Shyam Benegal

  • Actor, Director, Writer, Producer, Screenplay

Dec 14, 1934  in Telangana, India

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Known for his pioneering body of work, Shyam Benegal is an Indian filmmaker and screenwriter, whose films had the unique quality of being aesthetically superior plus commercially viable. He was the man who successfully redefined ‘alternate cinema’ and helmed films like Ankur (1973), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977). Seven time National Award winner, the veteran director was honored with the Padma Shri in 1976 and the Padma Bhushan in 1991. For his phenomenal contribution to the Indian film industry, Benegal was awarded Indian Cinema’s highest honour – the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2005.

Early Life
Born in British India’s Secunderabad (now part of Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh), Shyam Benegal was born to a photographer father Sridhar B. Benegal. Under the guidance of his father, Benegal at a very young age starting making films. His passion for cinema lead him to form the Hyderabad film society. Benegal graduated from the Osmania University, Hyderabad with an M.A in Economics.

After moving to the city of dreams, Bombay (now Mumba), in 1959, he started working at an advertising firm as a copywriter, where he later became the creative head. In 1963, he took up a job at another advertising agency, but kept directing documentaries side by side. Amidst directing commercials and making short films, he taught at and twice (1980–83, 1989–92) served as chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune.

Personal Life
Shyam Benegal is married to the former editor of India Book House Nira Mukerji Benegal. She has also designed costumes for few of Shyam Benegal’s films. The couple has a daughter Pia Benegal, who is also a costume designer known for her work in films like Dil Se.. (1998), Zubeidaa (2001) and Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008).

Movie Career
As a Director
After making over 900 commercials and many documentaries, Benegal, in 1973, finally directed his first feature film Ankur. This National Award winning film introduced the face of parallel cinema, Shabana Azmi, daughter of poet Kaifi Azmi, in the Hindi film industry. The movie went onto to achieve a cult status in the world of New Indian Cinema and was India’s official entry to Oscars that year. His next directorial ventures- Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977), also went on to win National Awards, achieving immense critical acclaim and introduced artists like Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Smita Patil, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Amrish Puri in the fraternity. Based on encouraging the women of an impoverished village in Gujarat to become self-sufficient, Mathan was India’s official submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Following the success of his first four movies, where he only worked with new comers, Benegal for his next two films- Junoon (1978) and Kalyug (1981), had the backing of the superstar Shashi Kapoor. Junoon and Kalyug, both went on to win the Filmfare Award for Best Movie, with Junoon also bagging the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi. In the 80’s he helmed Om Puri starrer, Arohan (1982), Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, and Naseeruddin Shah starrer Mandi (1983), and Leena Naidu, and Soni Razdan starrer Trikaal (1985). The same decade also saw him making acclaimed documentaries on lives of legends like Satyajit Ray’s life, and the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Shyam Benegal was by now one of the most prolific Indian filmmakers and was often regarded as the pioneer on non-commercial films. 90’s saw him direct more National Award winning films like Suraj Ka Satva Ghdoa (1993), Mammo (1994), Sardari Begum (1996), The Making of The Mahatma (1996), and Samar (1999).

After a long time, Benegal directed a commercial drama film, Zubeidaa. Written by Khalid Mohammed, the movie starred Karisma Kapoor, Rekha, and Manoj Bajpai in lead roles and Rajit Kapoor, Lillete Dubey, Amrish Puri, Farida Jalal, and Shakti Kapoor as the supporting cased. Based on the life of the ill-fated Muslim woman Zudeidaa, played by Karishma Kapoor, the movie the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi and won Karisma Kapoor a Filmfare Award for Best Actress (Critics). Zubeidaa is also the final chapter that began with Mammo (1994) and continued with Sardari Begum (1996).

Having made movies surrounding rural India and the plight of women in the country, Benegal in the late 2000s directed light hearted comedy movies like Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008), and Well Done Abba (2009). The former, starring Shreyas Talpade, Amrita Rao and Kunal Kapoor received a positive response at the box office, with critics calling in Benegal’s “most ‘entertaining’ attempt, by far”. Well Done Abba, on the other hand was a political satire, featuring Boman Irani, Minissha Lamba, and Ravi Kishan in important roles. The movie follows the story of a father-daughter duo, who after being fed up of corruption in their village, take up matters in their own hands. The movie opened to good reviews from the critics, winning the National Film Award for Best Film on Other Social Issues.

His 2016 release includes the film Shor se Shuruaat, which is an omnibus feature of mentored short films, around the central theme of Shor- noise. Seven films, from seven different directors. The film features actors like Atul Kulkarni, Sakshi Tanwar, and Sanjay Mishra.

As a Writer
The multi-faceted filmmaker has written three novels based on his own movies. The Churning, based on Mathan, Satyajit Ray, based on his documentary Satyajit Ray, and The Marketplace, based on Mandi.

Television Career
Shyam Benegal has helmed TV shows like Yatra (1986), Katha Sagar (1986), Bharat Ki Khoj (1988), and Samvidhaan (2014), which was a 10-part mini-series revolving around the making of Indian Constitution. It aired on Rajya Sabha TV.

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