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#LIFF2015: ‘The Master’ – Khalid Mohamed’s fitting tribute to Shyam Benegal

In addition to an amazing body of independent features, this year the London Indian Film Festival offers documentaries for the first time.

In amongst one that explores the importance of the Monsoons in India and corruption in Cricket, is one that examines the life of the iconic filmmaker Shyam Benegal, the pioneer behind the Indian parallel or new wave cinema.

‘The Master’ is directed by film critic and filmmaker Khaled Mohamed, who has been Benegal’s associate as script writer for ‘Mammo’, ‘Sardari Begum’ and ‘Zubeida’. 

Opening with a short introduction to the filmmaker, Mohamed takes the camera straight into Benegal’s office in central Bombay. 

A delightful array of black and white photographs introduces Benegal as a child and his young years in Hyderabad.

He fondly recounts school days when he skipped classes to watch films at the local bioscope and how he forfeited his chances as a talented swimmer by missing one particular competition and running off for autographs from a Hollywood star.

Starting in the world of advertising in Bombay and making award winning ad campaigns gave Benegal a head start in the business. 

His cousin, the legendary actor-director Guru Dutt, asked him to write a script which did not materialise.

Instead, Benegal developed a script he had been working on since his days in College, the story that would become his first film ‘Ankur’.

He recalls how the film became a pioneering moment for parallel cinema in India.

His cast members (Shabana Azmi, Om Puri, Girish Karnad) speak of their roles, scripts and controversies. 

Benegal’s films gave us the most formidable acting talents of the time – Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, each a beacon of alternate cinema movement.

The much publicised Shabana-Smita rivalry is also dealt with great honesty by Shabana, Smita’s sister Manyata and Javed Akhtar. 

The Om Puri-Naseeruddin conflict meanwhile is also thrashed out.

Girish Karnad throws light on the controversial script credits for ‘Manthan’ and ‘Kalyug’.

With twenty three films and several major television series to his credit, the prolific Benegal talks patiently through his ouvre.

Archival footage from these path-breaking films form strong pillars for this narrative.

After the left-leaning ‘Ankur (1973)’ and ‘Nishant’ (1975) Benegal moves to a more socialist vision with ‘Manthan’ (1976), which told the story about a pioneering dairy milk cooperative in rural Gujarat and which was funded by the farmers within the cooperative.

With ‘Bhumika’ (1977) there is further development of women’s narratives and stylistic flourish as the early years of Indian cinema are captured through the career of the sensational actress Hansa Wadkar.

Benegal himself offers interesting, often humorous anecdotes of the production process.

Extensive footage covers his documentary on Satyajit Ray and also his biographies, ‘Making of Mahatma’ and ‘Bose: The Forgotten Hero’.

 

‘Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda’ – Benegal’s most complex work.

He also talks extensively on the concept of handling simultaneous time in cinema with reference to ‘Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda’, arguably his most complex work.

A significant section of ‘The Master’ follows the post Bombay riots phase when Benegal admits he grows more aware of the city’s Muslim community.

It is Khaled Mohamed who draws his attention with his weekly column in the Times.  Then follows a trilogy based on Mohamed’s own family stories, ‘Mammo’, ‘Sardari Begum’ and ‘Zubeidaa’.

Younger actors talk through the later phase when Benegal tried his hand at satire and comedy (‘Welcome to Sajjanpur’ which starred Amrita Rao and Kunal Kapoor, and ‘Well Done Abbu’) both dealing with social problems but treated with humour.

We get brief glimpses of Benegal on the set of his latest series on the Constitution of India and more personal insights as his daughter speaks and Benegal discusses family ties.

As we hear the soft spoken Benegal talk through his prolific career, the magnitude and scale of his work is revealed.

For a man who will go down as a great master in the annals of Indian cinema, Khaled Mohamed’s documentary is a fitting tribute.

The documentary style is old school with a voice over by Naseeruddin Shah.  However, the master’s own narrative and the priceless archival footage makes this well worth a watch.

Having written a book on Shyam Benegal few years ago, I found it vastly enjoyable revisiting that wonderful body of work and the generous, spirited, humorous, intelligent Shyambabu who is still working even as he crosses his eightieth year.

‘Samvidhaan’ – The Constitution of India by Shyam Benegal:

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