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Art and Artifice Bollywood glitz collides with indie substance in Shyam Benegal's 'Zubeidaa,' starring Karisma Kapoor.

Shyam Benegal at The Del Mar

India's master filmmaker discusses his 2001 hit 'Zubeidaa'

By Richard von Busack

In India, they call it "parallel cinema." Parallel to the mainstream, that is, films engaging the problems mere entertainments try to ignore: poverty, prejudices, sexism and the dead hand of the past. In short, it means films that are not just the same old song and dance of Bollywood.

The director Shyam Benegal has carved out a 30-year career for himself dealing mostly in parallel cinema. Sangeeta Datta, who authored the definitive study on Benegal, has said that the director "is the only man besides Satyajit Ray who has put Indian cinema on a world platform."

This week, Benegal will be touring Northern California, spending Sept. 5-7 in Berkeley at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archives (PFA). He arrives here at the Del Mar Sept. 8 to screen his musical film Zubeidaa, starring Karisma Kapoor. (And because of his upcoming appearance at an internationally famous film festival, expect the West to hear a little more about Benegal this year.) In Santa Cruz, Sept. 8 is Shyam Benegal Day by mayoral proclamation. The local visit has been organized by Santa Cruz's Satyajit Ray Film and Study Collection, administered by UCSC professor Dilip Basu.

A loose group of Indian film societies imported neorealist films from Europe to India in the 1940s. Satyajit Ray himself began a circle of foreign film aficionados in Calcutta. This was shortly before Ray created his Apu Trilogy, the peak of parallel cinema. Ray's Pather Patchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar concern the journey of a young man from the country to the city. These three films are religious and they are sensual; they focus on the smallest matters and pull back to reveal the canvas of human migration. "To miss it is like missing the sun and the moon," said Akira Kurosawa.

The ferment of the 1970s spawned a second wave of indie Indian cinema, of which Benegal is the best-known filmmaker. At a Benegal retrospective in London in 2002, the filmmaker's collaborator (and Indian minister of culture) Girish Karnad described the Hindi film industry of the '70s as "an absolutely closed shop, with doors and windows locked and bolted. No one was allowed outside."

To what Karnad deemed an "obese and inward-looking" show business, Benegal came. And he stayed, making 21 features and two documentaries. He had a late start as a feature filmmaker, commencing his career at age 39. According to programmer Steve Seid of the PFA, Benegal had made some 600 TV commercials by the time he started making films. His résumé includes work on the Indian sequences in Powasqaasti, Godfrey Reggio's follow-up to Koyaanisqatsi; a 1984 documentary on Pandit Nehru; and a 53-hour made-for-TV history of India, shot on 35 mm film.

In his later career, Benegal's impatience with the limitations of narrative film led him into the field explored by Iran's Abbas Kiarostami. Benegal began to create true-life stories, told within the frame of a filmmaker's journey to capture them.

"Fearless Females" is the title of a three-film Benegal retrospective at the PFA. His first succès d'estime from 1974, Ankur (Sept. 5), concerns the adulterous cross-caste affair between a property owner and his poor and desperate housekeeper. Like Ray, Benegal avoids the easy melodrama of victim and victimizer, instead showing the social pressures that warp hapless people. Also like Ray, Benegal specializes in a cinema that shows women as underdogs who still have some bite.

Bhumika (1977), playing Sept. 6, is a fictionalized adaptation of the scandalous life of Hansa Wadkar. Benegal describes it thus: Wadkar "was a Marathi film actress whose career spanned from the late '30s into the 1950s. ... And she wrote a superb autobiography ... which was also seminal as the most extraordinary feminist work to have appeared in India." In a cinema that customarily forbade depicting women drinking alcohol, Benegal was dealing with a veritable Amy Winehouse. The film flopped on its initial release and only succeeded later on rerelease.

Wrapping up the retrospective is Zubeidaa (2001). It's based on the true story of writer Khalid Mohammed's struggle to recapture his mother, an ill-fated actress whose ambitions were crushed by an arranged marriage.

Benegal's generosity can be gleaned from a story he told in 2002. Mohammed was a critic who despised Benegal's films before Benegal phoned him up and recruited him as a screenwriter. Zubeidaa may be this director's most accessible film to the West. It's a hybrid, in which the phosphorescent colors of Bollywood are met with a serious parallel exploration of modern memory in India.

Movie Times SHYAM BENEGAL discusses 'Zubeidaa' with UCSC's Dilip Basu after a screening on Saturday, Sept. 8, at noon at the Del Mar Theatre, 1124 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $8 general/$7 students

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