Shyam Benegal’s ‘Ankur’ and the beginning of a film movement

A script written during the filmmaker’s college years became the foundation of his sparkling career as one of cinema’s greatest realists.

Shyam Benegal touted the story of Ankur for 14 years, knocking on the doors of several producers who turned down his proposal. Many of them had the same question for him: ‘Who wants to see a film about the landlord and his mistress?’ He finally secured independent financing from Blaze Films, the largest distributors of advertising films in India. Mohan Bijlani and Freni Varavia were far-sighted producers who convinced him to make the film in Hindi and not in the regional language of Telugu, which was the director’s original plan.

Soon after World War II, Bijlani realized the importance of advertisements in cinema halls – his company, Blaze, made advertisement films and slides which reached the furthest corners of the country. Benegal has already made commercials for the company which was to back his subsequent works as well. Set firmly within the realist aesthetic, Ankur deals with feudal oppression in the microcosmic rural world of a village in Andra Pradesh. The film contains explicit reference to the peasants’ movement, initially led by the CPI (M) (Communist Party of India [Marxist]), which acquired a national dimension following the failure of the 1971-72 harvests. Shyam had written the script in his college years, basing it loosely on a true story.

Shabana Azmi in ‘Ankur’.
Shabana Azmi in ‘Ankur’.

Benegal used professional actors in Ankur, some from the Film Institute as well from the National School of Drama. He was very keen to cast Waheeda Rehman – a top actress from popular films, best known for her roles in Guru Dutt’s films and in Vijay Anand’s Guide (1965) – as his heroine, but she turned down the role after a bad experience in a regional film in Kerala. Shabana Azmi cast as the heroine Lakshmi was a fresh graduate and gold medallist from the film institute. The style of the film was considered alien to the Hindi film industry. The actors wore no makeup and were dressed in realistic costumes. The languages used is the dialect of Dakhni Urdu, commonly used around Hyderabad. The blend of Dakhni and Telugu folk songs located characters through the use of language. Both Azmi and Nag introduced a new style of natuaralised acting using regional accents.

Ankur has been defined as deploying psychological realism and regional authenticity to the accepted narrative style of Indian films. Yet Benegal tells a story and tells it well. The narrative base line is one of the strongest features of his films. Here he creates a detailed microcosmic world and its characters in which the macro forces of feudal power structures and gender oppression are played out. Ankur is not an overtly didactic film, but in the Brechtian sense it does ask the audience to react to what is represented, rather than telling the viewer what to do.

Anant Nag in ‘Ankur’.
Anant Nag in ‘Ankur’.

Benegal’s first trilogy – Ankur, Nishant and Manthan – combined the contemporary stage of pleasant revolution with the consolidation of the development aesthetic (the Nehruvian vision of socialist and egalitarian society, which included five-year plans as development models). The three films comprise a trilogy in the sense that they deal with contemporary or neo-contemporary situations in India. They deal with the changes that are taking place very slowly as India moves from the feudal systems that prevailed and continue to prevail. The change has much to do with ownership and power. Ankur and Nishant – based on real-life incidents in Hyderabad – and Manthan – about the development of the milk colony in Gujarat – are rural stories about change. They were immediately hailed as a trilogy, even though Benegal had not set out to make this consciously. By using regional dialect, the new cinema was able to ‘forge a new aesthetic of statist realism’. Ankur became ‘a symbol of new cinema’.

Benegal himself attributed the success of the new cinema to the existence of a demand. ‘Political cinema will only emerge when there is a need for it,’ he observed.

Ankur has also been termed a ‘politically inflected melodrama’. Benegal himself has commented that political films are made when the need for them arises. The Indian Constitution set up in 1950 was a social contract on paper, but this did not immediately bring to an end the prevalent feudal order. In the early 1970s, the audience of new cinema was well aware of the post-independence peasant struggles against feudalism, especially the rise of the Naxalite movement, a peasant uprising which turned to armed insurrection in the Naxalbari district of Bengal and spread to Andhra Pradesh. Ankur is set in 1945 in a feudal state, but the background of 1970s peasant insurrection gave it a contemporary edge.

Ankur’s ending was immediately read as a powerful statement of the awakened consciousness of the oppressed peasants. The absence of closure and the act of defiance by a silent witness (in this case, the young boy) effectively point to future developments and subversions of the power equation.

The strength of the film lies in the detailed exploration of characters and their motivations, the contradictory impulses they are governed by, the stray glances and gestures, landscape details, marvellous use of folk music and natural sound. Benegal comments on the open ending in Ankur:

It would be ridiculously dogmatic and simplistic to think in terms of simple solutions. There are no simple solutions to complex problems. Besides the solutions would have to be in the outside world. But it is interesting to explore the problems in Indian society, so that at least one can become aware of the forces that are at work in it and the way those forces combine and interact. The point is to clarify the directions one must take if these problems have to be sorted out.

When asked whether he considered himself part of the new wave, Benegal predictably replied:

I am not sure if there is such a thing as a new wave. Let me put it this way, some people now attempt to make films of their own choice, different from the industry’s mould, everything gets cast in that mould, films come out of that fantastic sausage machine. Now there is a wide range of people, from one end of the scale to the other, who want to make their own kind of films. So I certainly would think of myself as a part of this group.

Excerpted with permission from Shyam Benegal, Sangeeta Datta, Roli Books.

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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

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For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.