actresses, and so on. And also revision, which is a question of valuation, of ideology, of revising our view of them, and essentially seeing them not as good women in place of bad women, not on a moral spectrum at all, but seeing them as complex figures, as interesting, complex, dominant figures, rather than as being kind of negligible figures. Much feminist scholarship, too, was engaged at the time in recovery, rehabilitation, and the whole revisionary aspect of feminine scholarship. I think this is an impulse that is reflected in these films.

Or perhaps it’s none of these things—perhaps there’s no agenda, and I think that’s the most amazing possibility of all, that there is no overt, explicit agenda, but that they are primarily psychological studies of certain performing women in terms of their tragedy, of their own innate self-destructiveness. In some ways, in Sardari Begum, as Anu says, the many people trying to understand her, piece together who she was and what made her tick, also brings up the possibility that what Benegal is proffering through her representation here is the idea of her as being an enigma. In some ways, the most interesting thing to do with Sardari Begum is to leave her as an enigma.

I think the most radical aspect of this film, as well, is the question of Sardari’s being a good mother or a bad mother, because feminism doesn’t address the question of motherhood as much as it does questions of sexuality, marriage, and so on. So the idea of even making that a problematic aspect of Sardari’s representation—you know, was she exploiting her daughter as much as, in her own instance, she was misunderstood and exploited? And the whole female tradition of thumri and other art forms, which are handed down from mother to daughter.

I also find that the representation of women in this very powerful, centralized, frontal way in which they appear in these films prevents us from reading them as victims of their society. We see them being hugely exploited and misunderstood, but they are never victim figures of any kind. They are not even made sacrificial victims of their art. In some ways they are seen as women before their time. I think that’s the point that Anu, too, was stressing: the importance of the second generation, and the two young women who are consciously bearing the burden of carrying on Sardari’s tradition. The idea that these are women who come before their time, that these are anachronistic women, for whom the world and their society is not yet ready, is something I’d like to address in Anu’s paper, and, more broadly, to Shyam.

 Shyam Benegal: Now, I think what Anu’s writing is a very scholarly and very fascinating study, because it gives a completely different point of view from the one I had when I was making the film. You see, when you make a film you are putting together things; when you’re studying it and analyzing it, you’re deconstructing it. So naturally, when I put it together, I automatically don’t thinking of deconstructing it at that stage. There is a process. I have no difficulty in accepting what Anu has written, nor do I have any difficulty in accepting what you’re saying, but you see for me, when I was making the film, the story suggested many things.

The most important one, of course, is that it’s a movement from tradition to modernity. The women in performing arts—any kind of performing arts—in India were always part of a particular caste of a particular community of people who did not necessarily accept [them] into what one might call the status of the accepted social norms. They could only participate as performers. As artists, their work could be appreciated greatly, but they could not necessarily have a marriage, a family, and so on. They would have, outside of all of that, but they wouldn’t be socially accepted. You always had that issue.

In the 19th century, this social structure was no problem, because there was a caste division in the whole community and they were perfectly happy with their status. But the world was changing outside, and they felt that there was a possibility of being part of another social circle, something they would be hankering for in any case, because they were always seen on the fringes of [the old society]. In the case of Sardari Begum, somewhere there is that need, because of the times she moved in, but then you have a problem of being a woman.

Talking About Life of Pi

Talking About Life of Pi



“I have a story that will make you believe in God,” an elderly man promises to the fictional narrator of Yann Martel’s fantasy adventure novel Life of Pi.

So begins the story of Pi, who survives being stranded on a lifeboat for 227 days with a Bengal tiger as his only companion. This passage also began “Abu Dhabi Reads,” the inaugural communal reading event sponsored by Electra Street.

On November 1, the NYU Abu Dhabi campus transformed for the evening into a reader’s paradise as more than seventy members of the Abu Dhabi community congregated to discuss Martel’s Life of Pi.

It was a beautiful night under the soft haze of the campus lights and the setting sun, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The five people chosen to start the conversation – of whom I was one – read passages from the novel that they had found particularly provocative, and then posed questions for the rest of the group about everything from whether religion is a cage and whether the story really makes us believe in God, to the importance of re-reading a text and the meaning of the novel’s surprisingly complex ending.

With these initial comments to mull over, the next hour and a half belonged to the audience, who shared their own thoughts and responded to others’ observations on the novel. Looking out at the audience that night, many of whom were holding copies of Life of Pi in their hands, I felt closer to my fellow bookworms in Abu Dhabi than I ever had before. It was as if we were all afloat on the lifeboat of the novel, sharing our experiences as we rowed to shore.

I am what you could call a veteran of community book reads. The California town where I grew up hosted a similar event every year, and every year I would diligently read the book. Annotated book in hand, I and others like me would flock to the local town hall to discuss and dissect together. If anything, those discussions taught me that reading is much more than a private experience between the reader and the book. Reading can in fact be equally rewarding and stimulating when it is shared and discussed among people – part of the power behind “one book, one community” initiatives like “Abu Dhabi Reads”. (You can read more about community book projects at the United States’ Library of Congress page here.)

These thought-provoking discussions that I now believe made me love reading in the first place came to mind again at “Abu Dhabi Reads,” as I listened to the audience members on the lifeboat with me engage the text and one another in discussion. Many loved the book, some hated it, and a handful confided in me that they had not yet read it. Still, everyone in attendance loved reading for the sake of reading, a fact that became clear evident in the discussion. After all, only book-lovers could begin a conversation with the symbolic role of cages in the text and somehow end up debating, “What is truth?”

At the same time, as much as I was reminded of my experiences from past community book reads, “Abu Dhabi Reads” was uniquely the product of Abu Dhabi. When we heard the call to prayer, we paused in the discussion for a few moments, and some members of the audience took the opportunity to pray while others reflected on the discussion. In that moment I was struck by the diversity of the audience, which included both students and faculty, expats and Emiratis, English and non-English speakers. That brief pause in the discussion captured the spirit of “Abu Dhabi Reads:” this eclectic group from all corners of Abu Dhabi had banded together to celebrate reading.

After the fictional narrator is told that Pi’s story will make him believe in God, he says, “That’s a tall order.” Without skipping a beat, the elderly man lobs back, “Not so tall you can’t reach.” Building a community around book-reading no matter where you are can sometimes feel like a tall order. But if the first “Abu Dhabi Reads” is any indication, it’s not such a tall order for Abu Dhabi.

For those who missed the inaugural “Abu Dhabi Reads,” never fear. This event may have been the first, but it will certainly not be the last. If you are interested in joining our reading community, Electra Street welcomes any suggestions of books for the next “Abu Dhabi Reads,” set to take place in spring. Please post suggestions to the comments section of this post or send an e-mail to electra.nyuad@gmail.com.


Zubeidaa: A “discerning experience” in Shyam Benegal’s Masterclass

Shyam Benegal, the Enigma


“He’s a feminist,” my companion said about Indian filmmaker Shyam Benegal. We were walking back from a screening of Sardari Begum. She paused then and turned to Dr. Anuradha Needham, a professor of English at Oberlin College whose work centers on Benegal’s cinema. “Does he know he’s a feminist?”

The answer Dr. Needham gave, and possibly the most interesting thing about Benegal and his films, was something along the lines of “We can’t really tell.” The screening was part of a weekend-long retrospective celebrating the legendary Indian New Wave filmmaker and his work. Hosted by NYU Abu Dhabi in collaboration with the Indian Film Society of the UAE, the Kerala Social Center, and the Embassy of India, the retrospective highlighted three of Benegal’s films, popularly known as the “Khalid Mohamed Trilogy”: Mammo (1994), Sardari Begum (1996), and Zubeidaa (2001), all written by Indian screenwriter  Khalid Mohamed about members of his family.

The films feature eponymous women from respectable middle-class Muslim families whose personal ambitions clash with the traditional expectations of their families and society. These strong, expressive women are set among scenes of domestic middle class Indian life, as their emotionally charged narratives progress largely through posthumous flashbacks. A far cry from the superficial glitz of typical Bollywood cinema, Benegal’s films explore issues of caste, religion, and gender, weaving in stories of Partition and subtly pointing to repressive social conventions. Rather than serving as blatant political statements, the films in this trilogy go only as far as to raise questions, such as, What is the place of a respectable Indian woman? Should religion be a determining factor in marriage or citizenship? Can a woman be invested in both career and family? Is living on the fringes of society necessarily a bad thing? Benegal only hints at answers.

The subjects of his films suggest the director’s feminist tendencies, and in the hands of a less skilled filmmaker might make for controversial clashes with authority or the mainstream. His delicacy in raising these points, however, changes what could be in-your-face activism into cinema that leaves its audience with the kind of burning questions that beg long-term meditation. Though Benegal reveals the hardship certain women face under pressure of traditional class, religion, and gender constructs, he does not vilify mainstream society. His nuanced portrayals and absence of hardline political philosophy make it difficult to discern his personal views; his cinema raises questions, but doesn’t take sides.

Not only did I enjoy each film individually, the full immersive experience of a retrospective weekend helped to set them in context within the broader themes of Indian cinema, politics, and feminism. Sardari Begum, the second film screened, was preceded by a talk on secularism in Indian cinema by Benegal himself, and the last day featured a master class with Benegal for fifteen NYU Abu Dhabi students, as well as an open conversation and lecture with Dr. Needham, Benegal, and Dr. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, a visiting professor of English from NYU New York.

But it wasn’t just the films and lectures that were instructive. Strings of introductory speeches became almost humorously redundant, but they revealed IFS-UAE’s enthusiasm for exposing Indian cinema to the Emirates, and the excitement from all involved about bringing such an important figure to Abu Dhabi. Their efforts at bringing culture to the city on a small community scale are commendable, and among the first I’ve seen since arriving in the emirate. The informal set-up of the Kerala Social Center, where two of the screenings took place—the audience seated in plastic lawn chairs, the film played from a laptop and projected onto a white background, and bits of leftover tinsel studding the walls—made some feel as if they were back in India. Motherly women serving up hot samosas, IFS-UAE representatives urging me to “eat more!”, and energetic children running up and down the aisle gave me a feeling of inter-generational community I rarely experience as a university student.

This sense of community was a recurring theme that weekend, as I began to recognize familiar faces and chat with those attending multiple events. Benegal’s films served as basis for discussion among the audience both before and afterwards, leaving many of us collectively grappling with his open queries long after the credits rolled.

Coming Soon: “Portrait of Shyam Benegal”

Graphic: Isabelle Galet-Lalande
Photo: Shyam Benegal at the Kerala Social Center in Abu Dhabi (Credit: Dale Hudson)

Life of Pi: Food for Thought


Electra Street encourages those of you who are reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi as part of the “Abu Dhabi Reads” program to share your thoughts and questions with the rest of us. Please leave a question or a thought about the book below.

But … no spoilers please! Don’t reveal how the book turns out in consideration of your fellow readers who haven’t quite finished it yet.

Commenters will be entered in a drawing to win passes for two to the movies. You can use them to see Life of Pi when it opens later this fall (21 November in the USA, 20 December worldwide).

[Image by Yzabelle Wuthrich]

Abu Dhabi Reads Life of Pi

Abu Dhabi Reads Life of Pi

Join us for the first-ever “Abu Dhabi Reads” event!

“Abu Dhabi Reads” is very simple: come together as a community to read, enjoy, and think about a shared book.

For our inaugural program, our readers chose Life of Pi by Yann Martel. (Thank you to everyone who participate in our poll!)  This novel, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2002, tells the story of Piscine Molitor Patel — Pi, for short — who is shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean with only a Bengal Tiger for company.  What happens to Pi, and the tiger, will linger in your mind long after you’ve finished the book.

You can get a copy of this wonderful, thought-provoking novel from Magrudy’s and at other bookstores around the Emirates that sell English-language books. It’s also available on Kindle at amazon.com.

Spend the rest of October reading the novel, and then join us for a free public discussion from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. on November 1 at the NYU Abu Dhabi Downtown Campus.  Refreshments will be served.

So grab a copy, tell a friend, get reading, and join us for we trust will be a lively conversation about the novel. Check back here each Sunday before the event for commentary on the novel and questions for thought. Electra Street will also host commentary after our live event for readers who want to participate but aren’t able to attend on November 1.

Refreshments will be served, so please click here to RSVP on the Institute’s website.

Readers are invited to participate in our pre-event online forum, “Life of Pi: Food for Thought.” Click here and leave a comment. You’ll be entered in a drawing for movie passes.

(The image above is taken from the publicity poster for Ang Lee’s 3D film adaptation of the novel, which premiered at the New York Film Festival on 28 September, opens in the US on November 21, and in Abu Dhabi on December 20.)