Shyam Benegal recalls how he found a producer for ‘Ankur’ and Shabana Azmi for the lead role

“My assistant came to me and suggested Shabana Azmi for the role. I didn’t even know who she was,” recalls Shyam Benegal and says it took him 13 years to find a producer in interview to Subhas K Jha

Shyam Benegal recalls how he found a producer for ‘Ankur’ and Shabana Azmi for the lead role
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Subhash K Jha

Shyam Benegal tells Subhash K Jha how he carried the script of Ankur for 13 years before a friend, after a few drinks, offered to produce it. For Indian films and especially Hindi films, the current period however signals a renaissance when filmmakers have been set free, he adds.

Ankur seems like the successor to Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen?

Yes, perhaps. It’s too difficult for me to say. If you say so, I accept gracefully.

Do you feel the seedling that you planted 38 years ago has finally grown into a tree that you can look back at proudly ?

  Oh yes. A new kind of cinema had happened in Bengali, Malayalam and other regional languages earlier on. Prior to Satyajit Ray, they were making main stream films in Bengal. That’s bound to happen when any art form becomes an industry.When somebody comes with a radical idea it takes time for it to make a mark.

  In Hindi cinema there was a moribund situation for many years.No one wanted to take a chance.And you can’t blame them. It was at the end of the day a business.And the risk factor was enormous because back then when I made Ankur, cinema was not recognised as an industry.And people who gave you money to make movies were traditional moneylenders. So whatever changes happened in the way we made movies had to happen within the given situation. One had to go rigidly by rules of commercial cinema.

So, would you say Ankur was a break through film?

Long before me Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali got the urban middle class interested in cinema.Earlier, they found little of interest in cinema. But Ray showed that the language of cinema doesn’t have to be one particular way.The change also happened in Malayalam and Kannada. Then in Hindi cinema talent began to emerge from the Film & Television Institute of India. The government also began to shows ome interest in funding. There was a Film Finance Corporation(FFC).

  Mrs Indira Gandhi, a follower of Satyajit Ray, was keenly interested in seeing our cinema evolve. She got FFC interested in a different kind of cinema. B K Karanjia who headed FFC favoured cinema based on literature. That’s where there was a glimmer of hope. Films of Basu Chatterjee, Garam Hawa ,etc happened. Otherwise there was only Bimal Roy trying to make a different kind of cinema.

And you?

I was advertising in Mumbai, twiddling my thumb and waiting to make my film. I was carrying around the script of Ankur for 13 years which no one would listen to. Finally, the person who picked up the gambit of producing my film was a major advertising-distributor Lalit M Bijalani andhis partner Freni Variava. I used to meet Lalit socially. In what was probably a drunken outburst Lalit told me at a party, ‘Listen, you’ve been saying you want to make a film for so long. But why don’t you make it?’ I asked if he would put money in it. He said yes. Lalit was not a film producer at all. Because I made Ankur for him he started Blaze Productions and produced my next four feature films.

How did Ankur make such an impact?

I had this great advantage that others who came in with an alternative cinema like Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahane did not have. I had a ready made distribution network. Lalit Bijalani had a big network of cinema halls.He could release Ankur extensively.Also this was the time after the Indo Pak war. The movement of foreign exchange out of the country was being discouraged.Instead of getting American films into India she encouraged the production of the kind of cinema that the sophisticated middle class would like. Ankur filled that lacuna. The main stream media was hugely supportive. It was a success. Sowas Nishant after Ankur although it was a much darker film. If I madeNishant today it would fail.In fact, my only film that failed when it opened was Bhumika.

Coming to the casting…

To start with I wanted Waheeda Rehman. She was not only a star but also a very fine actress. I used to meet her frequently because she was Guru Dutt’s heroine. (Guru Dutt is related to Benegal). So, she was the first actress I asked. I don’t think she had the confidence that I could pull it off. So,she said no. Then I started to look around. I approached the famous South Indian actress Sharda. I went to meet her in Chennai. She seemed interested. But she also finally said no. I think the role was too daunting. The character has an extra-marital affair and she doesn’t regret having a baby out of wedlock. After that I thought of Aparna Sen. She didn’t say no because of the character but because she felt she wouldn’t be able to carry off the Andhra dialect. I also asked Anju Mahendroo. She used to be my model, very lively and entertaining. I don’t know how these actresses would have played the character. Because one can’t imagine anyone but Shabana doing it.

How did Shabana come into the picture?

I was wondering what to do next and whom to approach, when my assistant came to me and suggested Shabana Azmi. I didn’t even know who she was, though I had met her father Kaifi Azmi a few times. I knew her mother Shaukat, a fine theatre actress.

  A meeting was set up. When I saw her I knew immediately that she was correct for the part, although she was dressed in model like clothes. She didn’t know what kind of film I had in mind. She was sure of doing the part. But her mother was not. You see, I offered Shabana another part in Nishant along with Ankur. Shaukat wondered what kind of a fraud filmmaker I was. ‘He hasn’t made one film and he’s talking about another,’ Shaukat said.

Sadhu Meher and Anant Nag are also brilliant in Ankur…

All of them except Govind Nihalani were new to cinema. Sadhu used to be my assistant on my documentaries.

You shot on location?

I went to the same area where the actual incident had happened. I developed the script from the short story that I had written. Shooting on location was easier back then because hardly any film was shot on location. They shot in studios. Now everyone shoots on location.

Whom would you consider your true successors?

I can’t say. After Ankur, a lot of good work started to be done. But the movement didn’t go beyond a decade. In the 1980s television happened. People preferred to sit at home and watch television. A whole new society of migrants emerged. And their definition of cinema entertainment was very different . There was low investment in cinema.The big multi-starrer block buster movies took over in the 1980s except for Amitabh Bachchan who was a one-man blockbuster. The alternative cinema went into hibernation.

In the late 1990s television became even bigger and people started wondering where the alternative cinema was. Multiplexes came into being. Corporates came into business. They’re now interested in all kinds of films. Today you have Shoojit Sircar making Vicky Donor, Sujoy Ghosh makes Kahaani and Habib Faizal makes Ishaqzaade. Then of course there is Vishal Bhardwaj. I see this as a period of renaissance. Filmmakers are unfettered today.

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