Shyam Benegal: The Pioneer of Parallel Cinema

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based retired government officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.

Rupen Ghosh

Parallel cinema emerged when there was a need for such a cinema. Each movement has a peaking state, then it plateaus and starts to erode.             –  Shyam Benegal


It was the year 1955, and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali had opened to much critical acclaim in India and a little later abroad, literally putting Indian cinema on the world map. With this, Ray came to represent a genre of films later became known as the -‘new cinema’, ‘new wave cinema’, ‘alternative cinema’, ‘realist cinema’ or ‘parallel cinema’. With Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, he later formed the trinity, which represented a strong presence in the parallel cinema or art house cinema movement. While these terms are used interchangeably, there remains a crucial difference with the term ‘parallel cinema’, which emerged in the late 1960s and created a distinct type of cinema with parallel tradition to popular cinema and sought to make the best of both aesthetically made popular cinema and new cinema. Whereas the new or alternate cinema is somewhat antithetical to the concept of popular cinema, the term ‘parallel’ cinema denotes a genre which runs parallel to the mainstream cinema. Thus, the parallel cinema was characterized by a synthesis of serious content, naturalism and depiction of grim realities with certain elements of popular cinema, so typical of commercial films.

shyam_benegalShyam Benegal, the subject of this essay, is widely considered to be a major believer and practitioner of parallel cinema and his debut film Ankur was rightly termed as the ‘middle-of-the-road’ cinema having adapted ‘psychological realism to the conventions of the mainstream Hindi movie.’ It was here that Shyam Benegal’s art and aesthetics were different from the more radical and political commitments of new-wave filmmakers like Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak and Mani Kaul, whom I am tempted to call as ‘avant-garde’ filmmakers, though all of them, Benegal included, believed in pushing the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo in the realm of cinema. Acclaimed by the critics for their aesthetics and sensitively handled subjects, some of Benegal’s films were also commercially successful, which paved the way for more films of such genre. Benegal, thus, became a pioneer of parallel cinema in Hindi films.

To trace the genesis of new wave cinema or parallel cinema, one has to go back to the forties when the film society movement was formed and by the time, it was 1970s, there were no less than 150 film societies all over India. It is through these societies that film aficionados could watch the best of Indian and foreign cinema. In 1952, India saw for the first time International Film Festival of India, which was held in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, and the Italian neo-realistic classics like De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and other films of the genre were shown to much critical acclaim from young filmmakers, who wanted to break free from the formulaic patterns of commercial cinema. It was to the credit of the central government of the day that it helped in creating an enabling framework for quality cinema by setting up the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune in 1961, the National Film Archives of India in 1964 and the Film Finance Corporation in 1960, the latter with the objective of disbursing loans to directors desirous of making films outside the commercial format.

The social realism of the fifties’ Hindi cinema

Till the 1950s, widely rated as the golden era of Hindi movies, the mainstream commercial cinema had not turned Bollywood yet, a haven for ‘mindless entertainment’, and films with socially conscious themes were being made, all within the paradigm of commercial cinema. Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, V Shantaram, Mehboob Khan, each in his own unique way carried forward the idea of socially meaningful cinema and addressed socially relevant issues, within the genre of mainstream commercial cinema. The filmmakers like Bimal Roy were inspired by such iconic masters like Sergie Eisenstein, the Russian genius and maker of such path-breaking films like Battleship Potemkim, by the films of Italian neo-realist masters like De Sica and Fellini, and he attempted to project the grim realities of the socially and economically oppressed in films like Do Bigha Zameen, Sujata, Bandini. The cinema of these masters like Roy, Guru Dutt, V Shantaram could be termed as serious non-parallel cinema viewed by masses and thinking classes alike. Bimal Roy’s films of intense social realism within the commercial format were widely appreciated abroad, so also Raj Kapoor’s cinema with common man as hero. Many of filmmakers, musicians, lyrics writers, screenplay writers working in the mainstream cinema were members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), too, and brought their heightened social awareness and consciousness to their art.

In the Hindi cinema of the 1950s, the city of Bombay was portrayed for a certain idea of India. Sunil Khilnani in his wonderful book ‘The Idea of India’ sums it so lyrically, so eloquently (pages 136-137): “A generation of actors like Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt, and radical scriptwriters like K A Abbas, staged and sang a nationalist vision of India that was recognizably Nehru’s own. In films such as Awaara, Shri 420 and CID, the city was portrayed as at once a place of bewilderment and exploitation, and an enticing and necessary destination brimming with opportunities. The stories are usually told through the eyes and sensibility of a Chaplinesque ‘common man’, a vagabond or tramp happily endowed with an educated lower-middle class sensibility, who struggled against the authority of tradition and the corruption of wealth, picking his way through Bombay’s traps and bewitchments. Such films dramatized in a diffuse but evocative way a democratic, outward-looking and secular nationalist sentiment, and affirmed the city as the most likely place to cultivate this.”

The trend of social realism in movies during the fifties could not be sustained though, but eventually paved the way for parallel cinema later during the ‘70s and could be credited for creating a platform for the alternative cinema to take roots and grow.

Benegal’s evolution as a filmmaker

Shyam Benegal is rated as a trend setter in so far as parallel cinema in India is concerned. It can be said that no director since Satyajit Ray has done more for Indian cinema than Benegal, endearingly addressed as Shyam babu by his friends and admirers. Benegal provides an alternative history of cinema in India, away from willing suspension of disbelief and which the mainstream cinema specialises and he has consistently drawn attention to myriad inequalities and disparities which scar Indian society, polity and economy. These basic, grim and stern realities of life were  conveniently airbrushed by the popular cinema to create an artificial make-belief world.

Benegal’s intellectual development and evolution as a filmmaker were greatly influenced by the humanist-socialist and liberal philosophy and ideology India had adopted. This was the guiding spirit for the nation, included in the newly framed Constitution, and served as a framework for socio-economic development – an all- inclusive and embracive agenda. It was the liberal, socialist values which played a key central role in shaping Benegal’s ideas and vision as a filmmaker and which were mirrored or rooted in Benegal’s concerns as a filmmaker. Buddha, Marx and Gandhi also appealed to Benegal equally, and deeply influenced his worldview.

Benegal, like Ray, was inspired by the European neo-realist movement led by De Sica, Fellini and other filmmakers, and his movies are a powerful social critique to expose myriad inequalities in our society and in the process give voice to the subaltern. Benegal was all for the social change within the democratic structure of the country and his strong faith in the egalitarian principles of the country is reflected in his movies. To Benegal, cinema should be used as a means of social critique within the overall development agenda. His early films reflected and informed the vision of a socialist pattern of society and a commitment to equitable development. Benegal was, however, of the view that political cinema in the form of parallel cinema was a product of its time and grew out of the political unrest and turmoil and growing discontent in the country, with years of planning not yielding the desired results, making people restless. To quote him: “Political cinema will emerge only when there is need for it”. As for the filmmaking as a craft and in his treatment of the subjects, his attention to details and leitmotifs, Benegal was closest to Ray and could be termed as the true inheritor of his legacy.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the parallel or new wave cinema entered into the lexicon of Hindi cinema in a meaningful way, making its presence felt. Benegal was a pioneer, followed by Sathyu of Garam Hawa fame, Saeed Mirza, Mani Kaul (who unfortunately is no more), who emerged to create a new movement. Later on, Govind Nihalani and Muzaffar Ali carried the torch of alternative cinema with a new idiom and vocabulary, a new thematic treatment of socio-economic realities; in short, a more meaningful and socially relevant cinema. But, each director develops style and ethos uniquely personal to oneself, and presents one’s vision and creates reality mirroring the vision. That is the uniqueness and beauty of this medium that we get to see and appreciate the film makers as diverse as Ray, Sen, Ghatak, Benegal, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani (who were influenced by the French New Wave of Godard and Truffaut) Adoor Gopalakrishnan, MS Sathyu, Saeed Mirza, Vijaya Mehta, Aravindan, Aparna Sen, Sai Paranjpaye, Jabbar Patel, Govind Nihalani, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Girish Karnad, Girish Kasaravalli, Ketan Mehta, Goutam Ghose and Rituparno Ghosh and others.

In this paper, considering his vast oeuvre and his choice of subjects for films, I propose to discuss four of his cult films, which encapsulate and embrace Benegal’s liberal, humanistic and egalitarian values – Ankur and Manthan of his rural trilogy, Bhumika and Sardari Begum, the latter two being women oriented films with women as dominant characters. Both Sardari Begum and Bhumika (on the life of the Maharashtrian actress Hansa Wadkar) were about very strong women who were ahead of their times. That is a recurrent phenomenon in his films as also Benegal’s return to rural themes of conflict between the peasant and the landlord and the dialectics of development, of the conflict between modernity and traditionalism.

Ankur – the first of Benegal’s rural trilogy

I do not know if cinema can actually bring about change in society. But cinema can certainly be a vehicle for creating social awareness. –Shyam Benegal

Ankur, released in 1974, became a symbol of the new cinema, that brought a radical thinking in the entire concept of film making. The film was set in the late-1940s in a village in the present day Telengana, and the characters use Dakhani, a regional variant of Hindi-Urdu spoken around Hyderabad. Benegal made use of the peasant revolt in southern India in the forties of the last century to serve as a backdrop. He offered us an insight into the deeply entrenched feudal order, the resilient caste, class and gender inequities which existed in more virulent form in parts of rural India a century ago, and prevails in some form or the other in more backward regions of the country.

Shabana’s nuanced and subtle performance fetched her the national award and much critical acclaim abroad. In a letter to her mother, Saukat Azmi, she writes: “This film looks like a Satyajit Ray film – with a realist aesthetic. For the last outburst scene, I would scream out my lines from a play which I had done in Bombay. In the climactic scene, if an actor uses his or her mind in analysis and preparation, then something extraordinary will happen.” Ray rated her as a promising actress with great histrionic qualities. Aruna Vasudev, a noted film critic, paying glowing tributes, explained that before Ankur, ‘new modes of perception and technique for both filmmakers and audience were still hazy and barely formulated. In the context of its time, Ankur was a major step.’

In the climactic scene, villagers have assembled around the landlord (in a brilliant role by Anant Nag) as he mercilessly beats and thrashes the mute, alcoholic and unemployed Kishtaya (Sadhu Meher), husband of Lakshmi, the poor peasant woman. Lakshmi arrives, shocked and aghast at this injustice and horrendous beating, and starts abusing and cursing the landlord and the family that they would never be happy with the sighs and tears of the poor peasants. In this, she was articulating the unstated collective emotions of the villagers. As she lets out a hysterical shriek, she shatters the old iniquitous, unjust power balance at that moment, bringing to the fore the stark reality of gender, class and caste inequalities. The landlord, Surya, who had used Lakshmi’s vulnerability to carry on an illegitimate liaison with her, in the process making her pregnant, and now fully aware of his guilt, makes a swift and ignominious retreat to the house. Saru, his wife, looks at him with contempt as he cowers terrified behind the bolted door, convinced of his guilt and the fact that this dalliance has brought shame and ignominy on them.

As the film nears its end, Lakshmi helps her injured husband to his feet and trudges back to her hut. At that moment, a little boy who was witness to the beatings of Kishtaya, hurls a stone at the landlord’s window. The glass shatters and the boy runs off the village path. The ending is angry, stark and direct, and subtle too. It represented the vision of Shyam Benegal for an egalitarian and progressive order, freed from feudal oppression and myriad exploitations. However, being a liberal humanist, who is moderate in his outlook and approach to life and politics, Benegal was always subtle, nuanced and understated and never overplayed any emotion and was never melodramatic, much like his mentor Ray.

Manthan – the story of a remarkable cooperative movement

Mhara Gaon Kathiawada
Jahan Dhood ki nadiya vahe
Jahan koyal kuhu kuhu gahe
More ghar anganana bhulo na
My village is Kathaiwad
A river of milk flows there
The cuckoo sings there
Do not forget my home and threshold
 (A folk song in Kathiawad, Saurashtra repeatedly heard in the film)

The film is a brilliant social critique of a government official sincerely attempting to change the socio-economic conditions and perceptions in a Gujarat village. It is the story of cooperative movement in milk production and distribution – the story of Amul. Does the cooperative movement have a future in transforming India, as was thought of in the ’50s and ’60s?

The film Manthan was based on the successful initiatives launched by the late Dr. V kurien, the architect of the ‘white revolution’, as the milk cooperative movement was called. ‘Manthan’ is of a genre which could be termed as less structured and less informal than conventional film making – popularly known as cinema verite – and is rooted in the desire to make real stories about real people. It was the firm belief of Dr. Kurien that women have to be at the forefront of the co-operative dairy movement and the less privileged must be involved in cooperative management and decision-making. This was the basic premise of ‘Manthan.’

Benegal viewed this movie in the context of changing India, and the resultant clash between tradition and modernity when a State claiming to a welfare state carries out social and economic engineering on the lives of poor villagers. It was the story of the cooperative movement in bringing in rapid transformation. On the cooperative movement, Benegal commented: “The success of the milk cooperatives in this country in the Anand pattern in Gujarat has been a milestone. In Anand, the farmers owned the co-ops and therefore the employees of the co-ops were the employees of the farmers. They have in the milk co-op of Gujarat employed technocrats of very high quality as the farmers’ employees, in order to maximise production, but also to market their product. Whether this model would work with other areas of agricultural production, one really does not know. It could work with oil to some extent, but then again oil seeds come against very big monopolistic interests because there are about 20 families that control the entire edible oil of the country.”

On the cooperative movement, one is reminded of Tagore’s views. He had articulated a social vision where exploitation would give way to a just, humane, collectively owned economy. At the core of his thought was the cooperative principle. Tolstoy and Gandhi also held similar views. As Tagore had foreseen it, it is true the cooperative principle enables the most marginalised people to mobilise themselves more effectively. With the world engulfed in a severe financial and economic crisis, the cooperative principle appears more attractive holding out the promise of shared prosperity and well-being. It is a hopeful sign that the cooperative and collective view is slowly gaining ground in dealing with such issues as climate change, abolition of child labour, human rights and the like.

Bhumika – the saga of a yesteryear film actress who lived life on her own

Tumhare Bin Jeena lage ghar mein
Balamji, tumse milake to ankhiyan
Tumhare bin jeena lage ghar mein
Badal gayi mei to ek nazar mein
Balamji, tumse milake to ankhiyan
(A beautiful song which captures the period of ’40s and ’50s, rendered by Preeti Sagar with music composed by Vanraj Bhatia)

Benegal remains a remarkable figure in Indian cinema in the sense that through his films like Bhumika, Sardari Begum and Zubeidaa, he explores the female perspective, with the films revolving around female characters as leading protagonists. Usha in Bhumika, Sardari in Sardari Begum, Zubeidaa in Zubeidaa and even Zeenat in Mandi were strong-willed women who lived life on their own terms and defied society’s rigid norms to carve out a place for themselves, despite facing oppression, alienation and ignominy. One of Smita Patil’s finest performances was in Bhumika (1977), based on yesteryear Marathi film actress, Hansa Wadkar, a brave and rebellious woman; her search for emotional security and happiness takes her through a difficult journey of life. At the end of the day, she has to face life alone; fame and independence coming at the cost of terrible isolation and alienation.

Bhumika was perhaps the first Indian film based on a woman’s perspective, on the life and times of 1930s and 1940s Marathi cinema actress, Hansa Wadkar, and how from a young age, she was thrust into films to support her poor family. She lived life on her own terms, leaving home several times to escape the exploitation at the hands of her family members. Her husband was extremely dominating and suspicious, and jealous too, and proved to be as exploitative as her own family. Her several affairs, partly to spite her husband and partly to live life on her own terms, made her controversial though. Her anger, her hysteria, her trauma, her sorrows and her terrible traumas were captured so poignantly by Smita Patil on celluloid. The centrality of women was always present in Benegal’s narrative in an attempt to reclaim women’s voices in performing arts. The film attempted to explore the psyche of women who were performing artists and how society perceived them with jaundiced and prejudiced eyes. Behind glamour and glitz, there lurked a sordid tale of exploitation and violence. The leading protagonist lived a false life of glamour and romanticism while on screen; off it, it was life of loneliness and sadness. Bhumika had other great stars as Amol Palekar, Sulabha Deshpande, Amrish Puri and Anant Nag.

On Bhumika, Ms. Sangeeta Datta, a film historian, critic, documentary filmmaker and biographer of Benegal articulated his vision: “Benegal’s films burst onto the screen at a time when the first wave of the women’s movement were being felt in India. Bhumika specifically raises fundamental questions about female selfhood and family structures, about autonomy, power structures and conflict. The film literally was a study of women in the film industry of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. It was a study of the performing artists as well as of the folk theatre from which many films originated. It was also a historical journey through dominant film genres and modes of production.”

The film Bhumika was unique in the sense that the leading female protagonist, Usha, the actress in the film, gets her autonomy and independence only when she lives alone, after going through a series of involvement with other men – an actor, a filmmaker and a feudal patriarch. Her liberation comes when she is freed of all such men, when she rejects them and overcomes her insecurities. Her struggles and travails are a metaphor for the rapidly changing India, of changing socio-cultural mores and customs, though they take time in changing. Shyam babu placed the struggle for the autonomy for women in the context of the newly independent nation’s yearning to find its place in the comity of nations. In the late ’70s and ’80s, there was a vigorous debate over the role of women in India, and Bhumika by questioning the socio-cultural role of women in the society, places the film in the context. It questions the accepted moral norms for women and brings up the suppressed voice of women.

Smita Patil achieved iconic status after her award winning peformance in Bhumika. It was a pity that she died young. Given time and with experience, she would have developed her craft further as, Shyam babu himself once said that with instinct one can go only upto a certain point. What we saw of her talent was only the tip of the iceberg. Her outstanding performance in Jababr Patel’s Umbartha remains unsurpassed. Indeed, till today we mourn her untimely death. She would have been one of the greatest actresses ever. Yet, in her limited time, she performed in some of the most memorable roles which are still remembered today.

Sardari Begum – the story of an extraordinarily gifted singer who defied all odds

hazoor itna agar hum par karam kartay to acha tha
Tagaaful aap kartay hain karam kartay to acha tha
 (Javed Akhtar’s ghazal rendered soulfully in the film by Arti Angalikar)

The film ‘Sardari Begum’ is about a middle-aged singer past her prime, a woman spirited, free-wheeled & passionate, who dares to follow her dream of becoming a professional ‘thumri’ singer and is disowned by her family. The film was made in 1996, at a time of declining interest in parallel cinema and when Bollywood was fast turning into celebration of kitsch.

sardari--330x220Writing about the film, which revolves around female characters, so familiar to him in exploring the female perspective, Shyam Benegal explains: ‘It is not as if I want to always present women as victims. There is something very interesting about women, particularly in India, because the social pressure on them are so much more than on men due to the way Indian society is. What I intend to show is the ability of Indian women to handle the situations they have been placed in.’ Dwelling on Sardari’s character, Benegal adds that ‘she is a woman who makes it on her own in life, and the kind of music she sings in now on the decline. It is about the world of the public singer and her relationships in private. She is a different person to different people, and for the film-maker, this subjective attitude is what is interesting to explore in cinematic terms.’

Sardari Begum is a compelling story with tragic overtones of a free-spirited woman, who breaks free from the societal taboo and from the patriarchal norms. Smriti Mishra, who made her debut as a young Sardari, received critical praise for her role as she rebels against her family and the male-dominated ethos of our society. Passionate about music, she defied the societal norms to live life on her own terms and without in any way compromising with the art she pursued all her life. She quite passionately declared once that she would die, if not allowed to pursue her music. Smriti went on to receive the National Award for supporting actress. She had earlier done another scintillating role in an offbeat film ‘Is Raat ki Subah Nahin.’

In Sardari Begum, we find the dying art of ‘thumri’ singing and the society’s bracketing thumri singers, and in fact all public singers, as people of questionable morals. Benegal always has displayed sympathy for the underprivileged, and in his films, his humanistic vision comes alive. Of course, he is always understated and sensitive in depicting situations, and he reminds us of the loss of this precious cultural legacy, of a rich tradition slowly dying, and how the struggles through which Sardari follows her only passion of singing gets intertwined with the larger world of a cultural and historical crisis, of a society still hamstrung by the rigid norms, which are all to the women’s disadvantage. Ever an optimist, Benegal presents some hope for the future of this beleaguered art, that perhaps the legacy would survive, despite all odds and hurdles on its way, when he very poignantly portrays the dying Sardari passing on the baton to her daughter and asking her to sing a baleful thumri ‘Chali Pi Ke Nagar’. It was vintage Benegal all the way.

In the film, the leading protagonist, an indomitable woman, leads an extraordinarily brave life. Only a strong-willed and determined woman could defy all odds in a traditionally male-dominated society. The irony is that her quite remarkable life does not find mention in more than one column in the newspapers on her accidental death, and Sardari relapses into anonymity. The film ends with a hope that the daughter, though inconsolable in her grief, would carry on the precious legacy for which her mother had suffered so much, all her life.

Benegal’s legacy

Benegal’s films offered an alternative vision of cinema and were grounded in social reality of the kind which the popular cinema in the name of entertainment airbrushes to artificially create a rosy image, of what otherwise is a grim struggle for those who are on the margins of the society. His films articulate concerns of the underprivileged and strongly highlight class, gender and caste issues. But at the core of each, lie deeply humanistic narratives that define his ideological leanings and his conviction that cinema could bring change in society and be a vehicle for creating social awareness. One of his notable achievements lie in the domain of discovering some of the finest acting talents in Indian cinema, names which became one with the parallel cinema – Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Anant Nag, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Neena Gupta and a few others.

Benegal had also another remarkable credit in bringing Nehru’s Discovery of India to the masses in a long-running television serial ‘Bharat Ek Khoj’ in the eighties, which presented India’s 3000 years of history and culture, a continuing legacy, to a very large audience, for the first time. But would parallel cinema survive when India of 2016 is barely recognizable from the ‘70s and ‘80’? This is the question which all film connoisseurs would be asking.

The eclipse of parallel cinema

The trend of a political conscious cinema with realist premises was a reflection of the legacy of the socio-political unrest in the late ‘60s and mid-1970s, and gradually the influence waned with the memories and echoes of that unrest slowly receding from the background and becoming a thing of the past. It was the product of its time and with the change in taste, and in a new paradigm, it hardly has any takers. The liberalization of the economy in 1991 and the resultant globalization brought about radical change in lifestyles, mindsets and outlook, which has led to a marked decline in social or political issues and grim socio-economic realities to be reflected through the cinematic medium or literature.

With an unprecedented prosperity for a section of the urban middle class, miniscule as they are, who would like to entertained 24 hours by 7, the space for cinema as a social critique has shrunk and the concerns of the underprivileged are hardly articulated on the celluloid. The governmental support for parallel cinema too has declined and this genre depicting the socio-economic realities is all but dead, with obituaries having been written of what was essentially the result of a political movement. As Shyam babu once said, ‘Parallel cinema emerged when there was a need for such a cinema. Each movement has a peaking state, then it plateaus and starts to erode.’ Benegal, however, feels that some of the better filmmakers of the present draw their sustenance and inspiration from the parallel cinema and besides providing entertainment, they connect to life, and this would not have been possible without the influence of the kind of realism which Benegal and others portrayed. It is these creative and innovative filmmakers, who with their taking up themes with realist premises and with their unique treatment taking into account the current sensibilities of the present era, keep the hopes of meaningful cinema alive.

The first two decades of the new millennium has seen Hindi cinema all but converted for an NRI audience and for multiplexes, technically slicker with better production values matching even those from Hollywood, mounted on a very lavish scale, cinematic techniques of the very best, but detached from the grim realities afflicting the majority of our population and lacking soul. The concerns have become narrow and restrictive with strong overlay of conservative and patriarchal values. Can the alternative cinema be revived to articulate the concerns of life and livelihood of the silent majority? Can the cinema once again become a medium for creating social awareness and bringing change, against myriad social evils and be a vehicle for ushering in a gentler, kinder, and more caring and compassionate society?

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