Shyam Benegal
India
Shyam Benegal
  • Filmmaker (Cinema )
Born Trimulgherry, India, 1934. M.A. in Economics, Nizam College, Osmania University, Hyderabad (1957)
“I have always felt that the Indian countryside was never really represented properly on the Indian screen… But if you really wanted to understand the Indian psyche, you needed to look at rural India.”

Summary

In this interview, Shyam Benegal narrates the impressive arch of his career—beginning with his earliest exposures to film, and the creative influences he had growing up in Hyderabad, India, through to his major successes like Ankur (1974) and Well Done Abba (2009). He begins by describing his early career as a writer and film maker in the Bombay advertising industry, where he spent roughly three and a half years and made over 200 short advertising films. These early experiences helped him land another opportunity with a major advertising distribution company called Blaze, where he met Mohan Bijlani and Freny Variava, who would go on to independently finance some of Benegal’s first films, including Ankur and others.

Benegal discusses in detail the origin of his first projects—how he developed his scripts, his belief in the importance of portraying rural India on film, and how he recruited the right talent. He also talks at length about the question of genre, and how he was both influenced by and contributed to the emergence of parallel cinema in the 1950s. In this vein, he discusses National Film Development Corporation (NFDC)’s role in funding this new, alternate cinema in the 1970s, with a desire “to support cinema as an art form rather than simply a medium of entertainment.”

Unfortunately, parallel cinema struggled with the advent of wide-spread television in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. This development, Benegal explains, had a profound impact not only on cinema (and particularly the struggling genre of parallel cinema), but his own career. For a time, he switched gears and began working on a television adaptation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India with the network Doordarshan. Although he greatly enjoyed the experience, and the series was very successful, Bengal explains that his preference is for cinema. “Because television deals with the present… it doesn’t have that perennial quality,” he says, whereas “cinema endures.”

Indeed, one theme that runs throughout the interview is Benegal’s commitment to cinema as a means of changing or transforming social norms and perceptions. From the very beginning, he was committed to creating an alternate presentation of women in film—deviating from the deeply-ingrained trope of the dutiful daughter, faithful wife, and giving mother. “For me, it’s about equality,” he explains. “The traditional view has to go, because otherwise there will be no equality. There will be no real democracy, either.”

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In this interview, Shyam Benegal narrates the impressive arch of his career—beginning with his earliest exposures to film, and the creative influences he had growing up in Hyderabad, India, through to his major successes like Ankur (1974) and Well Done Abba (2009). He begins by describing his early career as a writer and film maker in the Bombay advertising industry, where he spent roughly three and a half years and made over 200 short advertising films. These early experiences helped him land another opportunity with a major advertising distribution company called Blaze, where he met Mohan Bijlani and Freny Variava, who would go on to independently finance some of Benegal’s first films, including Ankur and others.

Benegal discusses in detail the origin of his first projects—how he developed his scripts, his belief in the importance of portraying rural India on film, and how he recruited the right talent. He also talks at length about the question of genre, and how he was both influenced by and contributed to the emergence of parallel cinema in the 1950s. In this vein, he discusses National Film Development Corporation (NFDC)’s role in funding this new, alternate cinema in the 1970s, with a desire “to support cinema as an art form rather than simply a medium of entertainment.”

Unfortunately, parallel cinema struggled with the advent of wide-spread television in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. This development, Benegal explains, had a profound impact not only on cinema (and particularly the struggling genre of parallel cinema), but his own career. For a time, he switched gears and began working on a television adaptation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India with the network Doordarshan. Although he greatly enjoyed the experience, and the series was very successful, Bengal explains that his preference is for cinema. “Because television deals with the present… it doesn’t have that perennial quality,” he says, whereas “cinema endures.”

Indeed, one theme that runs throughout the interview is Benegal’s commitment to cinema as a means of changing or transforming social norms and perceptions. From the very beginning, he was committed to creating an alternate presentation of women in film—deviating from the deeply-ingrained trope of the dutiful daughter, faithful wife, and giving mother. “For me, it’s about equality,” he explains. “The traditional view has to go, because otherwise there will be no equality. There will be no real democracy, either.”

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Additional Resources

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Interview Citation Format

Interview with Shyam Benetal, interviewed by Rohit Deshpande, Mumbai, India, November 16, 2017, Creating Emerging Markets Oral History Collection, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School.