“Why do you want to make films?” Shyam Benegal peers curiously around the ethnically diverse group of NYUAD film students, who have woken early on a Saturday to attend a master class with the renowned director. Benegal has made 24 features, 42 documentaries, and 4 television series, garnered awards and nominations at the largest international film festivals, and received the highest accolades given to artists by the Republic of India. “Don’t be shy,” he chuckles. It seems almost a reversal of roles, but the ever-curious Benegal is intent on provoking us to reflect on our personal histories– an attitude that permeates his day-to-day attitude as much as his filmmaking.
Part of a three-day retrospective organized in collaboration with the Indian Embassy and Indian Film Society of the UAE, this class is structured more like a round table forum than a formal lecture. The director leads an intimate Q&A about his life, his culture, and, in particular, his views on filmmaking.
Benegal’s work focuses largely on how religious and cultural influences shape the individual and pushes viewers to think about concepts of universality and identification in an increasingly globalized world. This message seems particularly relevant given the demographics of today’s class – a group of young, expatriated students at an expatriated university, in an ever-expanding global city.
A soft-spoken Emirati girl pauses, then speaks: “Why I want to make films? Sometimes I struggle to express myself with words…it makes more sense on screen.” Another student steps in: “From where I am from in Mexico, we are in search of an identity, and believe film will be a way of exploring it in the future. I really hope to be a part of this process.” The 77-year-old director nods thoughtfully, then proceeds to ask each student about their respective backgrounds and local film cultures.
For a man who is widely regarded as legendary trailblazer in the New Indian Cinema and cultural ambassador at home and abroad, what is most striking about Shyam Benegal is the unpretentious way he discusses his art. “I began making films in an advertising agency!” he exclaims, describing his early love for the moving image, which began with watching his father’s old home movies. Later, as a publicity guy, Benegal produced more than 900 advertisements. Benegal’s engaging, truthful style of storytelling can be credited to these modest cinematic beginnings.
“There was no such thing as film school,” he says, reflecting upon his entry into the film industry in the 1950s. What there was, however, was new generation of highly educated, socially conscious Indians in a search of an authentic sense of national connection following nearly a century of British rule. Benegal connected with this new market by combining the underground Indian film style known as ‘parallel cinema’, which told homegrown stories and real human experiences, with the national Hindi language. (Parallel cinema had previously only been produced in local dialects.) Conveying intimate messages in a universal language is how Benegal believes the filmmaker can share “the essence of human experience.”
Benegal’s films connect with his audience on a deep emotional level, while at the same time reveal a strong social agenda. As with creating an advertisement, he wants his films to make you think about an issue or, better yet, do something about it. His first feature, Ankur (1974), was a local, gritty story set in his hometown of Hyderabad and tackled issues of domestic violence and sexual abuse. The film was awarded more than 45 international festival prizes, and presented a sharp turn from the melodramatic Bollywood style that still characterizes mainstream Indian cinema today. In contrast to many directors today, his candid approach is refreshing. “The key to making a good film is essentially to portray a good story,” he admits. However, there must be a message: “A film that has no take-away is not worth it.”
The ageing director today mourns the loss of emphasis on regional stories in contemporary mass media. Benegal has resisted the urge to make more commercially oriented features, and one of his recent projects includes a 53-part television series on the history of India. And yet, forever young, Benegal is still in search of new cultures, new mediums, and new stories to explore. It isn’t clear when – if ever – Shyam Benegal will tire of learning and growing as a filmmaker.
“I still don’t know anything!” he says, laughing, at the end of his talk, before we head for lunch. Our group leaves the class feeling humbled and quite inspired. NYUAD sophomore Hasan Nabulsi reflects: “The special thing about Benegal’s talk was the simplicity that he conveyed…I want to remind myself that simplicity is beautiful. I want to remind myself that truthful art will be well received, at least eventually.”
Shyam Benegal Timeline:
1934 – born in Trimulgherry, a British Cantonment
1959 – begins career as a copywriter at a Bombay-based advertising agency
1973-77 – release of four seminal films of the Indian alternative cinema: Ankur (1973), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977)
1974 – Ankur nominated for Golden Berlin Bear
1976 – Nishant nominated for Cannes Palme d’Or
1980 – begins role as Director of the Indian National Film Development Corporation
1988 – directs the 53-episode television serial Bharat Ek Khoj, one of India’s largest television projects in history
1995-2001 – begins trilogy on Indian Muslim women: Mammo (1995), Sardari Begum (1996) and Zubeidaa (2001)
1999 – critiques the Indian caste system in his film Samar – the film goes on to be awarded the National Film Award for Best Feature Film
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.
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.