Indian film director Shyam Benegal made a series of films in the 1970s that would came under the auspice of a parallel art cinema. Beginning with ‘Ankur’ (The Seedling) in 1974, the ideological interest with feudalism characterised much of the social criticism typically evident in the fiercely angry films of Benegal. ‘Nishant’ was the film Benegal directed after ‘Ankur’ and it occupies a strange place in his career as it is often eclipsed by films like ‘Bhumika’ which is considered by many to be his greatest achievement. Benegal’s pared down approach to film making illustrates his commitment to representing the aesthetics and ideology of realism:
His debut film Ankur (The Seedling, 1974) was a breakthrough in more ways than one. It defied all the ground rules of popular Hindi cinema. Without a star cast, without a song and without melodrama, Ankur was produced with a paltry sum of Rs. 5 lakh but fetched more than a crore for producer Lalit M. Bijlani.
‘India’s Art House Cinema’ by Lalit Mohan Joshi
Released in 1975, ‘Nishant’ is Benegal at his angry best and it is an anger largely directed towards the treatment of women in a traditional Indian village ruled by a powerful zamindar (landowner). Most of Benegal’s work is still largely unavailable on DVD in the UK but it is possible to order many of his more widely seen films through specialist DVD websites. The difficulty with this option is that many of the DVDs available are often poorly subtitled and suffer from inconsistent picture quality. Many of the prints have simply been imported from inferior VHS copies including an indistinct soundtrack. In many respects, the films of Benegal have regularly played at film festivals internationally and his reputation as a world cinema auteur continues to fascinate contemporary film critics and academics. Most recently, the BFI published a book on the films of Benegal and he is still very much active in the film industry today, having just released ‘Welcome to Sajjanpur’ with the financial support of UTV Motion Pictures.
It might be an idea to begin preserving the films of Benegal and those of the parallel cinema movement as they are in danger of becoming extinct and obscure. The Indian government and film industry must implement some kind of programme that receives funding to catalogue and preserve the original prints of many of these hugely important films. I am not sure if such an institution exists in India already but the difficulty I have had in trying to access much of the work produced by the parallel cinema movement has been deeply frustrating.
The 1970s found Benegal at his creative best. His first three films form a thematic trilogy. Ankur deals with the slow transformation of the feudal system in India. Nishant (Night’s End, 1975) shows a kind of actual confrontation between feudal value systems and a new emerging rural society in India. In Manthan (The Churning,1976) one sees social change actually coming. The popular acclaim of these three Benegal films (Ankur, Nishant and Manthan), made him the pioneer of new cinema in the 1970s.
‘India’s Art House Cinema’ by Lalit Mohan Joshi
Nishant is a harrowing study of the power and gender relations in a village that is dictated by the hegemonic impulse of a feudal law that marginalises women and provides moral immunity for the male landowners. In one of the most disturbing moments in the film, Sushilla (Shabana Azmi), wife of the local school teacher, is abducted by the abusive sons of the zamindar (Amrish Puri) and literally held against her will in the local farmhouse. Sushilla is repeatedly raped and becomes a prisoner, forced to co exist with the wife (Smita Patel) of the youngest son, played by Naseeruddin Shah. The abduction of Sushilla is made altogether more powerful as it takes place before the very eyes of the villagers who like the school teacher are powerless to resist feudalism. At first, Sushilla’s husband criticises the villagers for their complicity in his wife’s abduction but his plea for help from civil institutions like the local police unveils a system that is corrupt, oppressive and regressive. Benegal politicises the school teacher and gradually he realises that the frightening ancestral impunity and political influence manifested by the zamindars can only be contested if feudalism and orthodoxy are openly challenged through collective revolution and in this case, violence as a means of self defence. The rage unleashed by the villagers at the end of the film upon the zamindar is bloody and chaotic, bringing about a justifiable reconstruction of power relations. ‘Nishant’ is provocative cinema in how it asks a multitude of pertinent questions relating to patriarchy, feudalism and feminism.
Though the film does not set out to provide any kind of firm solutions to the many social problems plaguing rural India at the time, Benegal is nevertheless uncompromising in how he approaches such issues. It is also important to mention that Benegal sympathises strongly with the contemporary plight of women and his collaboration with both Shabana Azmi and Smita Patel characterises some of his best work. The ensemble cast is made up of an amazing array of talented actors; Amrish Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patel who incidentally would forge parallel careers in mainstream Indian cinema, starring in instantly disposable, formulaic masala films whilst remaining committed to supporting the evolution of a burgeoning art cinema. One could argue that Benegal has become somewhat of an institution in Indian art cinema today and his reputation as a film maker who has been able to make films on his own personal terms reminds emerging film makers of the need to retain some sense of artistic integrity.