“I don’t know if cinema actually brings about change in society. But cinema can certainly be the vehicle for creating social awareness.” – Shyam Benegal
Perhaps that what Shyam Benegal has done throughout his career as filmmaker; making brilliant parallel films with flame of social reformation. Here is a filmmaker who dedicated his cinema to deglamorise and real India resides in villages. Here’s again he achieved what we called an unbelievable filmmaking. The film was made with two rupees each donated by 500,000 farmers of Gujarat. The idea and inspiration surely came from Dr. V. Kurien, the architect of India’s Milk Co-operative.
Manthan is microcosmic picture showing the transformative phase of rural India, evoking the rural development and sees the possibilities of new dawn in co-operative movement. What happens in the film is the inspirational phenomenon of Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation, Anand which creates a brand ‘Amul’ a proud name for entire India. Co-operative here used as symbol of bridging gap between rural and urban India with a new structure challenging the existing communal and class power politics and changing the conservative village mass in a new role model.
The protagonist Dr. Rao is an idealist of Nehru’s socialist India. He is veterinary doctor appointed by Government with his team to a remote village of Gujarat to establish dairy co-operative. It’s a village without primary health centre, public lavatory and perhaps state transport. The village folk are divided by conventional class and communal bifurcation. His initial efforts considered hostile by illiterate and poor villagers with minority stronghold. But slowly he wins the good will with awareness campaign. The seeds of ideal co-operative harm the rooted interests of village headman and local dairyman who concocted a plot to kick this man either by hook or crook. Shyambabu unlike conventional idealist ended the film not in the favor of the outsider and the protagonist Dr. Rao who became victim of great Indian bureaucracy. It’s insider rebel who keeps the flame of reform. It’s a big message if one thinks quite closely that an outsider can ignite the spark provided that the spark is one of insider.
Benegal formed a strong casting team; the likeminded torchbearers of parallel cinema -Girish Karnad, Smita Patil, Naseerudin Shah, Amrish Puri, Sadhu Mehar, Mohan Agashe, Anant Nag and Kulbhushan Kharbanda( the only misfit in the company!) All retained their characters so realistically especially Smita Patil fits perfectly in frames and her act as real Rabari woman. Her raw sensuality is just unmatchable compared to any other Indian actress. The day I saw her ‘Bhumika’ (another Benegal film), she became my one of favorite Indian actress of all-time. And again a wonderful Naseer as indifferent and rigid face of rebel dalit, he’s the man to watch as always. I can still go on and on praising Shyambabu who ‘Buzzed off’ the star system in the time when Bachchan Mania was ruling at the box office. He not only made such cinama but gave us the most gifted actors to Indian cinema- Naseer, Smita, Shabana, Om Puri, Amrish Puri grew and shaped their talents more and more his films.
The film deservingly won two National Awards for Best Hindi film and Best Screenplay and sent that year to Oscar for best foreign film section. But more than that the real pride of ‘Manthan’ lies in becoming the mouthpiece of NDDB (National Dairy Development Board) when released and helped to invoke and create more such co-operatives across India. It was again a film viewed by UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) in many under developed and developing countries across the world.
PS- A big thanks to dearest friend Pratik Modi for gifting this unavailable Benegal film from long. I’m looking forward for the documentary ‘Operation Flood’ made by Benegal, if available.