In Conversation with Shyam Benegal – one of India’s Major Filmmakers

By Sonya Rehman

Even though he stands as one of India’s leading Film Director’s – with a career spanning over four decades, with numerous documentaries and feature films to his credit, Shyam Benegal is extremely down to earth, when I meet him at his friend’s residence in Defence, Lahore, where the Director and his wife are staying during their trip to the city.

In a span of twenty years, Shyam says, this is their third trip to the country. The trips have “primarily [been] at the invitation of the Faiz Foundation,” who invited the Director first in 1992 for its ‘Faiz Mela.’

This year, the Foundation had invited the Director to preside over a “four-film retrospective,” where the Foundation was to feature four of Shyam’s productions – one film per decade, screened over four days, followed by a discussion and Q&A session with the audience and the Director.

During his trip this year, Shyam also interacted with students at local universities, namely; the National College of Arts (NCA), Beaconhouse National University (BNU) and the Lahore School of Economics (LSE) where he delivered lectures and partook in discussions with the students.

Given his interaction with young Pakistanis interested in filmmaking, I ask the Director what advice he’d give to local amateur filmmakers hoping to make it in the industry. Reclined into a sofa, Shyam weighs his words before answering; “You had a huge film industry; Lahore, Bombay and Calcutta were the three largest filmmaking centres of undivided India. When India and Pakistan became two countries, the Lahore film industry continued manfully for a while…they made some interesting films. But over a period of time there was a decline in the film industry of Lahore.” The Director goes on to mention the scores of local cinemas which were shut down in the country, owing to Pakistani cinema’s shaky standing today. “It’s a very sad state of affairs. So, young filmmakers don’t have the kind of opportunities they would have – or rather, they should have.”

Stating that he met some “very capable” and “talented” young Pakistani filmmakers during his visit, Shyam gives the example of the “vast” Indian film industry where over 1500 films are churned out on a yearly basis, “much more than Hollywood.”  “And we don’t make films in one language,” the Directors says, “We make films in 22 languages. And Hindi-Urdu is a language of cinema which only produces one-eight or one-seventh of the whole number of films made in India. So the largest number of films strangely enough, is regional films in other languages.”

But given Pakistan’s fractured cinema industry, perhaps young filmmakers in the country could find hope and solace in sending their productions to international film festivals abroad?

“International film festivals are a way to get Pakistani cinema known to the world…fine, but what about creating a local market? Because your local market is what will feed the industry. Knowledge of international cinema is fine – but that is wonderful for individual filmmakers…but for the cinema industry itself, that’s not a solution. That is an avenue.”

Shyam, known for his rich works, full of depth and substance – oft painting grim realities that leave audiences in quiet contemplation – has heavily contributed towards India’s film industry from the 70s onwards.

With productions such as ‘Ankur,’ ‘Nishant,’ ‘Bhumika,’ ‘Mandi,’ and ‘Zubeidaa,’ among others, have given the tireless Director immense recognition in cinema – not just in India, but the world over. Currently, Shyam is heavily involved in a “major project” – a 10-part television series on the story and the making of the Indian constitution. “It’s a very, very challenging project. I have no hair to pull out,” Shyam states while laughing lightly, “If I did, I’d probably be doing that…it’s a very difficult project.”

Given the challenge of the Director’s current production, what then, has Shyam’s most challenging, and yet, most rewarding production been through his career? “Well you know, every film is a reward in itself – I’m not saying that rhetorically, I’m saying it seriously,” he responds, “Because each film is an experience that can hardly be matched by another…and each are individual things. But, I can tell you which has been the most challenging! It was a television series, [the 53-part] ‘Bharat Ek Khoj,’ based on ‘Discovery of India’ [Jawaharlal Nehru’s book]. It was made about 22-years ago but it was broadcast a number of times. It is prescribed in colleges and schools as part of students’ history lessons – for most people, they learn Indian history through [the series].”

“A project like that is fine for one lifetime,” Shyam says with a smile, when I inquire about the amount of research that must’ve gone into the production. “It took about six years of research, I had twenty-two historians who were my consultants, I had a battery of ten writers (including myself), under a Script Editor. [It] was an experience; I don’t think I’d be able to do something like that again.”

“Because you’re not just telling people the history of the country,” Shyam states, “But you’re telling them what this history is leading up to…what happened – it deals with some very vital questions as well. It is history and therefore you can’t afford to have prejudice.”

For Shyam, making documentaries isn’t any option anymore. He mentions that to make documentaries, one needs immense energy since one is constantly chasing facts and there is “no control over your material.” Documentaries, he says, “is the vocation for younger people.” However, he does reveal that he enjoyed making documentaries on anthropological subjects – primarily cultural anthropology. “Those were things I enjoyed enormously,” he says pensively.

A few minutes later, as a man from the kitchen brings in tea, Atul Tiwari, Shyam’s writer (for his current project) walks in. Atul has accompanied the Director on his trip to Pakistan and tells me that he first started working with Shyam when he was still a “novice” – incidentally on the TV serial, ‘Bharat Ek Khoj,’ as one of Shyam’s writers. Interestingly, Atul has also been roped in for the Director’s latest production for the small screen. For Atul, co-writing Shyam’s “huge feature film,” on the Indian independence leader, ‘Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero,’ [in 2005] with Shama Zaidi, was one of his most rewarding experiences.

Atul Tiwari and Shyam Benegal. Photo: Sonya Rehman

Stating that he’d “love” to be a part of an Indo-Pak endeavour of art, the writer agrees that the younger generations of both India and Pakistan can reach common ground through art and culture. “Definitely,” he states enthusiastically, “This could be one step – why not?”

Atul gives the example of the celebrated writers and poets such as; Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Sadaat Hasan Manto and Muhammad Allama Iqbal. It doesn’t matter where they were born or buried, the writer states fervently. “[During] this visit, I visited the graves of both Faiz and Manto. I made it a point to find some time to go and pay my respect to them. In the same way when the people of [Pakistan] go to India, they go and find out where Prem Chand lived. Last year when I was in Pakistan I went to the grave of the great Allama Iqbal. Iqbal is as much of an Indian poet as he is a Pakistani poet – he is the one whose poetry we sang on the 15th of August, 1947, in our Parliament! I’m proud of Iqbal. There are so many stories that we [India and Pakistan] can tell together.”

HELLO! Pakistan

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