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Benegal, the film curator

Updated on: 07 November,2021 07:35 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Meenakshi Shedde |

And so, we got to learn about Shyam Benegal, the Film Curator

Benegal, the film curator

Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeIn the name of my mentors who had guided me—Amrit Gangar, Maithili Rao, Iqbal Masud (FG Jilani)—I recently conducted an online Basic Course in How to Curate Films for Festivals for the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) last week. It was my way of paying it forward. Helping create a younger generation of film curators whose good taste in cinema could help generate a sustainable demand for good cinema. The participants came from all over India, including Imphal, Patna, Chhattisgarh, Kasargod and Belgaum, apart from Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Pune and Trivandrum. I was overwhelmed by the effusive response from the participants, and the high point was doubtless having veteran director Shyam Benegal as Chief Guest at the valedictory function. Although busy, well into his 80s, with his new film Bangabandhu on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, first prime minister of Bangladesh, he graciously agreed to address the class. And so, we got to learn about Shyam Benegal, the Film Curator.

Shyambabu (as he is fondly called) spoke of his early initiation into cinema, and I’m paraphrasing some of his wonderful talk here: I was just getting into college in Hyderabad, and tried to start a film society. Hyderabad State was then a multilingual state, so several languages were spoken in the street, and we also got to see films in the commercial theatres in multiple languages—Telugu, Tamil, Urdu, Kannada and Marathi—and of course Hollywood films. There was a cinema close to my house, that catered to the Army garrison in Secunderabad cantonment, and they showed films from all over India and Hollywood. So we grew up with the idea that we are a multilingual country, and that shaped our mentality. You thought in terms of different languages and a world beyond your own.

Once, an uncle of mine said, have you seen a film called Pather Panchali? I said no. He said it’s made by a commercial artist called Satyajit Ray. It’s a feature, but more like a documentary—somewhat like Nanook of the North—close to life, he said. Through its distributor, Aurora Film Corporation of Calcutta, I wrote to Mr Ray, that we would love to show his Pather Panchali at our film society. Most certainly, he wrote back, in that beautiful handwriting of his. I think it took three-four days for the prints to travel from Calcutta to Hyderabad by train. We hired a Sunday morning show in a theatre and got the Deccan Chronicle to write about the film in advance. The film would go on to the Cannes Film Festival. But we had all of a dozen people at the screening. Yet, I was thunderstruck by this amazing film. I asked the theatre manager if I could watch it again. Come tomorrow morning and just pay the operator some chai-pani, he said. So I watched it again in the theatre.

Much later, I was participating in the inter-university freestyle swimming championships in Calcutta, and got in touch with Mr Ray. He was very welcoming. I went around tea time and we talked about everything under the sun till 9.30pm, but he never once asked me to stay for dinner. I was struck by that. But I was able to arrange a mini-Ray film festival with the Apu trilogy—Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar—and the comedy Parash Pathar. Soon I was running the film society, going a lot by Ray’s recommendations. Have you seen this film? What about that film? He would ask. There were Hollywood films; French films were coming into India; director Roberto Rossellini’s Italian producer was hoping Italian films could be distributed in India. So thanks to the Aurora Film Corporation, we had a little festival of Rossellini’s films and Vittorio de Sica’s films, including Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine. Later we even showed Akira Kurosawa’s films. But I wanted to make films myself, and when I came to Bombay, that was the end of the film society.

In Bombay, there were at least three film societies, including the Bombay Film Society and Film Forum. Once, after lndependence, the ministry of information and broadcasting invited me to “go around the world,” curating the best films for the International Film Festival of India (IFFI). I travelled to North Africa—Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, then Europe—France, UFA in Germany, Spain, and North America. It was the first time I had curated anything on this scale, with films from all over the world. My main criteria were: how is this film relevant to India? Could people relate to it? Today, when we choose from dozens of films on Netflix, Amazon or any other streaming sites, deciding what films to see, we are all self-curating.”

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. 
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