Early in his career, when his films Ankur ( The Seedling ) and Manthan ( The Churning ) were released to international acclaim, Shyam Benegal was widely seen as Indian cinema's heir apparent to Satyajit Ray. Though his sympathies are leftist, Benegal has never adopted the Marxist perspective of Mrinal Sen or Ritwik Ghatak; like Ray, his standpoint is classically liberal-humanist. As Sangeeta Datta notes: "Benegal's vision is one of reform within the existing structure, instead of radical challenge to the state/ system itself." Benegal himself says: "Hindi commercial cinema constantly tells you that change is not possible!"
In placing himself in opposition to Bollywood's high-gloss kitsch, Benegal questions not so much its aesthetic practices (which on occasion he has borrowed) as what he sees as its underlying political assumptions. "My films are all about conflict," he notes. "In mainstream (Indian) cinema, the values projected are status quo."
Datta's book, the first major critical study in English of Benegal's films, is detailed and affectionate. She traces the development of his style, noting how the scrupulous naturalism of his early work has widened to take in elements of fantasy, visual stylisation and narrative ambivalence, especially his growing penchant for multiple viewpoints. But his overriding concern has remained consistent: to give expression to what Datta terms the "subaltern subject" - women above all, but also Dalits ("untouchables") and members of religious minorities, those elements so often denied a voice.
These two strands come together in the film Datta regards as Benegal's masterpiece: the 1992 Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda ( The Seventh Horse of the Sun ), an ironic, densely layered drama that explores the concept of the unreliable narrator while attacking the caste and gender-based discrimination that still disfigures modern-day India.
Datta's appreciation of Benegal never blinds her to his shortcomings, not least to his weakness for what the actress Shabana Azmi calls "cause films". Datta also suggests that the quality of his output may have suffered from its sheer bulk - 23 feature-length films in 30 years, plus a large body of television work. This, as much as the eclipse of Indian "parallel cinema" by the recent vogue for Bollywood films, may explain Benegal's current low profile. But the best of his films, Datta's study makes clear, have the potential to outlast such passing fads.
Philip Kemp is a freelance film critic and writer.
Author - Sangeeta Datta
Publisher - BFI Publishing
Pages - 246
Price - £48.00 and £13.99
ISBN - 0 85170 907 9 and 908 7