Arthouse cinema and India might sound like two ends of a polar spectrum, but if there’s one director who could blend the 2 together, it’s Shyam Benegal. Shyam Babu just turned 84, and any man who’s so consistently walked the road less travelled and come out victorious deserves praise. However, this isn’t just about his numerous achievements, it’s about the treatment of women in his films as a whole.
In a film space dominated by gawdy, cliched and stereotypical performances, movies like Ankur and Junoon weren’t just a refreshing breath of fresh air, they were a new concept entirely. Shabana Azmi earned critical acclaim with Ankur, and she credits that to Shyam, as she told Times of India –
“I had all the usual ‘filmi’, glamorous snaps taken when someone told me that Shyam was casting Ankur. He took one look at them, and asked me to tear them all up. Ankur was not going to be that sort of film.”
Benegal’s films brought forth the issues and problems facing women in a neo-realistic way, and against all odds, they worked commercially. Most films of this ilk, even today, garner some critical acclaim before fading away from mass memory. It wasn’t just through the 70s and 80s either – Zubeidaa, which released in 2000, took a hard look at patriarchy and the tribulations of a free-spirited woman kept caged. Of course, his feminist piece de resistance has to be Mandi, which was about a group of proud female prostitutes, all acted to perfection, led by the inimitable Shabana Azmi (again). Sexuality, politics and comedy – it all came together in this work of absolute genius.
Ankur dealt with sexual oppression and adultery, Nishant spoke openly about rape, Manthan declared the need for social equality especially in rural areas, Junoon brought forth Nafisa Ali’s thespian prowess and Bhumika, Smita Patil’s swan song, displayed the indomitable spirit and strength of a woman through all manner of tragedy and treachery.
The one common link between almost all of Benegal’s films is the presence of strong female leads, spectacular performances and a celebration of the woman socially, sexually and psychologically as an equal and independent being. If there’s one filmmaker who really deserves all the honours he’s got and more, it’s Shyam Babu. Take a bow.