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Constitution through Benegal’s eyes

Shyam Benegal. Picture by B. Halder

"Our framers worked hard to gift us a Constitution that has stood us in good stead. It is the Bible that we live by. So a series on it will always be relevant."

There have been several films on India’s freedom struggle or those who led the movement against the British but Shyam Benegal has chosen to breathe life into a facet seldom touched upon — the making of the Constitution, which had turned out to be quite a struggle by itself.

“The Constituent Assembly of India sat for two years, 11 months and 17 days to debate on and draft the Constitution. The proceedings of the debates in the central hall of Parliament are so interesting that it struck me that it would make for riveting viewing,” said Benegal on a recent trip to Calcutta to promote a festival of his films on Zee Classic.

The inspiration for the series, called Samvidhaan, came from Vice-President Hamid Ansari, also the chairman of the Rajya Sabha, of which Benegal was a member for six years.

The story starts after World War II, in 1946, when the Cabinet Mission was sent to India to plan and discuss the transfer of power. The debates took place between December 1946 and December 1949, and the Constitution was formally adopted on January 26, 1950.

“Our framers worked hard to gift us a Constitution that has stood us in good stead. It is the Bible that we live by. So a series on it will always be relevant,” said the director, who also made Bharat Ek Khoj, a 53-episode retelling of Nehru’s The Discovery of India for Doordarshan in the late-80s.

Samvidhaan, produced by Rajya Saha TV, went on air from March 2. The 10-part mini series is slotted at 10am on Sundays.

Benegal is eager to introduce little-known figures like professor K.T. Shah who made significant contributions. “There are 146 speaking parts in the 10-hour series. We have taken cogent parts of the bilingual debate and have presented them as they were spoken. The Hindi dialogues will be sub-titled in English and vice versa.”

Sachin Khedekar, who played Netaji in Benegal’s Bose: The Forgotten Hero, is back as Ambedkar. Neeraj Kabi, best known as the ailing monk in Ship of Theseus, is Mahatma Gandhi, while Dalip Tahil dons the Nehru cap again after Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Other actors in the series are Tom Alter, Rajit Kapur, Anjan Srivastava, Divya Dutta, Ila Arun and Rajeshwari Sachdev among others. Swara Bhaskar has anchored the show, parts of which were shot in Parliament itself.

“A galaxy of personalities came together for the debates — Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, Nehru, C. Rajagopalachari, J.B. Kripalani…But Gandhiji suggested the name of B.R. Ambedkar to head the drafting committee, which surprised many. History has proved how correct he was,” Benegal said.

There was a lot of drama in the debates. “Jinnah never attended the Constituent Assembly, Liaquat Ali Khan did. But after the call for Direct Action Day (on August 16, 1946, marked by widespread riots in Calcutta) Muslim League walked out.”

Benegal has a personal connection with the story, as does Shama Zaidi, his co-writer. Sir Benegal Narsing Rau, a judge of Bengal High Court who was appointed constitutional adviser to the Constituent Assembly in formulating the Constitution and prepared its original draft, was his father’s cousin. “I never met him,” Benegal says. Zaidi’s father B.H. Zaidi was one of the members.