At the start of his career, when his films Ankur (1974) (The Seedling) and Manthan (1976) (The Churning) were released to international acclaim, Shyam Benegal was widely seen as Indian cinema’s heir apparent to Satyajit Ray. Although his sympathies are essentially leftist, Benegal has never adopted the Marxist perspective of Mrinal Sen or Ritwik Ghatak; like Ray, his standpoint is classically liberal-humanist. In placing himself in opposition to the all-singing, all-dancing kitsch of Bollywood, Benegal questions not so much its aesthetic practices, which on occasion he has been willing to borrow, 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. Hindi commercial cinema constantly tells you that change is not possible!”
Over the years, the naturalism of Benegal’s early work has gradually widened to take in elements of fantasy, visual stylization, and narrative ambivalence, particularly a penchant for multiple viewpoints. But his overriding concern has been to give expression to the disadvantaged: women above all, but also Dalits, or “untouchables,” and members of religious minorities, those elements so often denied a voice within Indian society. These two strands come together in perhaps his finest film yet: Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (1993) (Seventh Horse of the Sun), an ironic, densely layered drama that attacks the discrimination that continues to disfigure modern-day India.
Benegal’s weakness is for issue-driven films made to dramatize a thesis. The quality of his output has suffered from its sheer bulk: 23 feature-length films in 30 years. Had Benegal made fewer but more considered movies, his reputation would probably stand far higher.