Sunday, January 13, 2008

‘I wish I was 25 again’


Shyam Benegal talks about how the multiplex format has opened up a plethora of cinematic possibilities before filmmakers like him. Sandhya Iyer has the report


When a young Benegal embarked on his cinematic journey in the 70s, his obvious inspiration was Satyajit Ray. A prolific ad filmmaker until then, it was Ray’s cinema that worked as the greatest source of inspiration for him. It provided strength to his belief that he could make the kind of film he believed in and in what can be said to be an astounding achievement, he’s never had to stray from that vision…ever.

Which is why Benegal quite proudly says today, “I never made one film that I didn’t want to make. See, it’s all about sensibilities of a filmmaker rather than using convenient phrases like parallel cinema. That gives the impression that these films are not going to be entertaining. That’s an absurd thing to say. Some filmmakers are more attuned to the conventional mode of popular cinema, while some are not. I, for one, was never excited about hardcore commercial films. For the longest possible time, I even refused to look at it but with time, I am changing. Today, I do see a certain value to our conventional form of entertainment, especially when I consider its phenomenal reach. Something that has survived for 80 years can’t be so bad after all. I’m looking at it and am even considering dabbling in it. I’m sure it can be approached aesthetically,” he observes.

Having said that, the filmmaker feels that his path, which so far was strewn with all kinds of obstacles, has smoothened considerably now, with the coming of the multiplex. “Today it’s easier than ever to make a film and this is something I struggled with for 35 years of my career. The whole nature of the business has changed and anyone with fresh ideas will get support within the industry. Also, the influx of multiplex has ensured that you’re no more making films for this one undistinguishable mass of people. Earlier filmmakers like me struggled because the very arithmetic of film business was not conducive to our kind of projects. Today, the opportunities have grown so much that I wish I was 25 again. Of course, I’m perfectly happy with the way things went for me. As I said, I never did what I didn’t want to do.”

His forthcoming film, titled Mahadev ka Sajjanpur, starring Amrita Rao and Shreyas Talpade is a comic satire about villages today. Says the filmmaker, “Cinema today almost solely caters to the urban audiences. The villages have fallen from its map. And this despite the fact that 50-60 per cent of India still lives there. Unless, you’re talking about regional films in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam or Bhojpuri, villages have lost their place in Hindi cinema. That is how I decided I was going to revisit today’s villages. It’s a very interesting place, because today most of these villages have every modern technology you can imagine. However standards of education are still abysmally low. Which is why, an educated person finds a job as a letter writer at a village post office. That’s what the film is about.”

Most of Benegal’s films, in small way atleast, have shown how cinema can hope to be a vehicle of social change. If Ankur spoke of class exploitation, Manthan was about the co-oporative movement, Mammo yet again was about the plight of people displaced by partition. Does he believe cinema can have a larger role to play in society? He ponders and says, “ For a long time, I did think films can be a catalyst in social change. Then later I thought probably it is not. But I still fell films can raise awareness and public debates about issues. They are also social indicators of where society is moving and what it’s aspiring,” he says, showing satisfaction over the new breed of filmmakers who are looking at fresh themes.

The filmmaker also recogonises that no matter how good a product, it needs to be marketed well. “ There is so much media that you need to find your little elbow room or else it’s very easy to get lost. One needs to have a strategy in place by which you make sure that maximum number of people come to see your film. Today even painters have to market themselves to sell,” he observes.

Finally on the significance of film festivals, he says, “It’s wonderful that today almost every city has its own film festival. Kokatta had a very successful one this year, Hyderabad has one, so do Kerela, Chenna, Bangalore and Hyderabad. In our times, we had these film societies which would promote the cause of cinema as an art. That went into a decline but I’m happy it is being revived.”

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