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Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Shyam Benegal

One of the most well-known figures in the Indian Parallel Cinema movement, Shyam Benegal amplified a brand of cinematic realism that came to be associated with “middle cinema”. Benegal’s influence is omnipresent and can hardly be avoided when encountering contemporary Indian films which attempt to conduct modern treatments of social issues.

Born in Hyderabad, Benegal was drawn to photography from an early age and created his first film when he was just 12-years-old. Starting out as a copywriter for advertisements, Benegal slowly worked his way towards making his first feature film in the early ’70s which received national recognition and contributed to the momentum of New Indian cinema.

Even after all these years, Benegal is still active in the filmmaking community and has returned to the director’s chair for an upcoming biopic about the Founding Father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Alongside his feature-length dramas about the grim socioeconomic conditions in India, Benegal has also produced an extensive body of documentaries.

Check out a list of six definitive films that everyone should watch as an introduction to the directorial talent of Shyam Benegal.

Shyam Benegal’s six definitive films:

Ankur (1974)

This was the fantastic debut feature that set the ball rolling for Benegal and launched the careers of iconic Indian actors such as Shabana Azmi and Anant Nag. Set in the 1950s, Ankur tells the story of a landlord’s son who has an affair with the married housekeeper.

Through its simple dramatic premise, Ankur explores various issues that still plague Indian society including class and caste divides. Benegal, from his very first feature, managed to continue the tradition of cinematic realism seen in Bengali Parallel films while making the vision his own,

Nishant (1975)

Based on the work of celebrated playwright Vijay Tendulkar, Nishant explores the power structures at play in feudal India. A difficult cinematic experience, the film shows how the patriarchal social fabric facilitated the violent commodification of women.

Benegal bases his thesis on the story of a rural aristocrat who orders the abduction of a married woman and because of his influence, her husband is helpless. When justice seems like a possibility through mass mobilisation, it only results in overwhelming violence that is without redemption.

Bhumika (1977)

Starring Smita Patil as an actress, Bhumika is a moving deconstruction of the allure of fame. It follows Patil’s character as she grows up to be a successful performer but realises that her life is terribly empty, filled with meaningless forms of subjectivity and problematic men.

One of the greatest Indian films ever made on the subject of self-identity, Bhumika is an indispensable work when it comes to a proper understanding of what it means to be a woman in India (albeit a privileged one). For her fantastic performance, Patil won the National Film Award.

Mandi (1983)

An interesting adaptation of an Urdu story, Mandi revolves around a brothel in the middle of Hyderabad. Shabana Azmi stars as an old madame who is determined to train her most talented performer (Smita Patil) and ensures that she does not enter the wrong world.

Intended as a satirical take on social conservatism and hypocritical morality, Benegal masterfully shows how marginalised individuals like sex workers are capable of possessing more empathy and compassion than the socially-accepted culture warriors who routinely attack them.

The Seventh Horse of the Sun (1992)

One of Benegal’s most acclaimed works, this 1992 drama is based on the eponymous novel by Dharmavir Bharati. A self-reflexive work, the film follows the narration of a man who recalls three women belonging to the different socioeconomic strata of Indian society.

Brilliantly weaved together, The Seventh Horse of the Sun is a beautifully abstract tale about the misogyny widespread in the structures of Indian patriarchy which can also be observed in the men who are cynical about such things due to the far-reaching impact of ideology.

Mammo (1994)

Probably the finest film Benegal ever made, Mammo is the first instalment in the director’s acclaimed Muslim trilogy. The film is about a bitter 13-year-old boy in Bombay who is still heartbroken due to the fact that his father abandoned him and left him with his grandmother.

A competent visual translation of the devastating, lingering consequences of a traumatic event such as the India-Pakistan partition, Benegal viciously attacks the imagined ideas of nationalism by providing overwhelming evidence in support of more poignant elements of identity.