Shyam Benegal Biography
Shyam Benegal (Konkani: श्याम बैनेगल) (born 14 December, 1934, in Andhra Pradesh) is a prolific Indian director and screenwriter. With his first four feature films Ankur (1973), Nishant (1975) Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977) he created a new genre, which has now come to be called the "middle cinema" in India.
He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1976 and the Padma Bhushan in 1991. On 8 August 2007, he was awarded the highest award in Indian cinema for lifetime achievement, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for the year 2005. He has won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi seven times.
Early life and education
Shyam Benegal, was born on 14 December, 1934 in Trimulgherry, Secunderabad then a British Cantonment, and now a twin city of the state capital, Hyderabad. It was here, at age twelve that he made his first film, on a camera given to him by his photographer father Sridhar B. Benegal. He received an M.A. in Economics, from Nizam College, Osmania University, Hyderabad. It was here that he formed the Hyderabad Film Society.
Benegal is related to the famous film director and actor Guru Dutt; his paternal grandmother and Guru Dutt's maternal grandmother were sisters, both nominally Konkani speaking Chitrapur Saraswats from Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka.
He started his career working in 1959, as an advertising copywriter, at a Bombay-based advertising agency, Lintas Advertising, where he steadily rose to become a creative head. Meanwhile, he made his first documentary in Gujarati, Gher Betha Ganga (Ganges at Doorsteps) in 1962. His first feature film though, had to wait another decade, while he worked on the script.
In 1963 he started a brief stint with another advertising agency called ASP (Advertising, Sales and Promotion). During his advertising years, he directed over 900 sponsored documentaries and advertising films.
Between 1966 and 1973, Shyam also taught at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, and twice served as the institute's chairman, (1980-83) and (1989-92). By this time he already started making documentaries. One of his early documentaries A Child of the Streets (1967) garnered him wide acclaim, in all he has made over 70 documentary and short films.
Soon, he was awarded the Homi Bhabha Fellowship (1970-72), which allowed him to work at the Children Television Workshop, New York, and later at Boston's WGBH-TV.
After returning to Bombay, he received independent financing for his film and Ankur (The Seedling) was finally made in 1973. It was a story of economic and sexual exploitation from his home state, Andhra Pradesh, and Benegal instantly shot to fame. The film also introduced actors, Shabana Azmi and Anant Nag and won Shyam Benegal the 1975 National Film Award for Second Best Feature Film. Shabana Azmi won the National Film Award for Best Actress.
The success that New India Cinema enjoyed in the 1970s and early 1980s could largely be attributed to Shyam Benegal's quartet: Ankur (1973), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977). Benegal used a variety of new actors mainly from the FTII and NSD like Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Amrish Puri.
In Benegal's next effort, Nishant (Night's End) (1975), a teacher's wife is abducted and gang-raped by four zamindars and officialdom turns a deaf ear to the distraught husband's pleas for help. Manthan (The Churning) (1976) is a film on rural empowerment and is set against the backdrop of Gujarat's fledgling dairy industry. For the first time, over five lakh rural farmers[specify] in Gujarat, contributed Rs 2 each, and thus became film's producers. Upon its release, truckloads of farmers came to see "their film", making it a success at the box office. After this trilogy on rural oppression, he made a biopic, Bhumika (The Role) (1977), broadly based on the life of well-known Marathi stage and film actress of the 1940s, Hansa Wadkar (played by Smita Patil) who led a flamboyant and unconventional life. The main character sets out on at an individual search for identity and self-fulfillment, at same the time grappling with exploitation by men.
Meanwhile, in the early 70's, Shyam made 21 film modules for Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), sponsored by UNICEF. This allowed him to interact with children of SITE and many folk artists. Eventually he used many of these children in his feature length rendition of the classic folk tale, Charandas Chor (Charandas the Thief) in 1975. He made the film for the Children Films Society of India. To quote film critic, Derek Malcolm:
"…what Benegal has done is to paint a magnificent visual recreation of those extraordinary days and one that is also sensitive to the agonies and predicament of a talented woman whose need for security was only matched by her insistence on freedom."
Unlike most New Cinema filmmakers, Benegal has had private backers for many of his films, and institutional backing for a few, including Manthan (National Diary Development Board), Susman (1987)(Handloom Co-operatives) and Yatra (1996) (Indian Railways). This gave him an added advantage, as he managed to survive the collapse of the New Cinema movement in the late 80s due to paucity of funding, with which were lost many neo-realist filmmakers. Benegal continued making films throughout the next two decades. He also served as the Director of the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) from 1980 to 1986.
Following the success of these four films, Benegal was backed by film star Shashi Kapoor for whom he made Junoon (1978) and Kalyug (1981). The former is an interracial love story set amidst the turbulent period of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Kalyug, was based on the Mahābhārata and was not a big hit although both of the films won Filmfare Best Movie Awards in 1980 and 1982 respectively.
Benegal's next film, Mandi (1983) was a satirical comedy about politics and prostitution, starring Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. Later, working from his own story, based on the last days of Portuguese in Goa, in the early 1960s, Shyam explored human relationship in Trikaal (1985).
In the 1980s, however, with the collapse of the New Cinema movement, Benegal's films had not had proper releases. He turned to TV where he directed serials like Yatra (1986) for the Indian Railways, and one of the biggest projects undertaken on Indian Television, the 53-episode television serial based on Jawaharlal Nehru's book, Discovery of India (Bharat Ek Khoj) (1988).
Soon, Shyam Benegal stepped beyond traditional narrative films and took to biographical material to achieve greater freedom of expression. His first venture in this genre was with a documentary film based on Satyajit Ray’s life, titled, Satyajit Ray, the Filmmaker, in 1985. This was followed by similar biographical works like Sardari Begum (1996), and Zubeidaa, which was written by film critic Khalid Mohammed.
The 90s and beyond
The 90s saw Shyam Benegal making a trilogy on Indian Muslim women, starting with Mammo (1995), Sardari Begum (1996), and Zubeidaa (2001). With Zubeidaa, he entered the Bollywood mainstream for the first time, as it starred top Bollywood star Karishma Kapoor, and boasted music by A. R. Rahman.
In 1992, he made another film, Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (Seventh Horse of the Sun) based on a novel by Dharmavir Bharati, which won the 1993 National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi. In 1996 he made another film based on a book, The Making of the Mahatma, based on Fatima Meer's, The Apprenticeship of a Mahatma. This turn to biographical material, resulted in Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero, his 2005 English language film. He criticized the Indian caste system in Samar (1999). The movie went on to win the National Film Award for Best Film.
Shyam Benegal also owns a production company called Sahyadri Films.
He has also authored three books based on his own films, The Churning with Vijay Tendulkar (1984), based on Manthan; Satyajit Ray (1988), based on his biographical film, Satyajit Ray, Filmmaker; and The Marketplace (1989) which was based on Mandi.
Shyam Benegal is married to Neera Benegal. He is also involved with the Mumbai based film school Whistling Woods International as chairman of the academic council.