A moral middle ground

Bollywood Babylon
October 27, 2006

Internationally, Shyam Benegal is probably the best known living Indian film-maker, second only to the late Satyajit Ray. Neither of them is associated with mainstream Hindi cinema or "Bollywood", but rather with a style that seeks to blend Western film-making with local forms, whether narratives or aesthetics, and which embraces the values of liberal humanism.

Ironically, Benegal's only film that came close to Bollywood without ditching his usual themes, Zubeidaa (2001), is the one that has brought him the widest audience in recent years, although he is best known for films from the 1970s and 1980s, such as Ankur (1974), Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977).

Although Benegal's cinema can be traced to the middle-class literary cinema of Pune's Prabhat Studios and Calcutta's New Theatres, which flourished in the 1930s and 1940s, he created the "parallel" or "middle" cinema, a form that falls between the commercial cinema and avant-garde forms. Driven by strong narratives, often from literary texts, and working with playwrights such as Girish Karnad and Vijay Tendulkar, the films show the connection of the past with the present. Benegal is most celebrated for raising social issues such as the injustice and oppression of caste, class and gender and is often regarded as India's leading "feminist" film-maker.

This book contains transcripts of eight interviews with Benegal. The interviewer has done his research, but the book seems constrained by the question-and-answer format, with only the rare long answer from Benegal outweighing the otherwise regular balance between interviewer and subject.

It sheds much light on how the films were made and Benegal's reflections on them, but some sections show the problems with interviewing someone with more than 30 years' experience of film-making. For example, the section on childhood is almost identical to part of Sangeeta Datta's volume on Benegal published by the British Film Institute.

I would like to punish the publisher with an all-night trip on an Indian video coach for the crassness of the title. It can only have been chosen to attract Bollywood fans with its echo of Hollywood Babylon , Kenneth Anger's iconic work that set the benchmark for film gossip and sleaze. The title will probably sink the book, thus doing the author and the subject a great disservice.

Rachel Dwyer is reader in Indian studies and cinema, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Bollywood Babylon: Interviews with Shyam Benegal

Editor - William van der Heide
Publisher - Berg
Pages - 229
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 1 84520 404 2 and 405 0

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