The G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Mumbai hosted a retrospective of filmmaker Shyam Benegal’s cinema from March 17 to 19. Mandi (1983), Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008), Trikal (1985), Bhumika (1977), Nishant (1975), Ankur (1974) and Zubeidaa (2001) were shown at the foundation’s elegant creative hub and performance venue at a repurposed warehouse in Mahalaxmi. G5A’s founder and artistic director, Anuradha Parikh, who was a producer and production designer on the films English, August (1993), Split Wide Open (1998) and Luck by Chance (2008), said, “Shyam Benegal has been a renaissance man of his generation. He encapsulated a diverse spectrum of knowledge and a superlative aesthetic sensibility. Naturally, his films captured this and spanned many subjects and ecosystems. They were compelling human stories within a troubled socio-political context, mostly with women at the centre.”
Director-screenwriter-producer Nikkhil Advani, who curated the films for this retrospective and started out by assisting stalwarts of Indian art house cinema like Saeed Mirza, Kundan Shah and Sudhir Mishra, sits on G5A’s advisory council. He is developing a year-long “Cinema House” programme to showcase independent, regional, and contemporary cinema and sourced films for the Shyam Benegal Retrospective thanks to Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, director of the Film Heritage Foundation.
The opening night featured Mandi, a satire that examines how the lives of sex workers in Hyderabad are upended by politics, capitalism and moral policing. The film was warmly introduced by Naseeruddin Shah. He, and other members of the cast – Shabana Azmi, Neena Gupta, Ila Arun, KK Raina – also stayed back for a post-screening discussion moderated by Aseem Chhabra, director of the New York Indian Film Festival, who has written biographies of actors Irrfan Khan, Shashi Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra. An interaction with Benegal was part of the itinerary but he could not make it since he was unwell. His daughter Pia, who has worked as a costume designer on many of his films, attended on his behalf.
Shabana Azmi, who plays madam Rukmini Bai, spoke about visiting brothels in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Delhi to prepare for her role. She found sex workers in Mumbai “dressed like film stars” and those in Delhi “had an old-world charm”. She recalled going location-hunting with Shyam Benegal. On one such trip to Hyderabad, they came across a man, who served as the inspiration behind Tungrus – the character played by Naseeruddin Shah. Azmi said, “The amazing thing is that Naseer hadn’t met the man but he understood exactly how to play him.”
The film is based on Aanandi a short story by Ghulam Abbas, adapted into a screenplay by Satyadev Dubey, Shama Zaidi and Benegal. Shah admitted that, before the discussion at G5A, he was unaware about Azmi and Benegal’s meeting with such a person but he enjoyed playing “a sex-less, personality-less thing” who was a “non-entity… there, but not there”.
Raina, who plays Shrikant, said it took a whole month to find the shirt he would wear in the film. “I joined Mandi as a simple boy from Kashmir, and I was wondering how I would play a man whose job was to sell women to the brothel. But I had so many people from the team giving me suggestions that I just had to listen and the character took shape,” he said.
Neena Gupta, who plays Basanti, revealed that Soni Razdan, who plays Nadira, was her hotel roommate when they were shooting for the film. They continue to be friends. Razdan was not present at the screening but Gupta went ahead and shared a funny memory about wearing gunghroos and enthusiastically practising her dance steps early in the morning following instructions from Benegal .Of course, the drowsy Razdan was not amused.
Gupta also spoke about being furious with Benegal for wanting her to shoot for a dance sequence when she was running a fever. “I thought he was cruel and inhumane so I was complaining about him. Shabana helped me understand that I was thinking only about myself; Shyam had to think of all 300 people on the set.”
The cast of Mandi stayed together for the entire duration of the film shoot, regardless of when their scenes would be shot. Gupta mentioned that Pankaj Kapur, who plays the assistant to Shantidevi – the founder of a shelter home for women – had to wait for a whole month before it was time for him to face the camera.
Ila Arun made her debut with the film, and her first day required her character, Kamli, to be in the throes of labour pains just before her delivery. Her nervousness at being watched by Azmi and Patil pushed her to give her best with the first take. “Shyam babu knew how to get the best work out of his actors even if they had a small part. I learnt so much working with him,” she said.
Benegal took a serious subject but did not make a weepy, didactic film but one with a zany sense of humour, pleasing music and beautiful shots in addition to an engaging storyline. Several people associated with Mandi – cinematographer Ashok Mehta, music director Vanraj Bhatia, and actors Smita Patil, Om Puri, Amrish Puri, Saeed Jaffrey and Satish Kaushik – have died in the intervening years so panellists spoke of their contributions too.
The second day of the retrospective featured screenings of the comedy Welcome to Sajjanpur (starring Shreyas Talpade, Divya Dutta, Amrita Rao, Kunal Kapoor, Ravi Kishan, Ila Arun and Rajeshwari Sachdev), Trikal (starring Leela Naidu Anita Kanwar, Dalip Tahil, Shah and Soni Razdan), which is set in Portuguese-ruled Goa, and Bhumika. The screening of Bhumika was followed by a discussion with actor Amol Palekar, assistant director Prahlad Kakkar, and Anita Patil-Deshmukh, Smita Patil’s sister.
Moderator Aseem Chhabra got panellists to talk about Marathi actor Hansa Wadkar’s memoir Sangtye Aika (1970) on which Bhumika is based. Kakkar called Wadkar “a gutsy lady” who wrote a book considered “scandalous” in the film industry because she chose to “open a can of worms” and name everybody who “slept with her and abused her”.
Benegal wrote the script with Girish Karnad and Satyadev Dubey. Smita Patil, who played the protagonist Usha based on Wadkar, was working as a news on Mumbai’s local television station in the early 1980s when she signed on for the project. According to her sister, Patil was not particularly keen on the role but their mother told her to complete what she had agreed to do. After the release, their mother told Patil that Palekar had done a much better job. This prompted Palekar to meet Patil’s mother and tell her it was unfair to compare them as he was a trained actor, and Smita was not.
The discussion was full of such interesting nuggets. Kakkar said that he felt more like a “slave” than an assistant director while working with Benegal. “Every little thing that happened on set was your responsibility. If somebody vomited, you had to clean it. Writing the dialogue, maintaining continuity… You could not say “no” to Shyam.” He added that even actors – including Patil – had to help with production or serve food when they were not required in front of the camera.
Palekar talked about being thrilled to play Keshav, the “villain” in the film, who is Usha’s abusive husband and business manager. When Chhabra said that while the role had shades of grey, Keshav did not necessarily fit the mould of a conventional villain, Palekar pointed out that he has never played a conventional “hero” either.
The third day of the retrospective opened with Nishant, a film written by Vijay Tendulkar and Satyadev Dubey, that grapples with feudalism and sexual exploitation. Benegal pulled together an excellent cast that included Girish Karnad, Anant Nag, Amrish Puri, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Mohan Agashe and Sadhu Meher. This was followed by Ankur, which explores the themes of caste discrimination, child marriage, sexual desire and adultery. Written by Benegal and Satyadev Dubey, this film features Anant Nag, Shabana Azmi, Priya Tendulkar, Dalip Tahil, Kader Ali Beg and Sadhu Meher in key roles.
The retrospective ended on a glorious note with a screening of Zubeidaa (2001), written by journalist-screenwriter-director Khalid Mohamed based on his mother’s life. Karisma Kapoor plays Zubeidaa, an actor who married a prince and had a tragic death. “When Khalid finished narrating the story to me, I had tears streaming down my face. Until then, he hadn’t told me that it was his mother’s story,” the actor said during the post-screening discussion. Kapoor wasn’t sure if Benegal would work with her as she was a “hardcore commercial actress”. A lot of her “well-wishers” from Bollywood also warned her that working with Benegal would hurt her image and market. Of course, she went ahead. “Shyamji is an encyclopaedia of learning. I used to sit with him like a little girl. He used to remind me of my grandfather (Raj Kapoor). They have the same birthday – 14th December,” she said. Manoj Bajpayee, who plays Maharaja Vijayendra Singh of Fatehpur, recalled being shocked when he learnt that he was cast opposite Kapoor, a Bollywood “heroine” at the peak of her career, whom he associated with the song What is mobile number? Karoon kya dial number?
“I was so nervous about the casting. I thought he was taking a big risk,” he said. In order to build his confidence, Benegal, who approached Bajpayee through his mentor Ram Gopal Varma, made him take lessons in horse riding and polo. Since Bajpayee slouched, Benegal also taught him to carry himself like a prince. “It was difficult for me to wear a tuxedo and pretend to be a prince. I had never imagined myself in that situation,” he said adding that Benegal insisted he wear the costumes at home so that he could get comfortable.
Both Kapoor and Bajpayee were worried about working with a powerhouse like Rekha, who plays Maharani Mandira Devi. “Rekha aunty and my dad (Randhir Kapoor) are great friends,” Kapoor said, “She told me that she was at the hospital when I was born. Imagine being given a role where I had to look daggers at her, and push her. I was hoping that she would not fall!”
On his part, Bajpayee reveals that he “froze” when he learnt that Rekha would play his wife. “As if one was not enough! And Rekhaji on top of that!”
Benegal calmed Kapoor down by saying that her job was to make audiences feel bad for her even though she was the second wife or so-called “other woman” in the maharaja’s life. This input helped. “I had to be stubborn and childish, and make people cry,” Kapoor said. While she struggled with emoting, Bajpayee struggled with dancing. Quite hilariously, the polo players who were tasked with instructing him, also kept pestering him for Kapoor’s phone number!
In the end, the retrospective was enjoyable for the screenings of classic films and for the chance to hear actors and technicians reminiscence about their rich experience of working with Shyam Benegal himself.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer
The views expressed are personal
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