At 86, the ace film-maker, who is regarded as one of the pioneers of Hindi language Indian new wave cinema, is one of the busiest men in the industry

When I reach Shyam Benegal’s Tardeo office, after a brief wait, I am told that he is in a long meeting, and can’t make it for the interview. His team is scheduled to leave for Bangladesh in two days for a recce for the November schedule of his upcoming film. The interview is rescheduled.

The next day, I have a reduced time slot, which is then punctuated by elaborate phone calls. At 86, Shyam Benegal is probably one of the busiest men in the Hindi film industry. He is working on an ambitious biopic of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh. Titled Bangabandhu, it is written by Atul Tiwari and Shama Zaidi, and sees the path-breaking director helming a feature-length movie after a gap of a decade. His last feature was the National Award winning 2010 film, Well Done Abba.

“You are right, I was on semi-retirement,” chortles the octogenarian, as we settle my phone and my recording device on his desk for the interview. Those are the only two gadgets in the room apart from his mobile phone, although he still uses his landline more often, and is yet to warm up to WhatsApp texts. There is no computer or laptop; his tiny office room is stacked with books instead. This is the third time I am interviewing him in the span of less than two years, and the world has gone through almost a tectonic shift of sorts. But Shyambabu, as he is fondly called, remains a staunch believer of the old normal. His life is clockwork. Unless he is shooting, between 10 am and 6 pm, he can be found ensconced in this cosy well-lit chamber reading up on new material, researching, and meeting journalists — he still prefers to do his interviews in person.

“The idea of the film was part of a friendship treaty signed between India and Bangladesh. It is a joint production between the two countries. The subject was so interesting that I had to take it up,” says the Dadasaheb Phalke awardee.

Ask him about the research that went behind the biopic of the man who was the driving force behind the independence of Bangladesh, its first president and later assumed office as the prime minister of the country, and he points towards a stash of filed papers and books rising waist-high from one corner of the floor. “That’s the research,” he chuckles. “A lot was written by Mujib, and then there’s a treasure of literature written on him, both in English and Bengali.” Such elaborate research should come easy to him; Benegal had started his career with documentary films, and has made over 70 odd ones till now.

But this wasn’t an easy project. “He is not some historical figure who existed centuries ago and you can take artistic liberties while portraying him. People who knew him are still alive, not to mention that his daughter is now the prime minister of the country. Also, the assassination of him and his entire family barring his two daughters who weren’t in Bangladesh at that time, was a tragedy of Shakespearean dimension; it isn’t an easy story to tell,” says Benegal. The Awami League founder, along with many of his family members, was killed on August 15, 1975 during a military coup. Benegal, who has already shot a major chunk of the movie between January and March this year at an elaborate set built inside Goregaon Film City, all amid a raging pandemic, will be soon leaving for Bangladesh to shoot the remaining portions.

According to Benegal, the man known for his on point castings, having introduced the likes of Naseeruddin Shah (Nishant), Shabana Azmi (Ankur), Smita Patil (Charandas Chor), Ananth Nag (Ankur), Supriya Pathak (Kalyug), Deepti Naval (Junoon), and Urmila Matondkar (Kalyug), finding a man who can play Mujib was the most challenging part. Although, he admits that often, it is more appropriate to cast an unknown face in such a role. “It is easier to mould the mannerisms if you get a completely new actor. But you can also do so with a popular face, if the person is a good actor. In this case, Arifin Shuvoo, the actor who plays Mujib, is a very well-known name in Bangladesh, but he is a fine actor and also looks the part,” says Benegal.

The director, who has worked with A-list stars like Rekha (Kalyug), Shashi Kapoor (Kalyug), Karisma Kapoor (Zubeidaa), has nothing against mainstream actors, “Karisma did a wonderful job as Zubeidaa; she is a very capable actor. The star tag hardly matters to me, what does is that they are all capable actors. You can’t really be a star if you are not an equally good actor,” he says adding that although he has always selected an actor based on how well s/he fits the role, a benefit of casting a star is that they come with a fan following, which often helps the commercial prospect of a movie. “But you see, when an actor becomes a star, that star has an image. If you are making a movie with a star, which is not in the image of that star — image that the audience adores — you are taking a chance. To break that image and create a new one to fit the world your movie is set in can be challenging,” he explains.

It is interesting to note that almost all the actors who made their debuts in his films went on to develop huge fan followings of their own, and Benegal’s films in the ’70s and early ’80s, often releasing simultaneously with big-budget commercial movies, not only held on their own but seldom registered a loss at the box office. In fact, his quartet — Ankur (released in the same year as Roti Kapada Aur Makaan), Nishant (released in the same year as Sholay and Deewar), Manthan (released in the same year as Nagin) and Bhumika (released in the same year as Amar Akbar Anthony) — not only picked up a National Award each, but also made money at the box office, cementing the way for the Hindi-language films of the Indian new wave cinema.

He is the cousin of legendary film-maker Guru Dutt, but his guru in cinema was Satyajit Ray — the auteur who also hailed from an advertising background like him, and was always categorical that cinema is a commercial proposition. “It is not just about making good cinema; movies have to be commercially viable. You develop a certain kind of following, and that ensures the kind of money you can raise for your movies. But one has to keep the budget of the movie in mind. If that is too high then it might not be able to recover its cost,” points out the director, adding, however, that sometimes the subject itself requires that kind of money. In fact, he has put two of his ambitious projects on the backburner. Chamki Chameli, a Bollywood-style adaptation of Carmen, was supposed to be Benegal’s first attempt at an out-and-out musical. Then there was another biopic, on Noor Inayat Khan, the secret service in World War II essayed by Radhika Apte in the 2020 film A Call to Spy. “Both were expensive projects, and required huge amounts of money,” he says.

As of now, he has no plans to dabble into OTT content, but he is mighty impressed by the Harshad Mehta biopic. With cinema becoming more and more content driven instead of driven by the stars, does he finally see the fruition of the movement he had started in the late ’70s? And why did that movement fizzle out? “Nothing fizzles out. When people see money in it, it gets coopted. It is ultimately a business,” he states.

According to him, cinema today is at best in a state of flux. “One has to wait for the cinemas to open up and the movies to be revived. Long-format content is in because today, it is more difficult to recover money from individual films. Also, the audience’s sensibilities have changed. Now they don’t expect formulaic cinema. We are now at a stage where we need new terminologies, a new vocabulary for cinema,” he signs off, as the clock and a phone call announce his lunch time.