The success that New India Cinema enjoyed in the 1970s and early 1980s could largely be attributed to Shyam Benegal's quartet Ankur (1973), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977), which were artistically superior yet commercially viable films. Tapping fresh talent mainly from the FTII, NSD and the stage like Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Smita Patil, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Amrish Puri, Benegal has since then made many sensitive and stimulating films.
Nephew of Guru Dutt, Founder of the Hyderabad Film Society and a former Ad Filmmaker, Benegal made a major impact with his first feature film itself, Ankur. The film is set in rural South India where Surya, a zamindar's son, arrives from the city to oversee his father's estate. Bored and sexually frustrated, he seduces his attractive maidservant, wife of a deaf-mute labourer. The discovery of the maidservant's pregnancy and the arrival of Surya's wife who senses her husband's involvement bring matters to a head. The film is memorable for its engrossing details of rural life and its exposure of the feudal system that is brutal and indifferent and is helped by a powerful film debut by Shabana Azmi as the maidservant. Ankur not only won several awards including the National Awards for Shabana for Best Actress and Sadhu Mehr for Best Actor, it also had a good showing at the Box Office.
With Nishant, where a teacher's wife is abducted and gang-raped by four zamindars and officialdom turns a deaf ear to the distraught husband's pleas for help and Manthan, set against the backdrop of Gujarat's fledgling dairy industry, Benegal continued to address the viewer in a strict cinematic language bereft of typical commercial skills. (5 lakh farmers in the state, each of whom contributed 2 Rs, produced the latter film! They came in truckloads to see 'their film' once released thereby making it extremely succesful at the box office!)
Perhaps Bengal's best film was Bhumika that looks at an individual's search for identity and self-fulfillment. The film is broadly based on the life of well-known Marathi Stage and screen actress of the 1930s and 1940s, Hansa Wadkar who led a flamboyant and unconventional life to say the least. The film received rave reviews the world over. To quote film critic Derek Malcolm,
"What Benegal has done is to paint a magnificent visual recreation of those extraordinary days and one that is also sensitive to the agonies and predicament of a talented woman whose need for security was only matched by her insistence on freedom."
Unlike most New Cinema Filmmakers Benegal has had private backers for many of his films. Following the success of these four films, he was backed by film star Shashi Kapoor for whom he made Junoon (1978) and Kalyug (1981). The former set in the turbulent period of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 is one of Benegal's most stylish films and one which is meticulously detailed and visually arresting and one that gave him much satisfaction but Kalyug, a complex narrative looking at politics in the corporate world and based on the Mahabharat, inspite of some great moments, just falls short of 'being there.'
In the 1980s, however, with the collapse of the New Cinema, unfortunately Benegal's films have not had proper releases and the 1980s also saw him turn to TV where he successfully directed serials like Yatra (1986) for the Indian Railways, and one of the biggest projects ever undertaken on Indian Television, Bharat ek Khoj (1988), a serial based on Nehru's Discovery of India. Both projects are amongst the finest work done on Indian Television.
Benegal returned to feature filmmaking after a gap of almost six years and has since been making features regularly but with mixed results, Suraj ka Satwan Ghoda (1992) and Samar (1998) particularly standing out in this period. The former, based on Dharmveer Bharati's well known novella, focuses on a bachelor who recounts over two evenings to a group of his friends, the stories of three women who came into his life at different periods of time. Rich in texture, it becomes abundantly clear that more than love stories; they are reflections on shifting social values, indeed an individual's growing up. Samar expertly uses the film-within-film style with ironic humour and self-mocking wit to expose the reality of caste prejudice.
Zubeidaa (2001) with top Hindi film star Karisma Kapoor had its brief moments but what had potential to be a really good film merely ends up as an average and at times even dull rendering of the story of a woman who dared to try to live life on her own terms. The material that Benegal had to start with had all the elements required to make an extremely engaging film - romance, passion and drama, all remniscent of his central character in Bhumika but the end result this time was a film that is oddly flat, clinical and mostly boring, a problem that also befell his following biopic Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005).
Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008) was a somewhat welcome return to form for Benegal. The film looks at Mahadev (Shreyas Talpade) who is one of the few educated young men from Sajjanpur. His ambition is to be a novelist but finds it easier to make a living by writing letters sitting next to the post office. His ability to write persuasive letters makes him popular with the largely non-literate population of the town. Aware of this power, he soon uses his talent to manipulate people with amusing and sometimes not such amusing but eye opening results...The lighter scenes with well-written dialogue are subtle even within the rural flavour of the film and constantly bring a smile to your face rather than being loud and slapstick. The film also went on to be reasonably successful at the box office. However, his latest film Well Done Abba (2010) is a big, big disappointment.
Besides Feature Films, Benegal has also made several documentaries including Child of The Streets (1967), Nehru (1983), Satyajit Ray (1984) and Nature Symphony (1990).
Benegal has won several awards in his distinguished filmmaking career but none as prestigious as Indian Cinema's highest honour - the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, for his immense contribution to Indian Cinema.