Years ago when I watched Ankur, I couldn’t understand why it was so depressing and difficult to relate to. Needless to say, I didn’t like the film. I had also ruled out the possibility of ever liking Shyam Benegal's work. That was until a friend of mine suggested me to watch 'Bhumika' - a real life story of flamboyant Marathi actress Hansa Wadekar.
Bhumika starts with Smita Patil dancing in front of male audience with heavy make-up. The heroine credited with making dusky looks acceptable in Hindi cinema was wearing so much make-up that I cursed Benegal for making her look unnaturally white. That was until I realised that she is playing an actress in the film. As Smita moves out of sets, the shining face becomes rather grim and she is sans make-up. There is not a stray of gray in her hair, but her body language suggests that she is not in early 20s. Cut to the scene, she comes to her home. A middle-aged man with ample gray in his hair to suggest so, is waiting for her. He doesn’t look old enough to be her father. He doesn’t look young enough to be her husband. He can be a husband still, given that men are fond of younger women. But his body language doesn’t really suggest so. Benegal doesn’t establish their relation yet, and they plunge into an argument. Smita pulls the arm of a girl. Again from Smita's looks its tough to believe that she is her daughter. Smita screams at the middle-aged man (played by Amol Palekar), "Will you ever stop blackmailing me through this young girl". The young girl looks more like Smita's younger sister and I got the vague idea; may be Amol Palekar is actually her father and this young girl her sister. Well that was until Smita changes her saree in front of Amol and its only then after I guess some 10 minutes of screen time, that I realised that he is and for sure is her husband and the young girl her daughter. Well that is Benegal - a man who doesn’t spoon-feed his audience, who doesn’t reiterate the obvious and who expects his audience to have a minimum intelligence quotient.
Last week, I watched Junoon. A period film directed by Benegal in 1978. The film is set in 1857. A group of rebellious sepoys have butchered few Englishmen at a church in Delhi. The firebrand leader of the group is Naseeruddin Shah and one of his acquaintance is Shashi Kapoor - who too is a rebellious sepoy - not as much a hardliner as Naseer though. Shashi falls in love with daughter of a murdered Englishman. He gives shelter to the daughter, her mother and her grandmother. He is arrogant, since sepoys were getting better of their masters then. Yet, he is in love with the English girl - who very well knows that people of his ilk have butchered her father. I don’t want to divulge the story, as that would kill the fun of watching the film. But yet again, the detailing done by Benegal is exceptional. The characters speak exactly the same kind of language spoken around Delhi and Merrut those days. Ismat Chugtai wrote the dialogues in Urdu and you feel as if you are transported to 1857. The actors work really hard to get the body language right. Naseer and Shabana Azmi are so believable as fanatic leader and a possessive wife that you wonder if you are looking at actors or real characters. The surprise of the lot is Shashi Kapoor, who plays the pathan madly in love with English girl, while being still married to Shabana Azmi. Its utter pity that Shashi Kapoor had to play second fiddle to the macho men of 1970s in the “so-called” commercial films. His urdu is approximate if not accurate, his body language is right too, his eyes do a lot of talking. Benegal uses several mediums to depict that era. So the film starts with a peer prophesizing the demise of British rule. I was comparing Junoon with the most successful period film - Lagaan. A film set in Champaran in Gujarat, while the characters speak in Avadhi. No matter how hard Aamir Khan works, he is miles away from Naseer and Shashi. Moreover, Ashutosh Gowariker takes him clean-shaven making him and through him the film look even more superficial.