Thursday, April 12, 2012

First encounters with Shyam Benegal

Posted By on 04.12.12 at 01:38 PM

From Shyam Benegals Goa-set Trikal (1985)
  • From Shyam Benegal's Goa-set Trikal (1985)
Last Friday I had the good fortune of hearing noted Indian filmmaker Shyam Benegal lecture at Northwestern’s conference on Satyajit Ray and Rabindranath Tagore. One of the key insights of his talk was that there are no real villains in Ray’s films—an illuminating argument that helped explain why I find his work uplifting even when it depicts poverty or social degradation. I hadn’t seen any of Benegal’s films before the conference; so when I had the chance to pose a question during his Q&A I took the easy way out and asked how Ray had influenced him. “He inspired me to make films my own way,” Benegal said, “and this meant not imitating Ray.” Fair enough.

Having caught up with three of Benegal’s films in the past week—Ankur (1974), Kalyug (1981), and Trikal (1985), all of them available at Facets—I can see why he’d strike such an independent position. I haven’t seen anything like them in my limited exposure to Indian movies (which includes a disproportionate number of Ray’s): they’re incisive, critical, and surprisingly sexual in their outlook. I look forward to seeing more of them.

Some context might be useful for Benegal’s comment about Ray. Starting in the 1970s, Benegal became a leading figure of Parallel Cinema, a movement that sought a filmmaking style distinct from both Bollywood and Western models (the films still betray the influence of both, particularly the neorealist films of Roberto Rossellini). The movement would be inconceivable without Satyajit Ray’s international success in the 50s; but by the time Benegal made Ankur, his first fiction feature, parallel filmmaking was thriving all over the world. To list a few major practitioners, there was Ousmane Sembene in Senegal, Lester James Peries in Sri Lanka, Lino Brocka in the Philippines, Ali Khamraev in Uzbekistan, and Yilmaz Güney in Turkey. That the last two of these directors only recently enjoyed their first Chicago retrospectives suggests that U.S. audiences (myself included) are still catching up to this exciting chapter of film history.

What unites these disparate filmmakers is a commitment to capturing native traditions, geography, and political attitudes—a proud sense of location that led to radically different kinds of films. Benegal made movies all over India, and based on the three I’ve seen, he seems to have altered his approach depending on where he set his story. Ankur takes place in the countryside of Benegal’s home state Andhra Pradesh (on the southeastern coast); Kalyug in Bombay; and Trikal in Goa, a southwestern state that had been under Portuguese rule for centuries.

This pan-Indian perspective differs from that of Ray, who set almost all of his work in Bengal and whose perspective could be deemed universalist (which would explain why he remains the best-known Indian director in the U.S.). As most of the Indian films I’ve seen have come from Bengal or Maharashtra (i.e., Bollywood’s state), Benegal’s southern-set stories have been eye-opening. Trikal in particular provided insight into the legacy of Portuguese colonialism in India, something I hadn’t considered before, in both social mores and the lay of the land. The architecture of Goa, which shows the entwined influence of Portuguese and Indian design, made me feel like I was seeing a landscape from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities brought to life.

From Ankur (1974)
  • From Ankur (1974)
The three Benegal films I’ve seen could be described as ethnographic fictions in the sense that Jean-Luc Godard’s are. No matter where they take place, they’re concerned with how milieu, class, and political events determine everyday behavior. This perspective is already fully formed in Ankur, which hinges on a spoiled young landlord’s affair with a beautiful peasant woman. The landlord, Surya, is a mass of irreconcilable attitudes: he proclaims the caste system passe, yet he clearly enjoys the privileges of his caste (there’s a lovely, ironic scene where he muses on politics while a peasant gives him a shave). He believes his affair with the peasant Lakshmi (movie star Shabana Azmi, in her first screen role) to be a radical act, when in fact it only augments their class differences. It’s a pessimistic story, yet Benegal counters the foregone conclusion through his depictions of the affair itself (the film is open about sexuality in a way I’d never encountered in Indian cinema before) and of the verdant countryside, which creates a veritable climate of passion.

Kalyug and Trikal also feature love affairs that threaten to upset the established social order, which makes me suspect that destructive passion is a major theme in his work (I could be wrong, however; Benegal’s directed roughly two dozen fiction features and almost twice as many documentaries). Surely the tension between individual liberty and cultural tradition is important to Benegal, who recently concluded a six-year term in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India’s parliament. That Benegal is now a central part of Indian culture after holding a “parallel” position for decades suggests a fascinating career, one that deserves another Chicago retrospective.

Shyam Benegal in 2010
  • Shyam Benegal in 2010

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