It has been seven years since the CDs and hard disk of The Master: Shyam Benegal – an homage to the film auteur who needs no introduction – has been sitting in solitary silence on a shelf of my home. Perhaps the 95-minute documentary on his estimable oeuvre was just not up to the mark or I lack the marketing chutzpah to get my labour of love, as it’s called, to persuade any of the plethora of channels to allocate it a streaming slot.
Premiered at an event dedicated to quality cinema by the hallowed Asiatic Society of Mumbai and Mumbai Research Centre, it was also screened at the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) International Film Festival, The National Centre of the Performing Arts (NCPA), and for a restricted period of four weeks on a Tata Sky Channel. Soon after, the news channel NDTV was winding up its allotted space for such efforts, evidently because the advertising companies were slashing their sponsorship of documentaries, which in any case is a medium that conjures up images of sombre, no entertainment, yawn-inducing tracts. No mammoth TRP ratings, no dice.
Earlier, thanks to the incalculable backing by NDTV’s Ayesha Kagal, short films and documentaries would go through a strict selection process and were telecast not during prime time, but accorded sufficient respect and pre-publicity. It was just that auspicious spell of a few years, which had facilitated the screenings of two of my earlier documentaries: Last Irani Chai, a study of the fast-vanishing Irani cafes in Mumbai, and Little Big People, which focused on pre-teen street children of the city, immensely gifted -- be it on the risky pavement shows of tightrope walking, a glib boy vending peacock feathers to tourists in multiple languages although formally uneducated, or bebop dancers who shimmied to the cacophony at a traffic junction close to the Haji Ali shrine junction. Made on almost zero-budgets, on hand-held video apparatus, they had recovered their investments but just about.
Behind the scenes of Little Big People
Inevitably, that enticed my third foray into documentary-land: a portrait on Shyam Benegal, a gentleman and filmmaker, to whom I owe a tremendous debt.
On reading a personalised piece in The Times of India on the deportation of my grand-aunt Mehmooda Begum, back to Pakistan, he had sent me a complimentary note and had wondered if it could be developed into a film script. Novice though I was, he readily allowed me to write its script which was finalised after three drafts. The outcome was Mammo (1994).
No persuasion was required to follow it up with two more scripts – Sardari Begum, another grand-aunt who had defied family conventions to become a thumri singer, and rounding off the trilogy on Muslim women with the story and screenplay on my late mother Zubeidaa, who had perished before touching the age of 20, in a private airplane crash piloted by her second husband, Maharaja Hanwant Singh of Jodhpur.
The lessons imbibed during those script sessions have been vital. No montage interludes since they are lazy shortcuts in narratives, no melodrama since understatement is way more effective, the use of songs and dances purely to advance the storyline, and if big-name stars were to be cast, they would have to be told beforehand that their expenditures would be tightly controlled. “Stars are okay with the fee they are offered,” Shyam Benegal had remarked, adding, “but the entourage which accompanies them – friends, parents, tetchy hairdressers, make-up staff and car drivers demanding a daily remuneration for doing nothing, are a strict no-no on my shoots.”
There was a backstory, an ironic one, of my lifelong equation with Shyam Benegal (who is okay with being addressed as Shyam babu or Shyam). As a film critic of Times of India, admittedly an upstart and a staunch believer in the New Wave of Indian cinema at its acme in the 1970s, I had this rather blinkered take on ‘commercial’ and ‘middle of the road’ cinema, the latter particularly for what I thought bristled with creative compromises. In the event, my reviews starting with Benegal’s Junoon were unduly harsh and in retrospect, immature. Yet, despite the unspoken hostility between us, he had sent me that note on my ageing and somewhat mentally askew grand-aunt’s deportation to Pakistan. I was humbled. The Master was intended not only to be a homage but a public apology, a point articulated right at the opening of the documentary.
The documentary took two years to complete for two reasons: One, the video sound equipment we had hired was humming like an irate bee through half the soundtrack and the portions had to be reshot. And second, my excellent editor Meggna Aschitr was dissatisfied with the final cut. To start with, we had interviewed only Shyam babu since he is uber articulate. However, the result had become a long, drawn-out talkfest. We had to, never mind the expenses, track down the actors and technicians who had worked with him. Perhaps that was the answer to make it way livelier, and even touch upon some controversial points like the simmering vibes between his two discoveries, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil.
Ankur (1974); Shyam Benegal’s debut, starring Shabana Azmi, and Bhumika (1977), starring Smita Patil. Both won a National Award for Best Actress for their respective roles.
Plus, Girish Karnad had to be cajoled to face the camera in Bengalaru, to express his discontent with the credit of Manthan going entirely to Vijay Tendulkar though he had rewritten significant sections of the National Award-winning film. Now how to travel to Bengalaru with the budget already touching the sky? Gratifyingly, a friend Aditi Rao, who lived in the city, managed two vital discussions with both Karnad and Anant Nag. That brought to mind the Beatles song, “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Only in this instance it was “a Lot of Help.”
Autorickshaw-ing to the homes and studios for interviews in Mumbai, for the record, yielded talks with an immediately agreeable and articulate bunch of Benegal collaborators. At the risk of name dropping, they included: Shabana and Javed Akhtar, Karisma Kapoor and Manoj Bajpayee, Om Puri, Rajat Kapoor, Raageshwari Sachdev, Divya Dutta, Sachin Khedekar, Surekha Sikri, Ila Arun, Minnisha Lamba, Govind Nihalani, Pia Benegal and Vanraj Bhatia. Naseeruddin Shah, who had unresolved issues (about Shyam babu casting star names and dispensing with ‘unknowns’ in some of his later films) refused to face the camera, but gamely showed up at a recording studio to dub in the voice-over commentary.
Result: my editor now had so much footage that we would have to split the documentary into two parts. The question was whether we could have sustained a two-parter. Aschitr, never to be daunted, worked for a month to trim the footage to a reasonable feature length, and suggested we bung in intercutting shots of Mumbai. Oh oh! More shooting, more expenses, more months whizzing by like sparrows on speed.
Excerpts from Shyam Benegal’s enormous body of work, except his own productions down the decades, would have to be paid for, of course. That was overcome by Shyam babu making an endless series of phone calls to the copyright holders. The two difficult ones to secure were predictably from the Films Division and Doordarshan. The former had commissioned his seminal documentary on Satyajit Ray and the latter, the widely praised series Bharat Ek Khoj. “Not to worry, you’ll get them with letters of authorisation,” he said gently. Some more phone calls followed, and we did.
By now, the editor was sprouting grey hair galore. It was due to her tenacity that we had the first draft ready. Still stonewalled, the colour correction executed by a hole-in-the-wall studio was horrendous, making every image looking brinjal purple and baby pink. Another expert entered for the corrections and shock; every image had a valentine like blur around it. I felt like jumping off a high bridge. Mercifully, cinematographer Aseem Bajaj gave us a crash course on how to get the colour back to a natural glow, a task assigned to a freelancer who was competent enough but would sleep more than Kumbhkarna ever could. He was out, and the remnant of the team corrected the colour by trial and error, which surprisingly looked cool and professional. And then the print had to be submitted to the censors who passed it with an ‘UA’ certificate since an excerpt had been included of the crucial rape scene in Nishant (1975), which needless to carp had been aesthetically filmed.
Fatigued but elated, we had to clear the Himalayan stack of bills for the hire of the video equipment or there could be a stay order. Hell, and after directing three feature films (Fiza, Tehzeeb, Silsilaay), I’d believed this documentary would be a gambol in a meadow. Money coughed up from savings and friends’ contributions, taxes and GST cleared, and we were ready to go. Only no one was willing to pay even a token amount for a screening. Never mind, this was a tribute, money comes easy and easier goes. A drop-in-the-ocean amount of the final budget – Rs 15 lakhs – was eventually recovered from Tata Sky.
That declaimed, it would be presumptuous of me to describe the 95-minuter. It’s up to the viewers to give their verdict. It wasn’t reviewed on any platform and went virtually unnoticed. To reach a streaming channel, to put it mildly, is difficult. There’s a cottage industry of agents out there in the suburbs of Mumbai, and the tradition is to offer it to them for sale. Glitch: they sell films and documentaries by bulk and demand a draconian commission which is the same fate vis-à-vis Zubeidaa, accessible only in a pirated print on YouTube to date. Efforts had been made for Zubeidaa to those afore-cited agents, only to elicit that humiliating response, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
Unfazed on an idle morning of late, I tweeted a shout-out to the channels about The Master: Shyam Benegal. The general response was encouraging, a heartening number of ‘likes’, but whoever or whatever is in charge of acquisitions at the OTT offices were predictably silent. Incidentally, I am aware that I am not alone in receiving a cold shoulder. Hundreds of independent filmmakers will tell you the same story.
Hence, why this piece? In vain? Simply because I believe that the documentary is a chronicle of a super-important filmmaker. Like valuable photographs, chronicles, and miscellaneous film heritage material, it is more than likely to sit there on a shelf till doomsday come. The sole consolation is Shyam babu’s big bear hug after the premier screening. At the very least, the team’s dedication for two trying years did serve its primary purpose of a ‘thank you sir’ for giving us an estimable oeuvre which will always remain timeless.