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'Villages off the map for urban India'
Days after winning a National Award for Well Done Abba, Shyam Benegal speaks with TOI-Crest's Srijana Mitra Das on the need to move away from the ghetto-isation of entertainment, for inclusivity in Indian cinema, and the excitement that new movements on celluloid have brought.
This has been a relatively peaceful year for the National Awards, normally marked by controversies over awarded and left-out films. What explains the peace?
Partly, pre-selection by regional juries. Earlier, regional juries across the country would pre-select films to send to Delhi. Then that system was changed. All the films were sent to Delhi for a single jury to watch. Imagine, one jury watching 80 to 100 films of different languages within a few days. You'd be like a zombie in two days! Now, new rules have been applied. Actually, a committee was formed to streamline the National Awards. I was appointed chairman. We had to find the best ways to get the jury to view an ideal number of films. Awards were being given which made no sense. There was an award for 'Best Family Planning Film'. Post-Emergency, this was changed to 'Best Family Welfare Film'. These categories make little sense today. They were taken out. The award money was increased. Political bias is out of the window now. All these changes are having effects.
How do you feel upon winning a National Award for Well Done Abba (WDA)?
I don't want to sound blasê but it's happened before, so it's not new. But it's certainly a kind of recognition. I was actually hoping the performance by Boman Irani should be lauded. He was brilliant and played two different parts. But generally, comedy doesn't elicit that sort of jury response. They usually award high drama.
After biographical movies exploring figures like Zubeida and Subhash Chandra Bose, your films have turned towards rural India and 'everyday' folks. What caused this shift?
I grew up in the Hyderabad Cantonment. Leaving home, you were instantly in 'a rural area'. The rural was always in one's consciousness. However, I didn't make only rural films. But recently, I grew disturbed that although 50 per cent of our people still live in villages, rural India has fallen off the map for urban India. It doesn't exist in its consciousness, especially via cinema. This disturbed me no end. I wanted to break this ghetto-isation of entertainment. Neither village nor city can do without each other. But it's absurd how entertainment encourages urban India to think otherwise. Our imagination is becoming quite rootless. Our aspirations are measured against America and consumerism. You know that saying, 'Go Home, America! (Take me with you)! ' In this, rural India is a big no. But why should it be denied? Hence, I began revisiting the rural.
After Ankur, Nishant and Mandi, WDA also marks your cinematic return to Andhra Pradesh. What was interesting about the homecoming?
Making the film in Deccani Boli which is influenced by Marathi, Kannada, Telugu and the Nizam's state language, Persian. It's a polyglot mix of north and south. There are intra-regional differences as well. In coastal Andhra, people are moneyed and enterprising. Telangana was feudal, serfs under the Nizam. Telangana developed a different personality. Its language is considered crude by coastal Andhra, but for me, Telangana's speech is like Deccani Boli, the original language. This is 'red Telugu', Telugu as it was spoken. Coastal people speak more polished Telugu but its expressiveness suffers. Literacy irons out color. It adds something but you lose something as well. I tried capturing this rich flavour in WDA.
There is a new move from history to the contemporary in your films. How did this happen?
How history is unfolding now is very interesting. The world has seen the greatest changes in the last 60 years. India itself is changing far more rapidly than the rest of the world. Momentous things are happening around us. It's fascinating.
Are there younger Hindi filmmakers whose work interests you?
I find Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj, Dibakar Bannerjee and Abhishek Sharma very exciting. Dev D was excellent. Anurag touched upon the patriarchal system and women's sexuality wonderfully. I wish I could do it with his precision. I'm very impressed by him. Younger filmmakers are exploring genres but using the conventions of Indian cinema, not throwing them overboard, which is what I and my generation did. Only later, we started analysing what lies in the conventional form that attracts the audience. Our audience is not naïve. What do they find valuable in conventional cinema? Our entertainment's ability to carry different messages is fantastic. To recognise that takes time if you've been fighting it all the while.
Are there interesting new trends in Hindi cinema?
There are some new movements. Abhishek Sharma's Tere Bin Laden was a refreshing way of looking at things. Comedy and farce are being used as viable means of telling a serious story. Films like Peepli Live, with a sharp and pointed view of society, are being made. However, such filmmakers were there before too, raising social, political and economic concerns. Eventually though, 'socially acceptable' views prevailed in Hindi cinema. Whether that situation has changed remains to be seen.
Have you changed as a filmmaker?
I'm now experimenting much more with conventional formats, with the nine rasas of the Indian aesthetic. For years, I looked at my films and felt unhappy. I never felt I managed to do what I set out to. But recently, I've given up thinking like that. You may want to be a perfectionist. But ultimately, your work gets completed by the audience. No film is complete on its own. The audience completes it. A film has a life given to it by the audience. So, I don't worry now. I just do my best.
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