Entertainment


India's Shyam Benegal won't give up director's chair


Indian movie director, producer and screenplay writer Shyam Benegal poses prior to be awarded by the Arts and Letters Order (Ordre des Arts et des Lettres), at the Guimet museum in Paris, on October 30, 2013. Photo - AFP

There's not much the veteran Indian director Shyam Benegal doesn't know about filmmaking, including the supposedly modern technique of crowdfunding he used to make his 1976 movie "The Churning".

Half a million rural farmers contributed two rupees each to help make the feature, then famously turned up by the lorry-load to see "their film", turning it into a box-office hit.

"Imagine half a million people going to the cinema to see their own story," the much-celebrated Benegal, 78, told AFP in Paris.

"It was very successful in the sense that it also made money for the farmers," he said, describing it as his own version of crowdfunding, the 21st-century practice in which lots of people pool a little money to finance a project via the Internet.

Benegal's 1987 film "Susman" was funded in a similar way by weavers' cooperatives, cementing his reputation as a director with ingenious ways of getting films made.

Low-budget with gritty storylines and talented character actors, the three films about rural oppression Benegal made between 1973 and 1976 established him as one of a new generation of Indian filmmakers.

"The Churning" ("Manthan") tells the true story of the battle to set up milk cooperatives in the western Indian state of Gujarat, while in "Night's End" ("Nishant") a woman is abducted and gang-raped and her husband's complaints ignored by officials.

In "The Seedling" ("Ankur"), a woman is sexually exploited by the son of a wealthy landowner.

Now Indian film has another 'new generation'

"I was among those who made films that were slightly different from the formulaic films that were very popular with Indian audiences," Benegal said.

"In the old days... you could not think in terms of making a film without songs and dances. This is a unique form to India... that's how Indian cinema was defined for a long time," he said.

Forty years later, Benegal said India now had another crop of new directors breaking away from old cinematic formulas.

"We have a very interesting new generation of Indian filmmakers," he said, highlighting Anurag Kashyap, the director of the two-part "Gangs of Wasseypur", as "one of the most remarkable".

Kashyap was one of four Indian directors feted at this year's Cannes film festival, along with Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar.

Johar's short film about a gay relationship was an example of the risks some directors are now willing to take with taboo subjects.

Other notable directors Benegal cited included Mani Ratnam, who works mainly in Tamil cinema, and Vishal Bhardwaj, whose "Maqbool" was based on Macbeth.

Benegal made his first film when he was still at school, and young people who seek his advice are often told to "bash on regardless".

The director says he has always tried to take his own advice, as when the censor board refused to give "Night's End" a certificate.

"I appealed to the prime minister (Indira Gandhi) herself and she watched the film," he said.

"She felt that there was nothing there that deserved it to be banned and so it was released only after the prime minister saw it," he said.

Benegal was in Paris for the close of the Guimet Museum's "100 Years of Indian Cinema" season, where he was the guest of honour.

Featuring about 30 films, it included works from the earliest days of Indian cinema through to more recent hits such as the 2001 film "Lagaan", about a group of villagers who win an exemption from taxes by beating British officials in a game of cricket.

'If I was satisfied I would stop making films'

Others works included Satyajit Ray's 1959 "Apur Sansar", the third film in his Apu Trilogy, and 2002's "Devdas", one of the films that established Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as a star.

A selection of Benegal's films was also shown.

But the season was also a reminder of the many Indian films that have been lost forever.
"Preservation is a huge problem in India not only before but even now," said Benegal.

Until the 1950s film negatives were made out of nitrate stock, making them highly flammable. Fires wiped out entire archives at a time.

Others deteriorated due to poor storage conditions.

"A large number of our films disappeared like that and although we are a little more careful now we are not as careful as we should be," he said.

Benegal, who is currently working on a 10-part television series about the Indian constitution, said that at 78 he was still not ready to retire.

"If I was satisfied I would stop making films," he said.

"(But) I don't think I've reached anywhere close to that point."

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