With the Abu Dhabi Film Festival just around the corner, legendary filmmaker Shyam Benegal recently visited NYUAD as part of a weekend-long retrospective. During the event, students, faculty, and staff joined the Indian community to hear Benegal speak on secularism in Indian cinema; attend a public lecture by Dr. Anuradha Needham, Donald R. Longman professor of English and Chair at Oberlin College, on Benegal's films; and screen Benegal's trilogy, "Muslim women" films — Mammo (1994), Sardari Begum (1996), and Zubeidaa (2001).
The public lecture and master class held at NYUAD's Downtown Campus embodied aspects of the University's unique curricular commitment to marrying the practice and study of film. The retrospective also recognized South Asia as a key part of film culture in the UAE beyond the commercial films of Mumbai and Chennai. In particular, Benegal's films show a sustained interest in strong female characters across a number of vectors of oppression and minoritization, which was the subject of Needham's lecture.
Benegal is internationally recognized as a filmmaker and as a citizen. He is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri awards, two of the highest honors given by the Republic of India to civilians, and he served as a member of Parliament. For cinéphiles, Benegal is considered the Father of the Indian New Wave, a new direction in Indian filmmaking that extends the realist tradition of Bengali filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, whose Pather Panchali (1955) was screened as part of the Journeys in Film History series hosted last spring by the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and the NYUAD Institute.
Benegal's first feature film, Ankur (1973), starring Shabana Azmi and Anant Nag, explored economic and sexual exploitation within asymmetrical social relations of gender, class, and caste. The film won immediate critical praise in India and abroad. (Azmi will herself visit Abu Dhabi this week when she becomes the first woman to head the jury in the Fiction Film Competition at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.) Benegal's films have won national and international acclaim, including seven National Film Awards, twenty Filmfare Awards, and nominations and awards at the Cannes, Berlin, and Moscow International Film Festivals. In addition to winning the popular acclaim of film festivals, Benegal is a politically committed filmmaker, even when working in a Bollywood-like idiom. This can be seen in his most recent film, Well Done Abba! (2009).
For those living in Abu Dhabi, the opportunity to hear Needham speak on Benegal's films, followed by responses by Sunder Rajan and Benegal himself, was extraordinary.
In her public lecture, "Performing Women: The Nachne Ganewali (Singing-dancing Women) of Shyam Benegal's Sardari Begum," Needham revealed ways in which Benegal's films perform a kind of recovery of the courtesan figure that was sanitized after independence by young middle-class Indians trained in the colonial education system. With the erasure of the space for the nachne ganewali comes a separation of song and dance into separate realms of cultural life.
Taken from Needham's forthcoming book, New Indian Cinema in Post-Independence India: The Cultural Work of Shyam Benegal's Films (Routledge, 2013), the lecture was followed by an open conversation by Needham, Benegal, and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Global Distinguished Professor of English at NYU New York, who is teaching at NYU Abu Dhabi this semester. Sunder Rajan asked Benegal and Needham to consider the implications of Benegal's films that feature strong female characters as contemporaneous with the feminisms, both in India and transnationally.
For those living in Abu Dhabi, the opportunity to hear Needham speak on Benegal's films, followed by responses by Sunder Rajan and Benegal himself, was extraordinary. One member of the community called the afternoon "intellectually stimulating," adding that the public lecture was another example of ways that NYUAD has changed her life in Abu Dhabi. Another wrote that she was thrilled to learn about the retrospective and immediately encouraged her sons to attend since she had appreciated the opportunity to meet Benegal a few years ago at an event organized by Ira Bhaskar (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) and Richard Allen (NYU New York) for the NYUAD Institute.
The retrospective was organized by myself, NYUAD Assistant Professor of Literature Sheetal Majithia, and Sunder Rajan with the support of NYUAD's Arts and Humanities division and the Office of the Provost, and in collaboration with the Embassy of India, the Indian Film Society of UAE, the Kerala Social Centre, and the Abu Dhabi India School. We hope that this collaboration will continue, allowing NYUAD's Arts and Humanities to foreground the substantial contribution of India to cinema and Indian community to film culture in Abu Dhabi.