Everyone who has ever worked with Shyam Benegal, has his favourite Shyambabu (as he is fondly called) story. My favourite is the one Chintuda – Chintu Mohapatra never tires of repeating.
A young, lanky boy from Orissa wrote to Shyam Benegal in the 1980s stating that he wanted to come to Bombay and work in the film industry. Why not, the director responded.
A few weeks later the boy landed in Shyam Benegal’s office, surprising him. Where are you staying, he asked the young man. Nowhere. Did he have any money? Hardly any. Shyam Benegal called his accountant. “Give this man 1000 Rupees and find him a place to stay,” he told him.
“Go and rest today and come back to the office tomorrow. We will figure out what you can do,” he told the young man. The young man could not believe that without knowing anything about him, this man, a world renowned director, just handed him thousand rupees, equivalent to twenty or thirty thousand today.
Nearly two and a half decades later, that man, Chintu Mahaparta, still shakes his head in disbelief recounting the story. “I was a nobody from nowhere, yet this man who was a somebody, trusted me, helped me. Nothing anyone has ever done since has ever compared.”
Chintu Mohapatra worked with Shyam Benegal for a few years and then moved on to other places. Today, his cinematic empire runs far and wide and he has been involved in different production capacities in some of the biggest hits of the country including Guru
, Dil Se
Over the years, he has helped dozens of talented youths from his home state, to work in the Mumbai film industry and who today are part of the biggest films made in the subcontinent.
Who is a person? I have often wondered.
Is a person his profession? Or is it his qualities?
Children are the best judge of people because they judge them not by their profession or their wealth but by their qualities. And over time, I have re-learnt that ability. When I ask myself who is Shyam Benegal, the answer is not the obvious - that he is a globally renowned, lauded and awarded filmmaker and writer.
Having had the chance to work with him intimately for four years, I know who Shyam Benegal really is. As Chintuda’s story illustrates, he is a kind, trusting, honest, affectionate, loving and compassionate man whose life and work is peppered with his greatest love, that of fairness and justice in all his dealings.
A few years ago, when I first told an old friend that I was now working with Shyam Benegal, his reaction was of incredulity. “Is he still making films,” he asked. When I told him what we were working on – Samvidhaan
, a 10-part mini-series on the making of the Constitution of India, he was flabbergasted. “Yaar, how long can a man love films and continue making them,” he rhetorically asked.
Later, thinking about what this friend had said, it stuck me. Shyam Benegal has been making visual art for over half a century, totalling over 900 ad films, 25 feature films, some of the best tv serials in the world totalling over 100 hours of telecast footage, dozens of documentaries and corporate films, etc. He has been making films since before my parents even knew of each other’s existence. He is that old.
Today (14th December, 2014), he is 80 years old.
But here’s the thing. For every single one of us, Shyam Benegal’s extended family and his cinematic crime partners, he never was, nor will he ever be, old. He has so much energy, so much spring in his steps that he embarrasses even me – a man less than half his age - every day.
And that is why, that question of his retirement, never crossed my mind. Yet, I did wonder: how can one love films with such unwavering passion all through one’s life?
The answer came to me the very next moment, when I remembered his face on the many occasions when I have told him about a film that impressed me. As he’d listen, his face would turn greedy and then, like a child’s face lighting up at the possibility of a candy, he’d pleadingly ask. “Is it possible for you to procure that film for me to watch?”
That is the thing: if you have really, truly and absolutely loved something, you will never ever fall out of love with it. True love and passion do not acknowledge the prison of space and time. And if there ever was a man who loved cinema so truly and completely, it is Shyam Benegal.
Today, he turns 80 and his feature film making career turned 40 this year (Ankur
was released in 1974). And I know that even on the day he turns 100, he would still be thinking about making his next film.
But his cinematic passion or his justice seeking mindset that has made him one of the most feminist filmmakers in the world ever, is not why I write this paean. Great as his achievements are, they are trivial in comparison to his personal attributes and qualities.
What I find so precious in Shyam Benegal is that here is a man, who has lived and seen as much as he has and yet refuses to let cynicism get the better of him; who continues to push the boundaries in dreaming of a better, fair world through his art; who is driven by ideas; who fights but has the grace to admit a mistake when he makes one; who laughs freely as a child and jokes the moment an opportunity presents itself; who extends as big a helping hand as he can to anyone in need; who pays his people before time; who lives every day with a sense of purpose and who has in the body of his soul, zero percentage of that fatty substance called malice towards others, even towards those who have viciously hated him.
For me this man has achieved a kind of sainthood denied to even those who live a life of self-inflicted-suffering, in the hopes that that it would eventually lead to the reward of nirvana.
I have lived long enough to understand that it is easy to make a great film, become a successful businessman, make a billion dollars, write masterpieces of literature, become a respected leader… yet to become a good human being and to constantly strive to improve oneself in that direction, now that is exceptional, a true rarity in this world.
To explain this better, let me narrate one of my favourite Shyam Benegal stories.
He, who we shall not name, is not a star. He is an actor in all caps and hyphenated A-C-T-O-R. And he is such an exceptional actor, that he is not just one of the best in the country, he is one of the best in the world. His collaborations with Shyam Benegal are what stuff of legends are made of. The two lit the silver screen on fire. Sadly, they had a fallout a few decades back. Shyambabu never told me what it was. All he gave me when I asked him about this man – was his characteristic shrug and billion watt smile with a comment: “He is a truly great actor.” As if being a great actor gave him a carte blanche to do anything. When I pressed on for an answer, he merely said: “Who knows.”
But he does know for this temperamental actor has not been very kind in his criticism of Shyam Benegal. And everyone in the film industry knew what this actor said about this director who was like his cinematic father.
But fights between actors and directors are common in the world of cinema. My favourite is the one between Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune who did not speak to each other for decades, only for them to meet at a common friend’s funeral, break down and patch up.
But something deeper happened between this actor and Shyam Benegal. The actor sent the manuscript of his biography. Shyambabu graciously read it and not only commented on the book, praising his writing as much as he had always praised his acting, but a month or so later he even launched his book.
Later, I wanted to ask Shyambabu, did the proud actor apologise for his decades of backbiting? How did the two of you meet after so long? But I know what would have happened. Shyam Benegal would have walked up to the actor and just said: “how are you my friend” in his booming, baritone voice, with a face lit up by his irresistible billion-watt smile, and that would have been the sentence to bridge decades of animosity.
I did not ask him about it later because I know what he would have said to me, his staple -“Who knows .” But here’s the thing, we – me and everyone who has worked with you including the actor, do KNOW. We know that it is impossible for you to hold grudges. You are a lot of things, you are a lot of people packed into one, but the things that you are not, is vindictive, jealous, vengeful, nasty and mean. You are to us, especially to me, the epitome of generosity, forgiveness and most importantly, grace.
That is why, when Khalid Mohamed first told me that he would call his documentary on you ‘The Master’ I first thought the name was a little cheesy. Till it stuck me that you ARE a master. Just that there is so much more to you than mere cinematic mastery. You are a master of yourself, of your senses, your moods and your emotions. And there are but a handful of people in the world since its inception who have managed this mastery.
And this, I am sure, Khalid Mohamed knows. He has to; for he has a story similar to the disgruntled, brilliant actor.
For Khalid, one of India’s most loved and admired film critics, had criticised Shyam Benegal heartily. And yet, Shyam Benegal called him when he read a story about his grand aunt which he had written for Times of India
. The results were two: three of the landmark films of World Cinema – Mammo
, Sardari Begum
(each being a story of Khalid’s relatives) and Khalid Mohamed eating humble pie.
Few months ago, while presenting his documentary at the Asiatic library, Khalid narrated this incident and said that his documentary on Shyam Benegal called ‘The Master’ was his ‘penance’.
There are different types of currencies in operation in the world today. Sadly, we only know and acknowledge the monetary ones.
Yet, if we were to look a little deeper, we would know that the world is actually run on other currencies that have sustained life on this planet for millions of years. In the thousands of year old history of human civilization, one of the strongest currencies, and one that has not lost its valuation with a fluctuating market, has been that of kindness, goodwill and compassion.
Yet, only a handful people in the world, have ever got rich in these terms. Often, even the greatest artists have failed miserably in the accumulation of this currency. But you, Shyam Benegal, are one of the richest men to have lived on the planet.
And so, my dear Shyam Benegal, here is a big, fat, hefty Happy Birthday to you, the richest 80 year old on the planet, from every single person who has had the good fortune of having known you and of working with you. You have touched out lives like few women or men have touched others’ lives in the history of humanity. And for that, I and we, shall be eternally grateful to you and your riches.
If newton’s third law is true and if there is indeed something called a butterfly effect, then we know that the impact of your actions, your life and your grace, will last till humanity does.
Perhaps even beyond.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is an independent film critic, writer and photojournalist based in Mumbai. His writings on cinema, culture and politics have appeared nationally and globally.)