Shyam Benegal reveals his mantras while making biopics and documentaries
Veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal, whose body of work includes The Making of the Mahatma and a 10-part series on the Constitution, says he has two mantras while making biopics and documentaries – be objective and empathetic. Stressing that he is not interested in stirring controversy or in making a propaganda film, Benegal said everything becomes difficult when you take a confrontational stand.
”Just two points. One has to be as objective as possible and the second point is to be sympathetic. If you are not objective, you are already colouring the story with your subjectivity. Sympathy is necessary. When I say sympathy, I mean empathy so you can be one with the subject,” Benegal told PTI in a phone interview from Mumbai.
The 87-year-old director is now working on Mujib – The Making of a Nation, a Bangladeshi-Indian biographical film about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first president of Bangladesh and later its prime minister who was assassinated with most of his family in 1975.
Shyam Benegal, a rare filmmaker who has successfully walked the fiction and non-fiction tracks in cinema, said it is never difficult for filmmakers to tell the story they want to.
”It’s always possible. It is a question of how you approach the subject and in what way. If you take a confrontational stand on everything, everything becomes difficult. I am not interested in creating controversy. I am only interested in the human side of the story,” he said.
Benegal said filmmaking is both personal and political for him. ”I don’t remember who said this: ‘Every social act of yours is also a political act whether you like it or not.”’ Asked whether filmmakers find it difficult to express themselves, Benegal said many things might happen. ”There will be politics, there will be social points of view, and cultural points of view… so many things. But the point is that I’m not making a propaganda film.” Responding to the debate over ‘The Kashmir Files, Vivek Agnihotri’s controversial film on the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from Kashmir in 1990, Benegal said, ”I have not seen the film. I am looking forward to seeing it.” ‘Mujib-The Making of a Nation is a collaboration between the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) and the Bangladesh Film Development Corporation.
”I have done co-productions in the past as well. But what was new was the fact that we have made this film where the entire cast is from Bangladesh. They have a certain type of attachment and sensitivity that was required for the film,” Benegal, who recently launched the poster of the film, said. Bangladeshi actor Arifin Shuvoo plays the lead role of Rahman in the movie.
According to the filmmaker, Rahman was a fascinating figure with a gripping life story. ”And the way it ended, it is almost like a Shakespearean tragedy. It was obviously an important subject,” the director said about his motivation to take up the film.
Mujibur Rahman, the central figure behind the Bangladesh Liberation Movement and the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, was the founding father of Bangladesh. His daughter Sheikh Hasina is the prime minister of Bangladesh.
Shyam Benegal, considered a pioneer of the Indian parallel cinema movement with classics such as Ankur (1973), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976), Bhumika (1977), Junoon (1978) and Mandi (1983), has had an equally illustrious career in documentaries, biopics and TV shows.
His later projects include Mammo (1994), Sardari Begum (1996), Zubeidaa (2001), Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (1992), The Making of the Mahatma (1996), Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005), TV show Bharat Ek Khoj (1988), Amaravati ki Kathayein (1995) and Samvidhan, a 10-part series on the making of the Constitution, in 2014.
Benegal’s oeuvre comprises many documentaries, including one on Satyajit Ray. The progression to documentaries was natural. ”There is always a shift but it is implicit. It’s not as if you have chosen to be like that. What happened is the imperceptible change taking place constantly. You move on from one thing to another. For example, I made several biographical films but I did not choose to do that, it just happened.” He also does not consider his cinematic legacy as something unique or something that others can’t surpass.
”There are people who have done wonderful things. There’s nothing unique in what one has done. You do what you think you want to do. That’s not unique. Climbing Mount Everest is unique.” Benegal took on the mammoth task of adapting Jawaharlal Nehru’s book Discovery of India for television in 1988. The 53-episode show is among his best-known works outside cinema.
Asked what motivated him to take on the book, Benegal said, ”The book was a revelation for me when I first read it as a schoolboy. I always felt that I learned so much from it.”