Shyam Benegal: The Master

shyam benegal

Shyam Benegal ranks amongst the most defining architects of the art movement in Hindi cinema. Few directors transcended such layers in manifesting feudal or social oppression or displayed mastery at such a scale in exploring characters. Even when projecting social reality his plots were ever buoyant. Social reality was concurrent theme in movies of Benegal,who was a creature of the mass uprisings of the people. Khalid Mohammad produced documentary ‘The Master: Shyam Benegal,’intended to pay a tribute to Benegal’s greatness. We should complement Benegal for enabling Hindi cinema from extricating itself from the trappings of mere commercialism.

In the late 1940s Shyam Benegal as a college student in Hyderabad, was a close observer of the Telangana peasant uprising against the oppressive feudal lords. Many of his friends who supported the movement languished in jail, an event that shaped ideological structure of Benegal’s Ankur (1974), Nishant (1975) and Manthan (1976), which comprised a trilogy in the sense that they deal with transition taking place from the feudal systems that prevailed and continue to do so.

At a time when Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Manmohan Desai were illuminating the silver screen with romances and comedies, Benegal instilled brand of social realism into cinema, illustrating the caste and class defects that were beginning to sprout in the very roots of Indian society.

His filmmaking drew inspirations from Satyajit Ray and Vittorio de Sica, but the creations were entirely his own making.”

No director better utilised theme of sex to illustrate expression of power.

Benegal’s films, till his very last so far, Well Done Abba (2010), probe into how power structures generate the abuse of those marginalised on basis of their class, caste, religion and gender.


Benegal’s debut film Ankur, manifests the entanglement of caste, class and gender in both rural and urban settings in a simple but yet illustrative manner. The film reflects the peasants’ movement, initially led by the CPI (M) (Communist Party of India [Marxist]), which adopted a national shape following the failure of the 1971-72 harvests. Shyam had written the script in his college years, basing it loosely on a true story.

Benegal himself has commented that political films are constructed in the manner cometh the hour,cometh the man… The Indian Constitution set up in 1950 was a social contract formally, but did not abruptly terminate the prevalent feudal order. In the early 1970s, the audience of new cinema was well aware of the post-independence peasant struggles pitted against feudalism, especially the rise of the Naxalite movement, a peasant uprising which turned to armed insurrection in the Naxalbari district of Bengal and spread to Andhra Pradesh.

Ankur is one of the most illustrative projections of the penetration of feudal culture or subjugation of women to men and the manner they govern people’s lives. It is a manifestation of the subversions to the power equations. The positivity of the film lies in the deep insight into the characters and motivations brilliantly and most symmetrically weaved together in a plot,  contradictory sensations that determine their course of action, Dissection of scenes most surgically executed, an  social reality touched at the very root. Ankur’s climax was interpreted as a powerful expression of the elevation of consciousness of the oppressed peasants.

Surya, played by Anant Nag, is compelled to give up on higher studies to look after his father’s property. He has to shift to the village in order to take care of the farms and crops. Before shifting, he gets married but does not take his wife along with him. In the village, he falls in love with the domestic worker; Lakshmi played by Shabana Azmi and promises to take care of her forever, after her husband apparently abandons her.

Finally, Surya’s wife Saru played by the late social activist Priya Tendulkar returns to be with him in the village. Meanwhile, Lakshmi gets pregnant. Surya pleads her to abort the child because he cannot take the responsibility. She refuses to oblige him. Lakshmi’s husband Kishtayya played by Sadhu Meher, returns back to her during the ending of the movie and hands her the money that he earned, while he was away. He also thinks that the baby is his and Lakshmi’s. However, the story does not end here, but has more than the eye can see.

The villagers of the potter caste celebrate a separate festival, segregating on the basis of caste just as at the end of the film when Kishtayya takes Lakshmi to their own village god’s temple, to pray for blessing them with a child. Industrialization let capitalism crystallise had only led to exploitation of the working classes as illustrated  by the fact that Kishtayya, Lakshmi’s deaf and mute husband has lost his job because the villagers now buy only aluminium vessels and not the ones made of mud or clay.

Manthan (1976)

Manthan revolves around a young veterinary doctor, who inspired poor villagers being exploited to take control of the dairy products they were selling, which leads to a huge national movement.

If you were an idealistic youth when you first watched “Manthan”, the film would have made an instant impact : the very first shot of the doctor, no, a vet, alighting from a train in rural India, then refusing to board an overloaded horse carriage is hard to forget. The unpaved roads, the huts with thatched roofs and actual farmers in the background do absolute justice to realism. Brilliant integration of idealism with realism.

In the manner of a sculptor Benegal has carved out a set of characters welded in a plot.Smita Patil as Bindu, leaves you baffled  with a tongue-lashing she gives to Girish Karnad’s Dr. Manohar Rao who has come to collect a milk sample for the cooperative dairy project. The manner Naseer  tends to the buffaloes, the way he uses his arms to communicate, his  speech modulation, the fear, the raging anger against city dwellers….,literally pulls of the film. Mohan Agashe as the doctor’s friend, with his shrugging shoulders, and his gestures accurately illustrates an urban man in a small village. Amrish Puri, the village strongman who controls the milk business, with piercing eyes, his drawls, his stern face portrays a fine depiction of a vile man untouched by the pooja he performs every day.

Operation Flood which replaced the era of measly milk production and curtailed distribution with one of plenty through the bargaining power of the collectives is shown through Dr Rao who comes to a Gujarat village to set up a dairy cooperative, which dismantles  all existing socio-economic relations.. At one level, the economy is lifted out of stagnation,  at another, the caste system is rebuked, at another, feudal traditions are eradicated.

Heart touching to witness the evolution in thought process of the Harijans to integrate with the cooperatives.who at first give a blind eye. Most vivid portrayal of the psyche of Indian villagers and Oppressive machinations of the village hierarchy and evolution of masses.Plot weaved in a most artistic form, portraying flux in relationships of persons, giving realism true justice and manifesting progress. Above all 5 lack Guajarati farmers wee the architects of the movie.


In 1977, Benegal made Bhumika, a biopic of Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar, Benegal contrasts the fantasy of the film world with the harsh reality of life. The film, based on the life of an actress who wishes to chalk out her independent path  but is still exploited by various men at different junctures of her life, presented a depressing portrayal of the dominance  of male abuse inspite of  the financial independence and public success of a woman. For the role, Benegal pursued Azmi who, while convinced by the story, refused the role, saying she wouldn’t be able to get into the thick of the skin of the character. .

Usha(Smita Patil) is exploited from a young age. First by Keshav Dalvi (Amol Palekar), who wants to capitalise on her talent by managing her career. When she senses his game, she finds the shoulder of the reigning star Rajan (Anant Nag) but Rajan doesn’t have the courage that he reflects on screen. In comes a philosopher director (Naseeruddin Shah), who charms Usha with his bombastic theories on love and life before chickening out of a suicide pact. Tired of arch lights and eager to lead a life of an everyday wife and mother, she finds recourse in Vinayak Kale (Amrish Puri), a wealthy businessman, but in his palatial bungalow she is bereft of even elementary freedom. Every time Usha tries to break free, the patriarchal society tries to chain her either by forcing her to take vows in front of the goddess or by trying to make her regret her choices.

The film even in emotional scenes refrains from being melodramatic and make an audience carried away. A most telling portrayal of male domination in society, aspirations of women, and how they succumb even to lure.

Nishant (1975)

Nishant, a scathing critique of feudalism, was banned by the censor board for being ‘too anti-establishment.It is based in the times before our lawmakers famously coined the expression “India, that is, Bharat.

Narrating the story of a wicked feudal lord (Amrish Puri) , Even as the master tries in vain to unite the villagers against the abduction of his wife, the woman herself finds gratification  from the wife of the man who had outraged her. In contrast to the caste and economic inequalities that he tackled in “Ankur” and “Manthan”, here Benegal deals with a social order devoid of justice. Policemen are wimps, a school teacher lives with impotent rage and common villagers, all dark skinned and poor, look on like helpless spectators.

Vishwam is the youngest brother of the powerful and influential village jagirdar who will not undertake any action for the welfare and protection of his family, which also includes twisting the law to his own advantage. The shy and quiet Vishwam is married to Rukmani and, but his brothers Anjaiya and Prasad, make it a practice to demand the services of any village women they fancy.

The village gets a new schoolmaster, who arrives in the village with a wife, Sushila, and a son. When Vishwam sees Sushila for the first time, he is unable to take his eyes off her, and unable to get her out of his mind. Sushila does not reciprocate his attentions. One night, while the schoolmaster is enjoying a quiet dinner with his family, someone knocks on the door and, when Shushila goes to answer the door, the two older brothers of Vishwam grab her and take her away forcibly. Several people are present, but no one dares to raise a hand or voice to stop this abduction. At the jagirdar’s house Sushila is raped regularly and repeatedly at the will of the jagirdar and his brothers. The distraught schoolteacher, who is denied justice by everyone from the local police officer to the district collector, is helped by the old priest of the village temple. They succeed in mobilizing the villagers who slaughter their oppressors. In the end the frenzied villagers also kill the innocent Rukmani as well as Sushila whom her husband was trying to rescue.

The film transcends the deepest zones in illustrating the inherent trappings of feudalism within the machinery of an oppressive social order which strip people of their dignity and most poignantly projects harsh realities of an unjust society, which pervade even today.

The most poignant moments in the film are when mistress and wife are in the same frame. Even as Susheela develops clout, she cannot forget Rukmini’s kindness. They are both victims of shared circumstances and slated for the same destiny, discovering themselves in a subconscious, indefinable bond..


Mandi (1983) remains an epitome of craftsmanship.. It nullifies prejudices against sex workers and normalises the idea of sex work as any other work without portraying the women either as victims of exploitation, or as ‘prostitutes with hearts of gold,’ an oft-exploited Bollywood trope. Instead, Mandi projects them as characters with agency that arbitrarily choose and enjoy the work they do while labelling self-serving NGO workers and politicians, the self-appointed arbiters of morality.


The film has to be interpreted within the background of the Babri Masjid demolition, the Bombay blasts and the subsequent communal riots that broke out.

Set in background amidst days after Partition, Mammo narrates the story of a young Muslim boy who lives with his maternal grandmother. One day, they’re visited by the boy’s paternal grandmother, who gets entangled into a deeply emotional bond with him. Among other things, Mammo depicted a Muslim family without portraying them as either victims or villains but just as ordinary citizens dealing with life post-partition. Interestingly, it was financed by the State-run NFDC.

Benegal makes a conscious decision of disclosing his characters’ religious identity, showing them offering namaz, reading the Quran at home and enjoying festivities. These aren’t scenes that precede a raid or an arrest as has unfortunately become commonplace in newer narratives.

Benegal admits that making Mammo had an important political motive during a time when anti-muslim fervour was elevated to its crescendo. One of the most realistic and grounded projections of the alienation and victimisation of Muslims.

“There was deep mistrust against the community. There was an anti-Pakistan feeling which was very easy to turn into anti-Muslim feeling…”While Benegal went on to make yet another trilogy (Mammo, Sardari Begum and Zubeidaa) that looked at Muslim families with all their complexities and nuances, his last feature that released in cinemas was the Boman Irani-Minissha Lamba starrer Well Done Abba, a smart political satire told from the perspective of a Muslim driver who asks his employer for leave so he can find a groom for his daughter. Since then, he hasn’t worked too much. Yatra, set entirely in a train, projecting the secular fabric of India just before it began to tear apart at the onset of the 90s. In a scene in Yatra, a Muslim intellectual condemns the influx of religion within the social order in a conversation with a co-passenger, which threw light on to what lay in store for India.

Other Films

In 2014, the director made a 10-part show for Rajya Sabha TV called Samvidhaan: The Making of the Constitution of India, which was narrated by Swara Bhaskar and written by Benegal’s frequent collaborator, Shama Zaidi. In the 80s, Benegal also made Bharat Ek Khoj, an adaptation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India, and the ambitious 15-part DD series, Other poignant films of Bengal were ‘Junoon’ , an ambitious drama set around the Indian rebellion of 1857.; ‘Kalyug’, The complex contemporary version of the Mahabharata narrated the story of feuding families in a crafty way ; ‘Making of Mahatma Gandhi.,‘Arahan’ which dwells on a poor farmer fighting for his rights and  ‘Samar’ which reflects casteist influence on life with a lower caste setting foot into a temple.

The erasure of the worker

As is true for everyone else, except perhaps the government itself, Benegal’s present concerns gravitate around the migrant crisis that is escalating on an unprecedented scale. on a scale never seen before.

“It’s a human tragedy that’s an indictment of the system. You see, these are agriculture workers who come to the city and make it their homes but they don’t get any benefits, provident funds or any sense of security. They have been disposed to cut losses and it’s just cruel. It’s a stunning human tragedy.”

Attributing it to the failure of the State, Benegal points out that unlike the West, there aren’t alternative provisions for migrant labourers such as employment insurance and health insurance. This, he says, is a time to re-visualise the manner the wealthy deal with their workers.

In Benegal’s view over the years, the migrant worker has vanquished from Hindi cinema too, a conscious invisibilization that adds to the gap between the middle-class and the working-class, whose stories aren’t illustrated on our screens but are reduced to mere statistics in news reports There is hardly any angry young man, displaced labourer, exploited factory worker in our cinema. Indian storytellers fixate on ideas that satisfy middle-class or upper-class desires instead of causing them discomfort.

Benegal did not appear dejected when presented with the idea that the stories of the working class, which were a repeated element his films, have evaporated from our screens.

“It’s all over our screens on social media, which has become such a potent mirror to society. Having said that, I do think films should pluck people out from their private worlds and establish a missing consciousness. It’s very important that people become aware of their own conditions and exploitations instead of blindly following what political parties are telling them.”

Arguably a loophole is Benegal’s film was not portraying collective rebellion of peasantry against landlordism, working class against capitalism or women against feudal bondage. Over projection of the role of the individual was a routine feature. In era of globalisation he did not project the resistance of the masses .Significant that although deeply influenced by Marxism he made no film projecting the naxalite rebellion or vents like the Dalit Panther movement. Railway Workers or Mill Workers strike etc.

Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist who has researched on Hindi Cinema

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