He is the proud recipient of the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan awards. In the year 2005, he was awarded the highest award in Indian cinema -the Dadasaheb Phalke award for lifetime achievement. Out of the 26 films that he has made in his illustrious career, 7 of them have been awarded the National Award. He is none other than Shyam Benegal, a name synonymous with qualitative cinema. Right from Ankur to Nishant, Manthan to Mandi and Sardari Begum to Zubeidaa, his films have been appreciated by one and all. This prolific filmmaker is now back with his latest project- the light hearted comedy- Welcome to Sajjanpur. In an exclusive chat with Bollywood Hungama, Mr. Shyam Benegal talks about his latest comic flick, the actors he has worked with and also shares his views on what he thinks of the present lot of filmmakers. You don't wanna miss reading this one!!!
After making hard-hitting and serious films all your life, you are venturing into a comedy like Welcome to Sajjanpur...why so?
I have made all kinds of films. Some have been hard hitting, some have been nostalgic, some were romantic dramas and some have even been patriotic. So there has been a good variety in all the 26 films that I have made so far. Even as far as comedy is concerned, Welcome to Sajjanpur is not my first attempt at comedy. This is in fact my third comedy, the first one was Charandas Chor (way back in 1974), and then Mandi (1982) was my next comedy. So yes it's been after a considerable time that I am getting back to the comedy genre but it certainly is not my first attempt at comedy.
How did the idea for this film come about?
The idea for this film came from a little incident that took place, which I found really interesting and funny. One of our peons was not a literate person and he had to get letters written and read them out as well. When he got married, even his wife's letters had to be read out to him and considering that she used to write lovey-dovey stuff, he used to get embarrassed by the fact that his wife's love letters were read out to him by someone else. That formed the base of my story.
So is Welcome to Sajjanpur a comedy, a love story or a family entertainer?
Welcome to Sajjanpur is a comedy. It's a story set in a village and talks about the only graduate of that village -Mahadev (played by Shreyas) who finds it difficult to get a job anywhere. He realizes that the best way to make a living is to become a letter-writer because literacy in his village is very low. He sits next to the post-office and writes and reads out letters. He plays the central protagonist. The film also has a host of other important characters. So even though it's a romantic comedy, the film is also a satire on the system, politics and the conditions of people living in villages.
Does the film also send home a message?
See...if you wish to see a message you will find some but it is not designed as a message giving film per se.
What made you cast Shreyas for the lead role, as barring Iqbal, he has yet to make his mark as a solo lead actor?
You should see Shreyas in the film and then decide for yourself if he has done justice to the character and film. In his first film Iqbal, he carried the entire film on his shoulders and was brilliant. Even in Welcome to Sajjanpur he has more than lived up to my expectations and has been truly exceptional.
How did you zero in on Amrita Rao for the female lead?
I needed somebody who is fresh and has a great deal of innocence in her face. I had seen Amrita's film Vivah and felt that she would best suit the part of Kamla.
The film has a host of talented supporting actors. Could you tell us a little about their roles?
There is Divya Dutta who has given an excellent performance as usual. Rajeshwari Sachdev, who has worked with me in many films since 1992, has done a great job. Ila Arun is hysterically brilliant but the real discovery for me has been Ravi Kissen. He is wonderful and has given a great comic performance.
Did you have any special workshop for the cast?
No...but I did have some reading sessions for the main cast. Shreyas&Amrita hadn't worked with me, nor had they worked with each other before, so I had some script reading sessions with them so that they could get familiar both with their characters and with each other.
Is the film set in a fictional town or does Sajjanpur actually exist?
Sajjanpur is a fictional town. But apart from the name it could represent any village in North / Central India. We reconstructed a village (modeled on several small villages in Madhya Pradesh) at Ramoji Film City, Hyderabad. We needed large open spaces and hence decided on Ramoji. Also the topography and physical features of the land are much closer to where I actually wanted to shoot but couldn't due to logistical problems.
The film was earlier titled Mahadev Ka Sajjanpur. Why the name change?
Mahadev Ka Sajjanpur was the working title. The marketing team of UTV felt that Welcome to Sajjanpur was a more welcoming title. Hence we stuck to the latter.
The music of the film has been composed by Shantanu Moitra. How do you think has the music evolved?
The film has wonderful music. We have 6 songs, out of which 5 have been shot. It is very enjoyable kind of music which you can listen to anytime of the day. There are a couple of dance numbers which have the potential to work even as remixes.
You made Zubeidaa in 2001 and Bose-The Forgotten Hero in 2005…why such a long gap?
After Zubeidaa, it took me four years to release my next film because I had to do a lot of research for Bose. I had to do a lot of location hunting, as the film was shot in different parts of the world and not just India. Between Bose and Welcome to Sajjanpur, there has been a gap of 3 years. There were a couple of projects which fell by the wayside. We worked a lot on it but couldn't put it all together in the right way.
Do you think the film has mass appeal even in metros or will it find an audience only in the interiors and smaller towns?
I hope people in the city will also like it apart from people in the smaller towns.
Comedy seems to be the flavor of the season. Which comedy films have you liked in recent times?
I can't remember anything that excited me so much in recent times. Probably the last comedy film, which I thoroughly enjoyed, was Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. After that I haven't seen any other film of that quality.
Bollywood has seen a lot of new and young talent in the last few years. Who has managed to catch your fancy among the younger lot?
There are many of them who have been really impressive. I don't remember all the names but I do remember the films which I liked. I enjoyed Aamir and Mumbai Meri Jaan in recent times. I also like Vishal Bharadwaj's films. Even Anurag Kashyap's Black Friday was an excellent film. He is a really talented director.
What's next after Welcome to Sajjanpur?
There are a couple of projects in mind. One will be a comedy and the other will be a musical. We still have to decide on the cast and other details.
People have a certain preconceived mindset of a Shyam Benegal films that it is serious cinema and works mainly in the festival circuit. How would you like to welcome people to Sajjanpur?
Well...I think the film should work well with the general public. The subject is universally interesting and at the same time it's very contemporary. It has a good story and that should be the main reason why people should come and check out the film.