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An Interview With Shyam Benegal
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Shyam Benegal on ‘Chamki’ And More

I finally got to meet one of my favorite directors, the much acclaimed Shyam Benegal for an interview. Well known for films such as Kalyug, Ankur, Nishant and my personal favorite Junoon, which I didn’t even see until five years after it was released, Benegal has always brought something unique to the industry. Here are portions of the interview that was conducted.

Q: Please tell us about your forthcoming project 'Chamki'.

Mr. Benegal: It is based on the novel 'Carmen' by Prosper Merimee on which the famous composer Georges Bizet made an opera almost 150 years ago. We have adapted a setting that will be amongst the 'Banjara' (gypsy) community of Thar Desert. As you know there are no borders for these people as they cross from India to Pakistan and vice-versa. It will have Urmila Matondkar and Jimmy Shergill.

Q: When do you plan to start shooting?

Mr. Benegal: Shooting will start in Rajasthan from December and I plan to wind it up by the middle of next year.

Q: The music of your films have always been special, who is the composer for ‘Chamki’?

Mr. Benegal: It will again be A.R. Rahman and he has already begun working on the musical score.

Q: Recently, Rahman stated in an interview that he would not be doing any more scores for historical films, how does Chamki fit into that?

Mr. Benegal: ‘Chamki’ is not a historical film; in fact it is a very contemporary subject.

Q: You have a special bonding with Urmila Matondkar who is playing 'Chamki', right?

Mr. Benegal: Yes, in fact if you remember I had introduced her in 'Kalyug' as a boy! She played Shashi Kapoor and Rekha's son.

Q: Don't you think Urmila is a highly underrated actress and has not got her due?

Mr. Benegal: She is extremely talented and now her talent is being recognized.

Q: Jimmy Shergill is playing the male lead in 'Chamki'. Did you think of any mainstream actors for that role?

Mr. Benegal: Yes, I had offered the role and subsequently sent the script to Shah Rukh Khan some 2 years back but it did not work out.

Q: What made you think of Shah Rukh Khan?

Mr. Benegal: Because Shah Rukh Khan is a very charismatic actor and can lift any project by his presence and charisma.

Q: But don't you think mainstream actors are misfit for alternate off-beat cinema?

Mr. Benegal: No, it is just that their image is so overpowering that when they attempt different kind of cinema it does not click and tends to affect their career.

Q: What are your views about the selection of 'Paheli' as India's official entry for the Oscars?

Mr. Benegal: It's the correct choice and I feel it has a good chance. I don’t know why our industry and media gives so much importance to the Oscars. You see it's very important for Hollywood and foreign films because once one of their films receives an Oscar it goes on to become a big commercial success. Our films won't get that sort of benefit.

Q: A section of the media feels that it should have been Sanjay Leela Bhansali's 'Black'. What are your views on that?

Mr. Benegal: It had no chance because people (there) would have said it is our own movie (Hellen Keller) that has been remade. I cannot understand why there are so many hue and cries. 'Paheli' is the choice of FFI (Film Federation of India). If anyone thinks his movie deserves to be at the Oscars he/she can take it! In fact even if I want to take any of my movies to the Oscars I can do it and for that my movie has to run just for a single show in any of the American theaters. As simple as that.

Q: It is also said that 'Paheli' was not a commercial success, so it should not have been sent.

Mr. Benegal: It's not so. In fact Amol Palekar (director of 'Paheli') told me recently that the entire cost of 'Paheli' was recovered from just its overseas run. The thing is that people cannot take it that a so called off-beat director can make a mainstream entertainer and succeed.

Q: What went wrong with the release of 'Bose - The Forgotten Hero'?

Mr. Benegal: I had talked to Subroto Roy (chief of Sahara Productions) and he told me that the film’s distribution would be done by Percept as they had handled many of his events. But that being the case, Percept are very good event managers but distribution of 'Bose - The Forgotten Hero' turned out to be more of an experiment for them, suffering thereafter.

Q: What was the budget of 'Bose - The Forgotten Hero'?

Mr. Benegal: It was 20 crores.

Q: Do you feel sad about the way such a magnificent film was released?

Mr. Benegal: It's unfortunate. You know it could not even be released in Captain Laxmi Sehgal's (Azad Hind Force) hometown Kanpur. But now we are planning to release it across India properly.

Q: Are you taking it to any festivals?

Mr. Benegal: I will take it to the Kara festival in Pakistan. You know a lot of Mr. Bose's associates live in Pakistan and most have seen it on pirated CDs! I have received a lot of E-Mails from there praising my work and requesting me to bring it to the 'Kara' festival.

Q: In the end please tell us something about 'Zubeidaa'?

Mr. Benegal: (Smiles) It's over and long gone!

Q: Still, it was a wonderful movie. We would like to know something about it from you.

Mr. Benegal: Well, with Zubeidaa I completed the trilogy earlier two being 'Sardari Begum' and 'Mammo'. Do you know all three were relatives?

Q: Yes sir I know. But please tell us why there was a sudden end to 'Zubeidaa' and many things left to the imagination of the audience, like the cause of Manoj Bajpai's plane crash?

Mr. Bengal: You see that is how it was! No one quite knows why Victor's (Manoj Bajpai) plane crashed. He was a highly skilled pilot. It is not clear if it was a sabotage or accident due to his fight with 'Zubeidaa' (Karisma Kapoor) so I left it like that.

Q: Thank you very much for sparing your precious time.

Mr. Benegal: Thank you it was nice talking to you!

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