(image from Planet Bollywood.com)

Up until last week, almost any American writing about Shyam Benegal had to do a great deal of bluffing. Cinematical's Kim Voynar just described viewing Benegal's Goa-set Trikal during the Telluride fest where the master filmmaker (and Indian member of Parliament) was receiving the fest's highest honor, the Silver Medallion. Here we have audio of the ceremony, as well as an interview between Benegal and Godard collaborator J.-P. Gorin.

A person with a Netflix account can see seven other Benegal films, including 2001's Zubeidaa, and that leaves about 14 other films unaccounted for. Here in Berkeley, Benegal is a three-day guest at the Pacific Film Archives. Saturday the 8th he's heading south to Santa Cruz to show Zubeidaa. Benegal was invited down to that small but incomparable college town by the local Satyajit Ray Film and Study collection. That Benegal was following Ray's enormous steps is something even a bluffer knows. He made a documentary about Ray, for example, and like the great Bengali filmmaker, Benegal was an escapee from the rainbow-colored escapism of Bollywood. For me, it took last night's PFA screening of Benegal's early film Ankur (The Seedling) to really explain what the fuss was about.

Nothing could be less like melodrama than this Faulkner-like study of hard living in a rural backwater, a contrast between wretched poverty and wealthy ineffectualness. A callow landowner's son--whose surface layer of sophistication is about as deep as the candy shell on an M & M--makes life miserable through a combination of moral highhandedness and inner blindness. Benegal fleshes out the story with juicy rural-comic anecdotes. Still, the deeply impressive lead performance by Shabana Azmi demonstrates Ankur as one of the most mature and compelling films the Indian cinema has to offer.
Meet the Brahman-caste student and layabout Surya (Anant Nag), who just graduated very low in his class and who is hoping to continue his higher education in the city. His father will have none of it. He's an old tyrant in a turban and Peter Sellers glasses, and he sentences the boy to go oversee his properties out in the countryside. But first, Surya must go through an arranged marriage with a child-bride. The rebellious son has an festering grudge against his father, and he's happy to air it out. The old man has kept a mistress for so long that he has an out of wedlock son Surya's age. To Surya's shame, the father wants his son to accept the bastard as his brother.

Surya drives out to the plantation in what looks like a cartoon jalopy, complete with folded up roof and squeeze-bulb klaxon. He's so full of self-pity he doesn't realize he's evicting a couple who have been living in what passes for the big house, a three room bungalow. The two squatters are a deaf-mute unemployed potter (Sadhu Meher), and his lovely wife Lakshimi (Shabana Azmi). Tradition dictates that if you're as high caste as Surya is, you have your food prepared for you by a Buddhist priest. To show his disregard of class Surya highhandedly decides to have Lakshmi prepare his tea for him. This begins a series of boundary crossings which progress slowly...but not too slowly to be observed by village gossipers.

When not being shaved, massaged and pampered by the locals, Surya tries to run the farm with an iron hand. He has the local constable enforce the law against food thefts with corporal punishment, and fences off the commons, as they say in English history classes. He prohibits his sharecroppers from using the water from his reservoir. And he revenges himself against his half-brother by cutting off the irrigation ditches on his neighboring farm.

Under pressure from growing poverty, Lakshimi's husband becomes a drunkard, who squanders what little money they had. He's caught stealing food, is ritually humiliated by the police, and finally wanders off the land.
Later, Benegal includes a side story about a village girl who wants to leave her impotent husband. The story is there to remind us that village women have several circles of duties: to husband, to house, to family and to caste.

Trying to shake Lakshimi out of these circles, Surya seems to believe he's modernizing life. Still, he doesn't see himself as having any responsibilities to the people he's disturbing. Worrying about losing your place in an ancient order is like being the proverbial person sitting in a thorn bush afraid someone will take your seat. Lakshimi's impassiveness hides her growing calculation, as a deeper relationship between the lone man and the lone woman becomes more inevitable. Can she manipulate Surya by submitting to him?

If you consider all the terrors of the human condition, it's probably appropriate that a new baby announces itself by causing its mother to vomit. When morning sickness strikes Lakshimi, Surya reacts with bitter complaints and demands that she get an abortion. Simultaneously, the new Mrs. Surya arrives on the farm, since she is finally old enough to join her husband. Though she's a young, inexperienced girl, she sizes up the situation fast, and tries to force Lakshimi out of the only place she has left.

Ankur visually preserves traditional rural life in Andra Pradesh, far outside the range of highway traffic, where oxcarts still take care of the transportation and the arrival of certain birds is the way to mark the calendar. But this script could be transplanted to rural Mississippi, or any other plantation in the world. It's surprisingly accessible. Benegal had made some 600 TV commercials before he was finally able to make this film, which was based on a short story he'd written in college. Azmi's performance is the secret to the film's success. Rather than being the helpless woman of the soap opera, forced into a fate worse than death, her relationship with the worthless young master is always complex and always changing. There's some sort of attraction to his power, perhaps some physical attraction;. Perhaps there's even some belief that she can use her influence to make a good man out of him. That hope can never distract Lakshmi from the knowledge that she will starve if she falls out of his favor.

The mix of emotions is suggested behind Azmi's pose of mask-like subservience. Perhaps there's something like irony there, too. Living in a country where the men are gods and women are expected to touch their feet in submission would make any woman ironic. As a feminist filmmaker--and as a filmmaker far more comfortable with matters of attraction and sex than even Satyajit Ray ever was -- Benegal distinguished himself right out of the gate. One wants to continue the work of rediscovery which began this week in the Rockies.