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April 18, 2000


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'I made no compromise'

Dev Benegal, on the sets Dev Benegal spearheads the bratpack of movie directors who are all out to prove that Indian films is not all pelvis-thrusting and running around trees. His new film, Split Wide Open has got a national release and is drawing a discerning audience of people who are looking for alternative cinema.

Pritish Nandy catches up with the trend-setting director.

Why do you make the kind of films that you do, knowing fully well that the mainstream audience would by and large reject them?

When I started my first film, English, August, I knew very clearly that I did not want to make art movies. For, I felt that art movies were entirely out of touch with people. Ironic as that may sound, because the art film makers were so desperately trying to represent reality.

At the same time, I did not work to work in Bollywood because I did not quite believe in that as a genre, as a value system. I did not quite believe in the way they were making films. I was ready to wait till I found something I could identify with or relate to. When I read Upamanyu's novel, I realised that this was it. It was free of all political baggage, unlike most of the art cinema of that period. That is what appealed to me.

Everybody warned me that such films would not succeed in India. But we went ahead and made English, August. We got money from the French government. We got the rest of the cast and crew to work with us on the basis of deferred payment. It was an entirely rewarding experience. Though, you are right, we never had huge crowds at the halls.

How much did it cost you to make English, August?

About Rs 60 lakh. A lot of money in those days.

Were you happy with the critical response to it?

Yes, I guess so. But I always wanted a larger release. The new film has achieved that. There are many more prints releasing in many more theatres across the nation this time.

Who wrote Split Wide Open?

Split Wide Open It was a story we wrote together, Upamanyu and I. Then we gave it to Farrukh Dhondy to make a screenplay out of it.

Why Farrukh Dhondy? Did you originally conceive it as a television film?

No, not really. What happened was that Upamanyu and I had written it out to a certain extent and he was moving on to France for a year and I wanted a stronger, more dramatic impetus to the film. I was here, in this one, trying to really explore and work with melodrama and narrative, which I think are intrinsically Indian elements and I wanted someone to capture them in a great screenplay.

Our art cinema of the '60s and '70s, as we know it, was inherently European. It was very French, very Gallic. Very introspective. It never worked in India because we had grown up in the tradition of the narrative. Song and dance and melodrama were indispensable to the Indian art of story-telling.

I wanted to work with that, Pritish. However I was keen to bring in a very, very modern treatment. I wanted it to be a contemporary film. So I took a very classical, very European form and subverted it. I subverted it by adding Bollywood and its traditional melodrama to it.

How long did it take to make Split Wide Open?

I started writing this film about a year-and-a-half after English, August was over and done with. It was in 1997.

So it takes you about three years on an average to make a film?

Dev Benegal I guess so. It is a bit long, I know. I hope the next one will be quicker.

It took so much time also because we were writing an original story here and it took a fair amount of time to research it. The actual filming took only 11 or 12 months. Fifty shooting days to be precise and about 10 months in post-production. What was difficult was getting the script in place. And, of course, raising funds for the film.

But why was raising funds so difficult? English, August got good notices in the media.

Well, to be honest, it was easier to raise money for this film than it was for the last movie. For that, we have an entire encyclopedia of rejection slips. This time too, we faced rejection slips, but eventually we got funding from a music company called BMG and the owner of the largest laboratory in India called Adlabs which also finances a lot of mainstream Indian films.

How much did this film cost you?

Between one-and-a-half and 2 million dollars. Under eight crores of rupees.

That's a very large budget for a film like this. Do you ever hope to recover this kind of money?

The scale of this movie is quite different from my first one. It is very, very large. It also has a very, very large cast. It is about life in a big city. If in English, August the main character is educated, well-bred and English-speaking and goes from an urban background into small town India, this is just the opposite.

Here you have a hustler who sells water on the streets of a large city. He sees the city from street up. The scale and the story is exactly inverse this time. The protagonist is part of a scene he feels left out of. It is the dilemma of modern India.

Do you think you made any compromises while making the film?

Split Wide Open Actually no. I have been extraordinarily lucky that I have been given so much freedom. I must thank my producers for letting me take on so independently a very tough and very dark subject. I had to make no compromise. No one ever asked to take big stars in the film. No one asked me to add a song or a dance. I was very much left alone to do what I thought was best for the film.

But you do have a music album for the film?

Yes, we have used that more like a Hollywood marketing tool. We were trying to sell the idea to this music company and, funnily, they ended up co-producing the entire film for us! We have created a soundtrack inspired by the movie, but it actually features nowhere in the movie! This is not unusual in Hollywood but here it is a new idea.

The track has been done by a young Asian musician called Nitin Sawhney. The songs in the album are by Air Supply, Asha Bhosle, Mehnaz, Anaida, Kartick Raja. They had nothing to do with the movie eventually. But yes, they drew attention to the film.

In that sense, the film breaks new ground. It shows a way out for filmmakers who do not want to compromise. It shows them how you can take the elements that are required for a mainstream Bollywood movie and use them differently in a different context. So that your marketing strategy does not confront your creative content. Both can run on parallel tracks.

So you see Split Wide Open as a non-mainstream movie with mainstream elements, built in imaginatively?

Split Wide Open I have kept some of the mainstream elements of Bollywood and yet tried to make it look like a Hollywood film. I think this is where the future lies. In experiments. Both the typical Bollywood film and the typical art film are slowly losing out. They have become too glib, too predictable. Audiences are ready to experiment with new ideas.

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