INTERVIEW: Shyam Benegal Opens His Heart, Mind and Soul to India America Today

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Washington DC – Writer-director extraordinaire Shyam Benegal, one of Indian cinema’s most prolific and influential filmmakers, was in Washington recently to attend the first annual South Asian Film Festival, where three of his movies — Mammo, Suraj Ka Satwa Ghoda and Sardari Begum — were screened.

Benegal sat down for an exclusive interview with Tejinder Singh, Editor of India America Today, to share his life’s defining moments, his hatred for the labeling of his movies as “parallel cinema” and his take on the Americanization and contribution of Indians in the US.

The recipient of both Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, the highest civilian awards of the Indian government, and the Dadasaheb Phalke award for lifetime achievement, the highest award in Indian cinema, Benegal remains candid, humble and grounded, while urging the younger generation to “Bash on Regardless.”

From the early days, what attracted you to the film world and what kept you glued there?

Films – you see, I was inspired largely by the cinema itself. I discovered what cinema was at a very young age, of its ability to create an entirely new world, a world that’s completely of its own. You know you became part of that world. You could be transported into that world from your world. The human ability to do that, that’s what I wanted- that ability to create such a world, which cinema was capable of doing, which is why I became a filmmaker. My own inspiration to become a filmmaker was in fact to create that kind of world, which I think I have chosen to do, which I’ve enjoyed doing, which I’ve spent almost my entire life in continuing to do, because the ability – you know you play god really – and the fact that you can, from time to time be like god and create a world, which you do as filmmaker, that is what I love.

What have been the different defining moments in your life?

Clearly, there have been different kinds. I would think that there were several defining moments in that sense. The very first one was when my cousin Gurudat became a filmmaker. That was a defining moment for me because I said, “If he can do it, I can do it too.” He was a young man, about 24 or 25 when he made his first film, and was hugely successful. I said, “Why can I not do it.” That was the first defining moment. Then, the second one was when I saw Satyiditrel Pachat Pat Chali in 1956. He made it in ‘55. When I saw it, it was like I’d seen- it opened my eyes to the possibilities that lay if you were to make your own way into films – not copy anybody or follow anybody. You can do completely original work of your own. That was the most important defining moment for me. After that it’s not been so important, but these two were crucial, as far as the creation of the kind of person I became as a filmmaker later.

Cinema goers for years loved Shyam Benegal as the flag-bearer of Indian parallel cinema and champion of social causes, but that seems to be changing. What and where the change occurred?

The term parallel cinema was complete hogwash, really. I don’t go by that definition of us. You make an alternate kind of film if you feel that that is the way you express yourself better. Ultimately, the work of a film, apart from it being the effort of a team, but there also is an individual vision. That individual vision that you offer, that you have, that you wish to recreate, or create, that vision is yours, that’s individual, and it depends on whether you wish to do that, or you wish to create something that’s already been done before. In other words, you do an assembly line job. You can make any number of action movies, for instance. You know, action movies, you say, “this kind of excitement, that kind of excitement; this kind of stunt, that kind of stunt.” All those things, there can be a certain kind of creativity in that, but the fact is that the narratives themselves do not offer anything new. Therefore, I did not wish to be a part of that. I wanted to create an alternate scheme. That’s not a parallel scheme. That’s why the term parallel was so wrong. It’s an alternate scheme, but that term alternate did not automatically mean that you were not part of everything.

The convergence is largely because of the acceptance of each other’s styles of filmmaking. In other words, you take what you think is good from one or the other style and create your own films. This is what’s happening to the younger generation of filmmakers. They’re not sitting there and behaving, you know, “I want to be part of this upper caste and I don’t want to be part of this lower caste.” That kind of nonsense is now over. If you see value in something, you now use it. In some ways it’s a postmodern development. It’s a postmodern development in cinema, which is a very good development, as far as I’m concerned.

After making serious and thought-provoking films all your life, you ventured into comedy. Why so?

There was always a comic element, there was always a human comedy, in everything I did. I could see human situations, but I didn’t extend it to create what one might call a comedy. I’ve started to create comedy films much later. In recent years, because if the subjects I deal with are associated, and I were only to do it seriously, and create the whole films in a very grim sort of way, because the subjects are so grim, then you may drive away an audience rather than attract it. I need to attract an audience so I could have access to them – access to their minds – make myself accessible to them. To become accessible to them I was using different kinds of strategies and one of the strategies was comedy, which I have used, I believe, quite successfully in two films. I intend to do that more now.

Do you have proposals in the cans for your fans and followers in the future?

Several – you know I’ve got a couple of projects, different kinds of projects I’m doing. One is a feature film, again, which will probably be a comedy too. But there is also a television series which I’m working on, which is on the story of the Indian Constitution – you know, our country’s constitution.

Do you think the Indian government should do more to bring India to the US? Where do you see the relationship heading and what more can Indians offer to the US?

People-to-people contact is made, whether the governments make that contact or not. I wouldn’t worry too much about that, because I find there’s so much people-to-people contact between the United States and India, and it’s been going on for many years. You have such a large number of South Asians living in the United States anyways, and year after year you have a very large component of students coming from that part of the world. Now you have the reverse also happening. So I wouldn’t worry too much, because I automatically assume, because there are certain features in common, when in fact culturally we are totally different.

The United States, with the power of its media, is hugely successful in extending its cultural views to a very large number of countries in the world. In fact, many of the things all over the world today have. For instance, take the blue jeans. It’s a very American thing, but everybody wears blue jeans now, whichever part of the world you might belong to. There are so many such things. You already have the KFCs and the McDonalds, which are ubiquitous in many ways. There is a lot of this kind of thing happening and a lot of the American cultural attributes that have been taken over by us in India, but I think we need to give some of our own to the United States. I do think, apart from the fact that there are certain kinds of exotica which have gone from us to them, such as yoga, but more than yoga and things like that, I think there are areas in medicine, various health things that we are offering to the United States. I also feel there are certain knowledge systems – we have a wealth in terms of our knowledge systems, traditional knowledge systems. There is a lot of that that can move to the west as well. In fact, I feel even if we don’t give it to them, they’ll take it from us anyways.

So what is your impression of the Americanization of people of Indian origin?

I personally feel that the people from the Indian diaspora – now of course you can call them Indian Americans – they have to be. What else can they be? They’re Americans now, they’re bound to be Americans, and I don’t expect them to be anything else, but when people come from older cultures, like you have that among a lot of the Americans from European origin, they do have some of the cultural attributes from their home country from which they came with them. Whether you mention Poles and Polish people, and East Europeans of various kinds, and Latin people, they bring a lot of their own cultural attributes to this country, everything to this culture, really. Similarly, I think the Indians, or South Asians, or Pakistanis, or Nepalis, or Bangladeshis, they bring some of that to this culture as well. If they don’t, then I would blame them, because there is a lot they can bring and add to the richness. India is rich because of its huge diversity. America is now becoming more multicultural in that sense and these things add to its richness and diversity. All this is happening. It’s a process- it’s a part of how things are going to be in the future.

What is your message to young people who look up to you for guidance?

I had one message, which I tell myself also, which is, “When you feel down and out, you must always carry on.” There is a very well known motto that a particular infantry regiment in India has, which is, “Bash on Regardless.” So my advice to young people is, “Bash on Regardless.”

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