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Shyam Benegal on films based on real life situations around women and water

By Mansee Bal Bhargava* 

Debates and discussions on the rising water crisis and the need for water conservation are mainstream activities now. With climate crisis manifested through water crisis, the talk of the hour is on re-engaging in one of the oldest conversations that is on public governance. Since, water (public) governance is about communication between individuals and institutions (involved), its weak presence is the missing link between individual empowerment, coherent transformations, meaningful policies, and action of sufficient scale to tackle water crisis.
At the Friday Waters online series of the WforW Foundation, there is a genuine attempt to initiate individuals and institutions engagements in the water governance process through continuous conversations using the emerging digital means and the citizen science. The idea of the Friday Waters is to bring the water knowledge available in the various forms at one place in order to highlight the water matters and then take those to the water networks and the community at large. Through the conversations, this to connect the science and society towards ‘Making Water Everybody's Business’. The Friday Waters hosts Water Talkies, Water Reading Club, Water Theses Club, Water Arts and Water Walks sessions. The session videos are available at the wforw website and YouTube channel.
The February 10 Friday Waters session on, ‘Meeting a Maestro: In conversation with Shyam Benegal’ we talk with Shyam Benegal on his film journey starting from regional (Gujarati) film ‘Ghar Betha Ganga’ to the ongoing international (Bangladesh) film ‘Mujib: The Making of a Nation’. The session's focus was on listening to the maestro and learning his thoughts and ideas on connecting water (and other social-ecological) matters related to public governance.
Shyam Benegal is a known name among the adults in the country. As a film director, screenwriter and documentary filmmaker, he has offered deep diligent service to the world of cinema and society. His accolades are innumerable including National Film Awards, Filmfare Award, Nandi Award, Dadasaheb Phalke Award besides honored with Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan.
Some of his early documentaries are ‘A Child of the Streets' (1967) and feature length rendition of the classic folk tale ‘Charandas Chor' in 1975. He also taught at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. Some of his other celebrated films are ‘Ankur’ (1973), ‘Nishant’ (1975), ‘Manthan’ (1976), ‘Bhumika’ (1977), ‘Junoon’ (1978), ‘Kalyug’ (1981), ‘Mandi’ (1983), Sardari Begum (1996), Zubeidaa, Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (Seventh Horse of the Sun, 1992), ‘Samar’ (1999), ‘Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero', ‘Welcome to Sajjanpur', ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ and more. The classic TV serials ‘Yatra’ (1986) for the Indian Railways and “Bharat Ek Khoj' (1988) based on Jawaharlal Nehru's book, ‘Discovery of India’, and ‘Samvidhaan’, revolving around the making of the Indian Constitution (2014) are unforgettable to many.

Text of conversation with Shyam Benegal:

Mansee Bal Bhargava (MBB): Please share something about the first documentary in Gujarati, ‘Ghar Betha Ganga’, as the word Ganga is fascinating as well as scary now for many of us given its rising pollution.
Shyam Benegal (SB): In the 1960s, many parts of Gujarat were drought ridden with very little rain. The Government of Gujarat planned that one of the tributaries of Narmada, would be diverted to feed water to the districts of Anand, Kheda, etc. It was vital for the government to divert the water channel to the impacts regions to address the issue of desertification. Back then, I was in advertising, one of our clients was from the Gujarat Milk Marketing Federation, AMUL milk, and other dairy products. It was during that time, that we thought to introduce the film ‘Ghar Betha Ganga’ meaning Ganga at the Door/House and observe the kind of difference the film would make to this part of the world where some knowledgeable people were trying to address the issue of desertification and avoid the whole place to become a dessert. It is for such reason that Narmada waters were being diverted. One of the rivers which was being used would dry six months of the year and that is the Mahi River.
I became conscious of this and saw how women of the area would be travelling 6 to 7 kilometers or sometimes even 10 kilometers to just bring back 2 to 3 pot-full of water to last them through the day. The situation was very dire and difficult. The whole idea here was to turn this water crisis (desertification) around. Several local educated people and the people connected with AMUL were the guiding force. Through several efforts, the outcomes were achieved particularly in the Mahi River project.
That was when the documentary was made. The documentary was in Guajarati which spoke of the idea that you are getting Ganga in your home. That was the whole idea. Even today, when people talk about AMUL, it is believed that there has always been a surplus production, but that was not the case always. Whenever there were drought years there was need for supply of water to sustain the cattle as well, hence a steady supply of water was needed. So, Narmada waters were used for that particular purpose and that is how the documentary originated.
MBB: Sharing a personal experience, I had just started my PhD on water governance,  when in March 2010 the political satire 'Well Done Abba' was released. Since then, the film is used as a material in my teaching-learning on water governance. My next question is on governance. Your films have often showcased feudalism and capitalism while highlighting how common citizens juggle to make their needs meet and then fight it out with the system for themselves. This is a crucial part of governance. Please elaborate on your fascination on governance matters.
SB: A very important part or essence of democracy is people’s participation in their own lives and not leaving it to others or the government to be always responsible for everything else. So, when peoples’ participation comes to the picture, the change certainly becomes quicker. Difficulties will always be there but the consciousness that develops and the fact that you should always be conscious and realize the fact that without your participation it will not be half as good. This is crucial.
So, ‘Ghar betha Ganga' was one of the earliest films highlighting community initiative and everything came after that. I was still working for an advertising agency. We found this subject and the film became popular featuring the Kheda district. People found out that I was capable of making films of this kind, and so film departments would ask me to make films on one thing or the other which have brought change in the society.
Immediately after this film, I made a film on tribals of Bastar, their life and the story of that being under threat. The film captured, how their life would be eliminated, and their individuality would vanish. The area in which they lived and the manner in which they lived would require a lot of initiatives on their own to be able to make it a liveable and enjoyable way to live life. This doesn’t really require the governments' intervention in everything. So many of my documentaries after that have dealt with this kind of subject.
MBB: Your films are often based on real-life occurrences. How did you think of making the film Well Done Abba? Have you personally faced water crises sometimes and how did you get over them? Please share some instances from your life and then about the film.
SB: I grew up in Agwal, a small temple town a few kilometers outside of Hyderabad. There was no water (municipal) supply to the settlement. Every house had the wells that they had dug up. Now during the drought years, when there was scarcity of water and the water level became alarmingly low, we used to be very careful with the use of water. We used to hope and pray that the rains would come. This was when we realized how important water was and how you cannot function without water. So, that was the situational experience that was captured in the film.
MBB: Interestingly in the film ‘Well Done Abba’, starring Boman Irani played the role of how he gets around the bureaucracy or the babudom to get the work done with the same rules that are stopping common citizens to solve the problems of water crisis. Were there particular events or occurrences that you or your acquaintances have experienced which are captured in film?
SB: Well, ‘Well Done Abba’ film is based on a real-life situation. It is an event that took place that I decided to make a film about. It had a lot of humour and learning ingrained in it. You see the bureaucracy that is supposed to help you actually comes your way. It becomes difficult even for those people who have their initiatives aligned to solve the issue as the government bureaucracy comes their way. So that was one of the reasons for making the film in the first place. Many of our everyday problems can be sorted out only if the bureaucracy worked in accordance with the needs of the people, rather than dictating themselves on how people should be functioning.
MBB: So true! In my teachings on water governance, I am always highlighting that water crisis is manipulated and manufactured through the systematic processes, say bureaucracy in this case.
My next question is a bit personal. You have always thanked your wife Neera and daughter Pia in your public conversations. When I link this with water and women, we are all aware that women face the brunt of water crises, be it for family or for her own needs. Do you think in our patriarchal set up we have done enough to get the burden off the women for many matters including water?
SB: You see the primary role that is played particularly in terms of water usage is actually the women of the house. Without their participation in it, it wouldn’t really work. I thank them because they deserve those thanks. It’s a very simple thing, also these are certain fundamental things as males you don’t need to confront because the women in your family do day in and day out. That’s why when you realise how much they have to worry about, concern themselves about, it is then you realise what is the problem for the men. You realise what is the deal for the men. Men just go out and do some work and get some money for the family to survive through the month. But beyond that women do all the work.
: Yes absolutely! Whether we will be able to change this situation at some point of time? There is a famous African proverb which says, “The one who carries the load of the water knows the value of the water more”. When we see the water sector in the country as well as the world, we see there are more men writing about water and also highlighting the vulnerable position of women. Anyway, let’s keep this topic for another detailed discussion sometime.
Coming to your latest film, ‘Mujib: The Making of a Nation’ based on a biopic of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman for Indo-Bangladesh relations. It also touches upon famine in a water rich country, Bangladesh. Please share some highlights of this upcoming film.
SB: See, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is the Father of the Nation of Bangladesh. His story is very special because, you know, when after independence of India, the East and West Pakistan were formed, and he was very much part of it. He realized that even if you do something like that (partition) you can be disadvantaged. For instance, Bangladesh is a land of many rivers, and it grows lot of food crops in a year. Now in a situation like this when you have high levels of poverty, and major famines occurred so you are left disadvantaged for long period of time, and therefore there is a need for some politics to play its role in order to try and balance it with West Pakistan.
Then at that time there was no talk of separating itself. It got separated into Bangladesh because what they required was not met. They would be exploited like any colony would be exploited. So, this was the problem and that was why there was somebody like Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who took over the leadership and eventually decided they will have to be on their own. That’s how Bangladesh was borne or formed. Other than this there was no reason for them to separate out, because in 1947, when the partition took place between India and Pakistan, it was part of East Pakistan.
Primary role is played in terms of water usage is actually women of the house. Without their participation in it, it wouldn’t really work
The nation of Bangladesh was created because it became necessary and, in this process, the role played by Sheikh Mujib was critical. Although there were lot of lives that were lost and lots of things happened, lots of sacrifices made but eventually it did become a free nation on its own. That is the story needs to the told. Although it is widely accepted by most but people in West Pakistan believed that Sheikh Mujib was not a person they would likely want to see for the holy plain as they see him as somebody who divided Pakistan. Actually, when you think of it as what happened you realize that it was a natural process.
The life of Sheikh Mujib was very fascinating. He was a true patriot in so many ways. One of the problems was that Bangladesh had a much larger population group than West Pakistan, which became a major issue. Then the question of why were they not if they were the majority speaking in the language of the majority? The language of the majority was Bengali. So, you see what one might call a Bengali nationalism developed in the process. So, it was part of the new Bengal Renaissance, because they revere people like Rabindranath Tagore, all the great writers and thinkers of Bengal, who they have taken as their peers.
: Absolutely! When we talk of Bengal and Bangladesh, they come synonymous to us about Rabindranath Tagore and Bangabandhu as Sheikh Mujib is popularly called. Today when we are having this discussion on water governance, it is important to note how a famine turned into a nations bond, the new bond evolved between India and Bangladesh and even Pakistan for that matter. The water worries that were there then in the 50s and 70s, still exists and have exponentially risen, because somewhere we have not managed our water well. We have not managed to signal the society about water issues well enough. In that aspect how do you see art-cinema to be used and can be used more robustly to create an environment for bringing social change, in this case towards water conservation as well as consumption.
SB: You see, the important thing here is Sheikh Mujib created a nation. Besides creating a nation, he made a huge difference in terms of economics of the place, the measures they could take with relation to population, poverty reduction, and many more things. All those things would not have happened if it was not an independent country on its own. I think tradition goes on with Sheikh Hasina there. Then you have to consider another thing about Bangladesh that it gets these cyclonic weathers quite frequently. You often have terrible situation there which is going to create a lot of problems. People move from where they were originally inhabiting. Now those kinds of people are there, also there are thousands of villages which normally go under water. Despite all of that it’s a thriving country with an economy. Another thing is between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, that the level of production in the latter is among the most productive nations of South Asia. Everything is produced on different levels. There are factories, peoples home become factories. It’s a very productive besides a resilient society.
MBB: So how do you think we can use the medium of art and cinema to convey to the society about the alarming climate and water crisis and do you think we are doing enough?
SB: A film can do so much. It is supposed to make you conscious about a lot of things which otherwise you wouldn’t be very conscious about. You would concern yourself with these things when you realize you need to concern yourself with these things. Otherwise, you will not be capable of dealing with the challenges that will come your way every day.
MBB: Well said in simple way. Thank you for responding to the questions. We will take a few questions from the participants now.
Anuja Bali: We have made so many films on social issues and when we watch them we really feel it, but do you think these films have been able to make that needed impact on the people’s behavior? What should change and how can we actually shake people that they take action towards the better?
SB: A film does not compel you to do anything. Instead, what it does do is it makes you realize what you should be doing. In other words, it tries to make you conscious of the problems that you are now faced with. The job of the film is not for you to get converted overnight to the point of view. That never happens. You live in an atmosphere where you will have to see the inevitability of change in order to better your life and see if people can accept that. Because we are creatures of habit, it is our habit which makes us not do a thing. You will have to get out of that habit and start doing things especially new things that you may not have tried before. This is constant process. This is not something that can be left, it requires your attention.
Fauzia Tarannum: Do you think the larger industry can come together when we are trying to protect our environment or raising voices when comes to protecting our environment and protecting our resources?
SB: The industry does a much as it can, but you cannot leave it to the film industry, just as much as you can’t leave it on anybody. You will have to rely on yourself. We will have to learn to not only rely on ourselves but to function in unity. We will have to develop the idea of ‘Ours’ and not ‘Yours and Mine’. This kind of consciousness is very difficult to achieve because most of us are not interested if it is of no immediate interest of ours. This needs a certain kind of consciousness, which is there is nobody in this world, and you have to help yourselves. There is no question of blaming it on other people. It seems difficult but it is not. There are people like you who want to get it done as well. Even if there is no one, like the famous Rabindra Sangeet, “Ekla Cholo Re”.
Bibhu. P Nayak: Films influence us in many different ways, like our hairstyle, clothing, etc. Do you think films can influence the way we look at nature?
SB: Many of us are influenced by things that we don’t even know that we are being influenced. The important thing is if certain amount of consciousness that can be brought about. It is not easy as it requires shaking us out of our habits. You will at least have to be conscious of the fact that you will have to take the first step, and other people whether they like it or not will be part of it. It may not happen immediately, but it will happen at some stage or the other. You need to be honest in what you are doing.


The conversation with the legendary filmmaker on his works, life and philosophy comes to a closure. At WforW, it is an honor to have him amongst us for sharing his thoughts and ideas, his words of wisdom. It was also great opportunity meeting him in person at his office in Tardeo Mumbai in order to persuade him to come to the Friday Waters session for a conversation on his films linked to water. This online meeting and meeting him in person will indeed remain cherished memories personally as well as professionally. There are learning from both the conversations. That, real life occurrences are good case studies to articulate through different mediums as they also get registered as historical evidence. That, women play crucial role in the water matters and men must be grateful to that besides trying to get them onboard in key decision makings. Finally, the mantra of water governance or governance per se that one must do their bit and not wait for others and the system to provide them everything. Governance is at the core, by the people, of the people and for the people. So, we the people have to raise our bars to have better government as well as governance.
Friday Waters is an initiative of the WforW Foundation, a think tank, built as a Citizens Collective. The idea of Friday Waters is to connect the water worries and wisdom with the water warriors through dialogues/discussions/debates. The objective is to get in conversations with film makers, artists, authors, policy makers, practitioners, researchers, academicians besides the youth towards water conservation and management. The other team members of Friday Waters are, Megha Gupta, Garbhit Naik, Ekta Gupta, Anuja Bali, Dr. Rajkumari Sunita Devi, Harshita Sehgal, Monami Bhattacharya (for this transcription) and counting. The Friday Waters is reachable at and WforW Foundation is reachable at and The WforW Foundation social media are reachable at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.
*Entrepreneur | Researcher | Educator | Speaker| Mentor. More info at: and


The video of the session is available at:
Regards, Mansee Bal Bhargava for WforW Foundation


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