The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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SHYAM BENEGAL By Sangeeta Datta, Roli Books, Rs 350

“There is an extended sense of reality we all live with. Your history is part of you. Different aspects of your past have a role to play in your present and future”: so Shyam Benegal while speaking about his film, Trikaal.

The presence of a historical time, with multiple possibilities, within any given moment is clearly perceivable in Shyam Benegal’s large oeuvre of feature and documentary films. Benegal, a major exponent of the New Cinema movement in India, has never tired of producing socially relevant films in his 30-year-long career as a filmmaker, nor has he hesitated to distance himself from standardized codes of social commitment. From his first feature film, Ankur (1974), to Zubeidaa and Hari Bhari (2000), he has experimented relentlessly with narrative techniques, re-inventing his own methods from time to time. This is why, even with recurring themes, Benegal’s films do not seem repetitive, although some of his state-sponsored documentaries do not seem to match the standards of his feature films.

Benegal’s range of subjects is astounding. The late Seventies saw him making films on the declining feudal order, peasant revolt, the land reform movement and its aftermath — the likes of Ankur, Nishant and Manthan. Again, in films like Bhumika and Mandi, he turns the focus on the travails of women in the patriarchal social structure. At around the same time he made Junoon, weaving a tale from India’s chequered colonial past, and Kaliyug, about the moral bankruptcy of the affluent gentry. Mammo (the first of a trilogy), which Benegal filmed in the early Nineties, questions the geographical definition of nationhood, while Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda is a Kurosawa-like exploration of several strands of the same reality. Benegal’s filmic consciousness is thus all about working simultaneously at different planes and posing an aesthetic challenge to his own previous works in every film.

Sangeeta Datta’s book sensitively traces the evolution of Benegal as a director. She holds the inept marketing and distribution network, especially of state-sponsored films, responsible for the lack of commercial success of some of Benegal’s early films. A section of the discussion is also devoted to Benegal as a pioneer of the parallel cinema movement, and the contribution of Benegal’s art to mainstream cinema in the late Eighties. Quite expectedly, the discussion moves at one point to Satyajit Ray and the influence of his pathbreaking film, Pather Panchali, on Benegal in his formative years.

Datta’s tone in Shyam Bengal is involved rather than objective and distant. However, a few factual errors seem to have slipped her attention. The most glaring one being: “Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were assassinated while holding the office of Prime Minister.” When Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a human bomb in May, 1991, he was the leader of the opposition, Chandra Shekhar was the prime minister.

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