20 March 2010

Shyam Benegal - Indian 'Parallel' Cinema

Shyam Benegal - Indian Cinema's last remaining parallel film maker?

Shyam Benegal and Parallel Cinema or Middle Cinema will be the focus of my next chapter. I have finished reading what are two definitive introduction’s to his work. The first is a BFI World Directors book, published in 2002 and written by Sangeeta Datta. It is one of the few academic studies of Benegal and covers his entire career whilst also providing a useful chapter on parallel cinema. The second book ‘Bollywood Babylon’ are a collection of interviews with Benegal that were conducted over five years. Both are equally valid introduction’s and come highly recommended for anyone interested in exploring further Benegal as an auteur and key figure in the development of Indian parallel cinema.

However, Benegal is very dismissive of the term middle cinema, ‘You don’t sit there and say I’m going to make an art movie with commercial ingredients in it’. (William van der Heide, 2006: 46) Benegal’s criticism of the term may hold some relevance as it seems more useful to academics, allowing them to trace an alternate route through the cinema of the 70s and 80s but Benegal’s words seem to contradict the political reasoning of Mrinal Sen and Arun Kaul who in 68 issued a manifesto for new Indian cinema which would require the wider support of the state. At the time, Benegal was still working at an advertising agency and yet to make his debut feature, Ankur (The Seedling), which he would finally direct in 1973. So, one could argue that the foundations and groundwork for middle cinema had already been established by the likes of Mrinal Sen, thus enabling Benegal to come to prominence with the success of his first feature.

Yet many of the so called parallel cinema directors have either stopped working or struggled to secure financing but Benegal’s unique position (similar to that of Satyajit Ray) has meant he has been able to continually find either state sponsored or private financing for his films whilst maintaining a degree of authorial control over his material. Some have argued that he is Indian cinema’s most important and influential director after Satyajit Ray. This claim certainly seems to hold a great deal of validity if one takes a closer look at his prolific body of work and also the number of actors he helped to introduce to the film industry. This repertoire included Shabana Azmi, Om Puri, Smita Patel, Anant Nag, Amrish Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and many others as well as cinematographers, music composers and writers.

The multi talented cast of Benegal's second feature Nishant (Night's End, 1975)

His rural trilogy that launched his career continues to be regarded as his most significant achievement. However, his later work in the nineties especially when he finally started to receive state financing saw him experiment with narrative subjectivity in Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (Seventh Horse of the Sun, 1992), a film that Sangetta Datta argues is Benegal’s masterpiece. Much of Benegal’s work is not readily available on DVD or even VHS, though YouTube has some useful links, making it yet again problematic to provide a critical appraisal that takes into consideration a body of work rather than intermittent films. I have struggled to even get hold of the films he has directed in the last ten years including the biopic on Chandra Bose. What follows are some ways into the work of Shyam Benegal including video resources. I will try and post some entries on the films I have been able to watch. On a final note, if we were to try and find a parallel figure to that of Benegal in American cinema that it would most likely have to be the great Robert Altman.

1. A detailed and lengthy interview with Shyam Benegal on the influence of Satyajit Ray on his work

2. An excellent and informative interview with Benegal conducted at the National Film Theatre (BFI), 2002 by Girish Karnad.

3. India's Art House Cinema by Lalit Mohan Joshi (BFI guide to Contemporary South Asian Cinema) - one of the best introductions to Indian art cinema

4. The Official Shyam Benegal Website - some useful resources here but pretty basic

5. Bhumika (The Role, 1977)
- Uploaded in 15 Parts including subtitles

6. Zubeidaa (2000) - Uploaded in 17 Parts (no subtitles but this is one of the few Benegal films that is readily available on DVD including English subs)

7. Mammo (1994, NFDC) -In the 90s Benegal started to explore the identity of Muslim women in India. Available to watch for free through Jaman and includes subtitles.


8. The Making of the Mahatma (1996, NFDC) - The film focuses on Gandhi's years in South Africa fighting for equal treatment of non-whites under British rule. Available to watch for free through Jaman and includes subtitles.

The Making of the Mahatma

9. Nishant (Night's End, 1975) - Uploaded in 15 parts including English subtitles.

10. Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (Seventh Horse of the Sun, 1992) - Benegal's masterpiece. Uploaded in 17 parts including English subtitles.

11.Well Done Abba (Well Done Dad, 2010) - This is the trailer to Benegal's latest film which is due out this year. (that's if it gets a UK release?!)


  1. Hi Omar,

    I just came across your informative blog on films. I am preparing for an MA program in mass comm and I've found your blog extremely helpful. Thanks and I will keep coming here...

  2. Thanks, Lohita. Hope you find it useful. Please feel free to leave any comments to the posts.

  3. hi,
    very informative and detailed study done by you. i am a researcher and working on shyam benegal's Bhumika and Sardari begum. i would be thankful if you could provide me with articles, journals or name of the books on the respective films...
    Best wishes.