As part of NYUAD's recent Shyam Benegal Retrospective, students from NYUAD and Zayed University (ZU) participated in a two-hour master class with the legendary filmmaker, whose approximately 24 narrative features, 42 documentaries, and four television series have won him international recognition. Benegal's work is praised not only for its artistry, but also for its political commitment to imagining a better world by addressing often overlooked social issues in responsible ways.
For students interested in integrating their interest in the arts with their interests in other areas of NYUAD's liberal arts and sciences curriculum, his films are inspiring examples of ways that narrative film can entertain audiences while offering critical frameworks for addressing questions about complex issues.
During the master class, Benegal recounted to students his childhood desire to become a filmmaker before there were film schools in India. Refusing to apprentice himself in the commercial industry in Bombay (now Mumbai), he trained himself by working in advertising, where he made about 900 short films. To learn about the speed and grain of film stock, he would engage the lab technicians in conversations. Benegal stressed making films that offer truthful representations of the worlds that the film students would like to inhabit. He also urged them to be interested in everything by taking advantage of NYUAD's uniquely diverse student population as well as its academic rigor.
"I was honored to be in the presence of Shyam Benegal," said Hasan Nabulsi, NYUAD Class of 2015, who, like many of the students, was inspired by the filmmaker's ability to convey the wisdom of his long and diverse career on ways to tell stories that are both personally meaningful and socially relevant. "According to Shyam Benegal, it is when we expose our own specific realities that we reach universality," Nabulsi said. Benegal's film and television work also engages with India, particularly through Bharat Ek Khoj (1988), his 53-hour documentary on the 5,000-year history of India, which he decided to make because he thought the story needed to be told in long format.
Like many of the participants in the master class, ZU student Noura Al Suwaidi was impressed by Benegal's story of learning to make the kinds of films that he wanted to make when there wasn’t necessarily a structure in place to foster such films. "I was surprised that he started his career without going to film school," she said. Also surprising was Benegal's story of making Manthan/The Churning(1976), a film about the founding of a milk collective, that was produced in collaboration with 500,000 farmers in Gujarat, all of whom invested a few rupees so that the film could be made. The film's pre-production story stands as an early version of "crowd funding" with social consciousness and political purpose.
Students came away with a unique perspective on filmmaking as a way of understanding the world around them, rather than merely as a career or professional undertaking.
Over the past 40 years, Manthan has been circulated in a variety of contexts, from the National Film Awards, where it won best feature in Hindi and best screenplay, and the Filmfare Awards, where it won for best playback singer, to Hollywood's Oscars, where it was nominated for best foreign-language film. Additionally, it has been shown in developmental projects throughout the world, including screenings at the United Nations and in the Soviet Union and China. Manthan has found audiences who love film and music, as well as audiences who are interested in the politics of agrarian organization.
Benegal emphasized that he does not pursue projects based on marketability or branding by film festivals. "I learned that it doesn't matter if the movie is popular or not," said ZU student Mariam Al Zaabi. "What matters is its influence on people. That gave me inspiration." The master class also provided inspiration for Al Zaabi's classmate Shaima Al Ammari. "I hope I can do what he does in India here in the UAE," she said.
NYUAD sophomore Cristóbal Martínez was impressed by Benegal's openness. "He spoke about the life of being a filmmaker rather than how famous you become," he said, recalling the Buddhist quote with which the filmmaker closed the master class. "He said, 'When you are walking the road, it really does not matter where you will reach in the end; you won't know that. What matters is the road itself. In the end, you become the road.'" Students came away with a unique perspective on filmmaking as a way of understanding the world around them, rather than merely as a career or professional undertaking.
At the same time, Benegal stressed the importance of training and preparation by encouraging students to screen as many films as they can and to acquaint themselves with cinemas from around the world. He drew on examples from various cinemas represented by the students' own national backgrounds: China, Mexico, Europe, and the United States, among others. To prepare for the master class, students read chapters from a monograph on Benegal and screened some of his films on DVD from the NYUAD Library's collection. "The material provided before class did help us prepare questions for Benegal," said Nino Jose Cricco, NYUAD Class of 2016, who covered the retrospective for Electra Street. "I think most of the people in the class would agree that the time fell short of everything we wanted to discuss," he said, despite the additional 30 minutes of informal conversation after the two-hour master class.
This master class was organized by myself, NYUAD Assistant Professor of Literature Sheetal Majithia, and NYU New York's Global Distinguished Professor of English Rajeswari Sunder Rajan in collaboration with Alia Yunis at Zayed University. The retrospective was supported by NYUAD Arts and Humanities and the Office of the Provost in collaboration with the Embassy of India, the Indian Film Society of UAE, the Kerala Social Centre, and the Abu Dhabi India School.