Cinema for Change: Shyam Benegal’s Rural Trilogy

‘Through my films I can say, “Here is the world, and here are the possibilities we have,”’ – perhaps it is the existence of these possibilities that made Shyam Benegal the bearer of the winds of change in Indian cinema. There were filmmakers before him working independent of mainstream cinema, experimenting with different styles of storytelling, but Benegal emerged on the scene with other essentials necessary to reach out to a larger audience – a strong distribution network, the capability of releasing the films across the country, the discovery of talented actors like Shabana Azmi, fresh out of film school. Perhaps it was all of this and more that led to the acceptance of an alternate form of storytelling by a much larger audience. Made over a span of three years, Ankur (1974), Nishant (1975), and Manthan (1976) were stories of change, and more importantly, stories of the real India – closer than ever to its roots. ‘We live in many different centuries at the same time. The diversities are not just horizontal, but vertical’ – not consciously made as a trilogy but popularly hailed as one, these three films aimed at capturing these complexities, from caste-class politics to the horrors of the feudal system. Most importantly, each of these stories pointed at change in the end – be it big or small, but change that definitely helped develop the consciousness of an audience to look at history through a different lens.

Shabana Azmi and Anant Nag in Ankur (1974)

At 84, Benegal said in an interview, ‘Caste plays such an integral part in everything, from the manner you choose your political representative to the manner in which you choose to live or not live in a neighbourhood. Caste and class and economic circumstance have a tendency to go together.’ Ankur, his first full-length feature film made over forty-five years ago, still remains as one of the most powerful narratives on caste and class dynamics in Indian cinema. Surya (Anant Nag), a powerful landlord’s son is sent to take care of their sprawling acres in a feudal village in southern India. Young and city-educated, Surya is forced into this job by his father, who is against his son pursuing further studies. Unaccustomed to village life, Surya slowly settles down and the villagers, habituated with an absentee landlord, adjust with the ways and customs of the new one. Lakshmi (Shabana Azmi), a village woman belonging to a lower caste, looks after Surya’s home. Challenging prevalent norms, he eats food cooked by Lakshmi, insisting that he doesn’t believe in such prejudices. Surya also falls for Lakshmi. The raw, earthy sexual appeal of the village woman is portrayed in an ingenious way – a sequence of Lakshmi grinding spices, her body moving in a continuous, rhythmic motion that draws Surya towards her.

Still from Ankur

Their relationship soon takes the predictable course. Perhaps it helps that Lakshmi’s husband, Kishtiya (Sadhu Meher), is deaf, dumb and jobless, and is soon conveniently ousted from the village after he’s caught stealing. Lakshmi is aware that she has no agency – ‘What will happen to me when your young wife comes of age and is sent here to live with you,’ she asks Surya, yet it doesn’t come to us as a surprise that she gives in to his proposals. Just as Surya enters the villagers’ spaces and orders them with no understanding of their lives, it seems obvious that he’ll get what he wants from a woman of the lower caste in the same village, who is also economically dependent on him for survival. To Lakshmi, however, this partly seems like a conscious choice. When her husband leaves with no hope of return, there isn’t much to lose and she goes to Surya on her own accord. Even though she has concerns about her future in this position, she knows that her current situation shall be taken care of. It is also interesting to note that one of Surya’s primary reasons for conflict with his father is the ‘other woman’ in his father’s life, and her son. This relationship is not a secret and is even accepted by Surya’s mother, but not by him. Yet, even with so much rage against his father, he, too, establishes a similar relationship with a woman in the village.

The beginning of conflict

But unlike his father who had provided for the woman and her son all his life, Surya fails to face his own actions. His wife (Priya Tendulkar) finally comes to stay with him, and Lakshmi is slowly pushed away by her with no protest from Surya. Through the same doorframe that we had earlier seen Lakshmi sweeping the floor, a hint at the sexual tension between Surya and Lakshmi for the first time, Surya’s wife now looks at her and understands her role in the house. ‘I shall look after you forever,’ Surya had once promised Lakshmi, but there is no one to question him, the irrefutable lord of the land. Soon, Lakshmi finds herself pregnant, and we slowly begin to witness the tremors felt by Surya’s societal position – as Lakshmi calmly continues to ignore his demands of destroying the fetus with a strange sense of determination, it becomes more and more difficult for Surya to remain nonchalant about her. Lakshmi’s constant presence is a threat to him, and it is this fear that culminates into the final scene of the film. Lakshmi’s husband returns – unassuming of what has happened in his absence, he is overjoyed to find his wife pregnant and decides to visit the landlord for work. The ending scene of Ankur is powerful – the layers of caste dynamics and power politics are broken down and assembled into one single scene as Surya watches Lakshmi’s husband approaching him through the fields, his fear reaching a peak and finally making him lash out at Kishtiya. The film takes a feminist approach right at the denouement with Lakshmi being the only one coming to help her husband and voicing her protest against the atrocities while the villagers, all men, are silent bystanders to the act.

The powerlessness of Lakshmi’s protest

‘It would be ridiculously dogmatic and simplistic to think in terms of simple solutions. There are no simple solutions to complex problems,’ Benegal said. There is no sudden revolution when Surya continues to thrash Kishtiya in a frenzy of fear disguised as rage – the villagers can only stand and watch. The status quo cannot be challenged in a day, but a statement is made in the form of a cry by the oppressed lower caste woman. The reality of caste and gender oppression resonates with her emphatic cry of protest. Before the end credits start rolling, a young boy, witness to the entire scene, picks up a stone and aims at the window of Surya’s room. A silently sensitive scene, it is a powerful hint at change – the ‘possibilities’ in the filmmaker’s words.

Released after the 1970s peasant movement, Ankur was a voice of the oppressed – a rarity in Hindi cinema at that time (and still is). Its realistic setting, powerful acting and use of the local Dakhni dialect established it as a landmark film. Similar stories of feudal oppression and definitive change in the rural way of living were told subsequently in Nishant and Manthan.

Shabana Azmi in Nishant (1975)

Nishant, set in 1945, talks about feudalism and how it affects the lives of its beneficiaries, the zamindar and his family as well as the rest of the villagers. Based on Vijay Tendulkar’s story which was itself inspired by a real-life incident in Hyderabad, it shows how the abduction and rape of the wife of a newly appointed schoolmaster of a village by the brothers of a zamindar lead to the death and destruction of the landlord’s family by the villagers. In Ankur, there was an indication, a possibility, a hint (in the form of the child’s throwing of the stone in the final scene) of change—a change of the status quo. In Nishant, the destruction and hence the overthrowing of the status quo (the zamindar and his family) takes place as the outcome of events. Benegal, who had seen the Telangana peasant movement while growing up, was heavily influenced by the crumbling of the feudal lords in the princely state of the Nizam. This peasant movement was in itself a pivotal movement in the history of the communists in India and other such movements followed later, the most significant being the Naxalbari uprisings in the late sixties. It is interesting to note here that with Nishant, Benegal was indicating at the then future Telangana peasant movement which took place in actuality a year later, in 1946. Though Ankur and Nishant were set in a pre-independent India, the production and release of the films in the mid-seventies gave it a more contemporary context due to the Naxalbari uprisings which had begun a few years before.  This shows how events of the past and the present can equally influence a film.

Still from Nishant

The timings of the films are not mere coincidences but point at the awakening of a politically conscious filmmaker. Benegal remarked, ‘Political cinema will emerge when there is a need for it.’ We have seen time and again how political situations have influenced the production of films, be it the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl or closer home, films like Garam Hava, Rang De Basanti, or Peepli Live. Now, more than ever, political films should be made due to the dire situations in Indian politics but we find upper-caste savior films like Article 15 tackling the sensitive and complex issue of caste from the perspective of the oppressor – in this case, an upper-caste man. Even Benegal opines that though he enjoyed the film, ‘…..I’m not sure whether it is the right viewpoint.’ Nishant not only deals with the politics of the feudal structure prevalent at that time but explores as well as subverts the power relations in gender. Talking about feudal structures cannot be complete without talking about gender, since the feudal structure is patriarchal to its core, it treats women like objects and things of possession. The sexual exploitation of the peasants’ wives by the zamindar’s brothers clearly shows the arrogance of ownership. This audacity comes from a position of power so much so that they do not think twice before abducting the schoolmaster’s wife from her home under the nonchalant eyes of the villagers. The stigmatization of the woman who has been abducted and raped is caused by another woman, evincing that the practitioner of patriarchy is not limited to a specific gender. The power relations are subverted in this otherwise patriarchal setting in the zamindar household by the abducted Susheela (Shabana Azmi) when she demands a separate kitchen or when she accuses her husband (Girish Karnad), the meek schoolmaster of not acting like a man and trying to stop her abduction or not taking vehement actions to avenge the wrongdoings on her.

Susheela and the schoolmaster

As the most unexpected outcome of the events following her abduction, we find her submitting herself to her oppressor and even fleeing with him in the end. This was perhaps due to the acceptance of her irreparable situation on her part. The abduction of the schoolmaster’s wife and his ordeal of getting justice has a clear reference to the Indian epic Ramayana with the abduction of Sita being observed in a certain socio-political framework.  Though the rebellion of the villagers against the landlord in the climax of the film was triggered by the abduction, the film doesn’t prioritize the justice that is sought by the schoolmaster – rather, it is more concerned with justice on a much greater scale, with the obliteration of the establishment itself which created the situation in the first place. While the course of Ankur’s storyline had allowed Lakshmi to voice her protest, Susheela had no opportunity to do so. She had become a part of the society that must be destroyed. The violence is observed from a distance, leaving us with the spectacle of destruction as well as a stern warning of the times that lie ahead.

Manthan (1976): Produced by farmers

Today, the story of the making of Manthan sometimes surpasses the film itself. Financed by half a million farmers contributing Rs 2 each, Manthan remains as a rare and unique example of a film that was funded by its subjects. From Ankur to Nishant, the indication of a change in society became more pronounced while Manthan, the third in the trilogy, was at its heart the story of an actual change taking place in reality. This was Benegal’s testament to a new India that was on its way – based on Dr Verghese Kurien’s Operation Flood, a movement to create milk cooperatives in the milkshed areas of the country. This was again a screenplay by Vijay Tendulkar, but large chunks of it were rewritten on location by Girish Karnad. Like the feudal system which was the main subject in the other films, Manthan again exposes exploitative structures and power politics in a rural setting when an urban doctor, Manohar Rao (Girish Karnad) visits a village to establish a dairy cooperative. There are several points of conflict that Manohar needs to overcome, each of these power holders with their own systems in place that render the villagers powerless – the existing milk business by Mishra (Amrish Puri) that grossly underpays the farmers and the sarpanch (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) whose position is protected as long as the villagers remain voiceless. An interesting character is Bhola (Naseeruddin Shah) who adds a new dimension – the villager with a personal history that makes him look at city-dwellers with distrust. Bhola doesn’t want to challenge the status quo with the intervention and help of an ‘outsider’ – an important perspective that hints at a deeper problem, an existing rural-urban, outsider-insider divide in the hearts of the people.

Dr. Manohar Rao with the villagers

Bindu (Smita Patil) is the female voice in Manthan. She is a feisty and headstrong character, but it is still easy to exploit her – Bindu is low caste, illiterate and with a husband who is mostly absent. Bindu is an ally in Rao’s venture, and her growing intimacy with the city doctor is exploited by Mishra. The woman in Manthan, like in the other two films, is a tool in the hands of power, and she is used to press charges of sexual harassment on Rao. The final scene, too, is significant in this regard – while Rao is successful in mobilizing the villagers to set up a cooperative of their own, the position of the woman is unchanged. As Rao comes to bid goodbye before he leaves the village, Bindu is forbidden by her husband to meet the doctor. The woman still has minimum ownership over her choices.


Manthan’s success lies in the impact it was capable of making – Teams of milk biologists and vets from the National Dairy Development Board were created, who took Manthan to the villages. It succeeded in setting up more milk cooperatives across the country, reminding us of the power of cinema as a medium of change in society.

Additionally, Manthan gifted us with brilliant music. Preeti Sagar, known for an entirely different genre of music, won the National Award for ‘Mero Gaam Katha Parey’, a song made even more famous after Amul used it for its ad campaigns. In fact, Vanraj Bhatia was the music composer in all three films of the trilogy, and his genius in magnificently capturing the rural setting in music doesn’t come as a surprise.

Shyam Benegal (Photograph via National Herald)

Nehru’s plans for transforming the nation into a socialist democracy by modernizing state agencies and incorporating a western lifestyle, in turn replacing the old feudal society of India was reflected in popular cinema, especially Hindi cinema. But much of the focus of such cinema was on city life, mostly neglecting the rural life which comprises most of India. Benegal’s cinema, especially his first three films were of the very few contemporary Hindi films which dealt with rural India. Choice of films based on rural India had an economic factor as well. The films were shot in real locations which were villages, thus reducing the cost of hiring a studio which again was the usual choice of film production. While Ankur and Nishant were talking of the change of the feudal system which formed an essential part of Indian society, Manthan was based on the change that was happening in reality at that time. These films also paved the way for an alternate form of storytelling– alternate being the exploration of the same themes of gender, family, society as popular cinema but employing a different aesthetic – a rural setting dictating the unpolished image (most of the shooting in natural light) as well as a soundscape incorporating a plethora of sounds only heard in villages and folk songs indigenous to villagers. An admirer and acquaintance of Ray, Benegal admitted in an interview that Ray had advised him to ‘find his own way’ and after seeing Pather Panchali, he was ‘able to find my own voice’. Benegal did find his own voice and went on to define a new language in Hindi cinema, influencing many others to tread on their own paths.

Other References:

‘Shyam Benegal’ by Sangeeta Datta (Lotus Collection, Roli Books)

Interview: National Herald

This article has been co-authored by ind.igenous with Sourajit Saha

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