Some 30 years ago he collected two rupees each from some 500,000 dairy farmers to make “Manthan”, a marvel of socially responsible cinema, a film that gave a face to the White Revolution. He gave shape to the market then. He has his ear plugged to the market even now.
In 2008 Shyam Benegal’s “Mahadev ka Sajjanpur” has become “Welcome to Sajjanpur”. Starring the inestimable Shreyas Talpade who defied all odds in “Iqbal” and Amrita Rao whose portrayal of a small town girl was so appreciated in “Vivah”, the change of name has been brought about by market.All for change
“The producers marketed both the working and the present titles. A survey found that the audiences were more receptive to ‘Welcome to Sajjanpur’ and hence that is the final title,” says Shyam Benegal, on his way to a promotional tour.
Again, unlike most other directors of the art-house cinema of the 1970s, he has embraced change. He is ready to speak to the press, promote his film, unlike others who hide behind the oft-quoted, ‘I would like my work to speak’ or ‘Please, see the film, then we talk’. Benegal realises that the film has to be talked about to be seen in today’s age. Hence, the smooth transition to the new market mantra.
But for all his market acumen, has not Benegal goofed up on the date of release? “Welcome to Sajjanpur” relates the story of a letter writer, a postman, who is the only literate soul in the village. It is releasing during Ramadan, traditionally a period that blockbusters stay away from because a sizeable section of the audiences do not patronise cinema at this time.
Benegal is matter-of-fact. “Every time is risk time. The product has to sell on its own individual merit. As far as Ramadan is concerned, we had to take a call. Either be sandwiched between blockbusters or release now. We opted to release now because the Ramadan period being a lull for films is beginning to be a thing of the past.”
How confident is he of selling his tale of a village in the interiors of India where illiteracy is a way of life to a cola-sipping, hamburger-eating metropolis crowd with its Hinglish ways? Will urban India take to the story of an era it left behind years ago?Bridging divides
“Cinema has become more urban-centric in recent years. But I am sure this film will bridge the urban-rural divide. I am confident youngsters will like it. as the producers are doing their bit to make them aware of the film’s contents. So with all the promos, it won’t come as a shock,” says Benegal. Then asks, “Have you seen the promos?” Just to make his point, he adds, “Cinema has a universal language. How else to do you think films with sub-titles are watched across the world?”
The film is recording another interesting sidelight. There is a lot of attention on the hero Shreyas Talpade who must read and write letters for villagers. It is quite unlike the past when Benegal’s films were just his films. “Ankur”, “Manthan”, “Nishant”, later “Mammo” and even “Bose” are his films, not so much as Shabana Azmi, Fareeda Jalal or Sachin Khedekar’s films.
The veteran, who got the Dadasaheb Phalke award last year for his contribution to cinema, is at ease with the winds of change. “It does not make the slightest difference to me. As long as the cinemagoers come and see my film, it is fine. As a filmmaker, I would like as many people as possible to see the film. For whom they come is of no relevance.”
Through with “Welcome to Sajjanpur”, Benegal is moving swiftly to an international project on spy princess Noor Inayat. None other than Lord Meghnad Desai has done the script. Then there is a film on Lord Buddha too. More than a handful?
“Not quite. They are all spaced out projects and have been at various stages of negotiations for some time. It is only when you talk of them in one breath does it seem like too much.”
Simple words; simply put. Much like his films. Welcome then to “Sajjanpur”, the latest from the man who just recently made waves when his landmark tele-series “Bharat Ek Khoj” made it back through a DVD series. Clearly, there is no stopping Benegal.
6 months ago