Shyam Benegal (శ్యాం బెనెగల్ ) (born 14 December, 1934,in Andhra pradesh ) is a prolific Indian director and screenwriter. With his first four feature films Ankur (1973), Nishant (1975) Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977) he created a new genre, which has now come to be called the "middle cinema" in India.
He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1976 and the Padma Bhushan in 1991. On 8th August 2007, he was awarded the highest award in Indian cinema for lifetime achievement, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for the year 2005. He has won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi seven times.
In 1963 he started his brief stint with another advertising agency called ASP (Advertising, Sales and Promotion) . During his advertising years, he directed over 900 sponsored documentaries and advertising films.
Between 1966 and 1973, Shyam also taught at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, and later remained its Chairman twice, (1980-83) and (1989-92). By this times he already started making documentaries, what was to remain his career-long passion, one of his early documentaries "A Child of the Streets" (1967) got him wide acclaim , in all he has made over 70 documentary and short films .
Soon, he was awarded the Homi Bhabha Fellowship (1970-72) , which allowed him to work at Children Television Workshop, New York, and later at Boston WGBHTV.
The success that New India Cinema enjoyed in the 1970s and early 1980s could largely be attributed to Shyam Benegal's quartet Ankur (1973), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977), which were artistically superior yet commercially viable films. Tapping fresh talent mainly from the FTII and NSD like Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Amrish Puri, Benegal has made several sensitive and stimulating films.
With Nishant (Night's End) (1975), where a teacher's wife is abducted and gang-raped by four zamindars and officialdom turns a deaf ear to the distraught husband's pleas for help. With, Manthan (The Churning) (1976), a film on rural empowerment, set against the backdrop of Gujarat's fledgling dairy industry, Benegal continued to address the viewer in a strict cinematic language bereft of commercial skills. For the first time, over five lakh rural farmers in Gujarat, contributed Rs 2 each, and thus became film's producers. Upon its release, truckloads of farmers came to see 'their film', making it a success at the box office. After this trilogy on rural oppression, ending with an empowering finale of Mathan (1976), he made a biopic, Bhumika (The Role) (1977), broadly based on the life of well-known Marathi stage and film actress of the 1940s, Hansa Wadkar (played by Smita Patil), who led a flamboyant and unconventional life, and later sets out on at an individual search for identity and self-fulfillment, at same time grappling with exploitation by men. .
Meanwhile in the early 70's Shyam made 21 film modules for Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), sponsored by UNICEF. This allowed him to interact with children of SITE and many folk artists, eventually he used many of these children, in his rendition of the classic folk tale, as a feature length children's film, Charandas Chor (Charandas the Thief) in 1975, which he made for the Children Films Society of India. To quote film critic, Derek Malcolm:
"…What Benegal has done is to paint a magnificent visual recreation of those extraordinary days and one that is also sensitive to the agonies and predicament of a talented woman whose need for security was only matched by her insistence on freedom" .
Following the success of these four films, he was backed by film star Shashi Kapoor for whom he made Junoon (1978) and Kalyug (1981). The former, an inter-racial love story, set amidst the turbulent period of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, is one of Benegal's most stylish films and one which is meticulously detailed and visually arresting and one that gave him much satisfaction, but Kalyug, a complex narrative based on the Mahabharat was not a big hit. Though, both the films won the Filmfare Best Movie Award, in 1980 and 1982 respectively.
Deeply interest in life and several domains of human enquiry, Shyam Benegal's sensibilities gets reflect in his cinema which in turn have been inspired by the different facets of India. And he never wavered from his commitment to his vision, of making socially relevant as well as uplifting films. A promise that was kept well, with his next film, Mandi (1983) was a satirical comedy about politics and prostitution, starring Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. Later, working from his own story, based on the last days of Portuguese in Goa, in the early 1960s, Shyam explored human relationship and its quagmires in Trikaal (1985).
In the 1980s however with the collapse of the New Cinema, Benegal's films have not had proper releases and the 1980s also saw him turn to TV where he directed serials like Yatra (1986) for the Indian Railways, and of course one of the biggest projects undertaken on Indian Television, the 53-episode television serial based on Jawaharlal Nehru's book, Discovery of India (Bharat Ek Khoj) (1988) .
Soon, Shyam Benegal stepped beyond traditional narrative films, and took to biographical material to achieve greater freedom of expression . His first venture in this genre was with a documentary film based on Satyajit Ray’s life, titled, 'Satyajit Ray, the Filmmaker', in 1985. This was followed by similar biographical works like Sardari Begum (1996), and Zubeidaa, which written by film critic Khalid Mohammed based on his mother's life in 2001.
In 1992, he made another classic, Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (Seventh Horse of the Sun) based on a novel by Dharmavir Bharati, which won the 1993 National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi. After that, in 1996 he made another film based on a book, The Making of the Mahatma, based on Fatima Meer's, The Apprenticeship of a Mahatma. This turn to biographical material, resulted in Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero, his 2005 English language film. Before the 90s ended, he created another National Film Award for Best Film winning film, in Samar (1999), with a scathing view on Indian caste system.
Shyam Benegal also owns a production company called, 'Sahyadri Films'.
He has also authored three books based on his own films, 'The Churning' with Vijay Tendulkar in 1984 on Manthan; 'Satyajit Ray', 1988 based on his biographical film, 'Satyajit Ray, Filmmaker'; and 'The Marketplace' in 1989 on Mandi.
Following this, Shyam Benegal is set to direct an epic musical 'Chamki' , about love, jealousy and betrayal, inspired by George Bizet's classic Spanish opera Carmen. The story revolves around the eponymous Chamki, a beautiful gypsy girl with a fiery temper & is written by Shama Zaidi. The music by A. R. Rahman & lyrics by Javed Akhtar. Chamki, to be produced by Chetan Motiwalla. The film is in the casting stage & scheduled to go on floor in October 2008.
One of his future projects is a film based on Noor Inayat Khan - a descendant of Tipu Sultan, who served as a British-Indian spy during the World War II .