Last year, for the first time since he moved in there in 1977 (soon after he finished Bhumika), Shyam Benegal had to think of selling off his office. The thought that he will then have to work from home made him terribly sad. In all these years, he has gone to work everyday except Sundays; he hasn’t called in sick unless he really had to; he has come by ten thirty am, gone home for lunch at one, come back and stayed in office till five/five thirty/six pm, depending on work. There has been a nice rhythm to his home-to-office-office-to-home ritual, which now stood threatened.
The last three years have been a period of no business for his production house, Shyam Benegal Sahyadri Films. Scripts and projects that were being worked on eventually didn’t materialise. There was no money coming in, and there were bills to be paid. So there seemed to be only one solution: to sell off the office, and work from home. But knowing him, his wife, Nira, nipped the idea in the bud. Work from home couldn’t have been an option for Benegal. No way.
The last three years have been a period of no business for his production house, Shyam Benegal Sahyadri Films. Scripts and projects that were being worked on eventually didn’t materialise. There was no money coming in, and there were bills to be paid. So there seemed to be only one solution: to sell off the office, and work from home.
A separation of home and office is sacrosanct to him. The latter is “a refuge, a place to go to”, where he can “work on projects, researching, studying and meeting people” and “allow his mind to wander as well”; whereas the former is “a place of rest”, of endless leisure reading. He takes pleasure in the fact that they are located on each side of a hill: the Cumballa hill that separates his office in Tardeo and his apartment on Altamount Road; he jokes that if one climbs the terrace of his apartment building and throws a stone down the slope of the hill, it’ll reach his office, and vice versa. It’s another thing that his office building is called… Everest.
The charm of it may not be obvious. I counted five chartered accountancy firms on the second floor of the building, where the office is located, and one Movers and Packers. On your way up, you’ll see daily wage workers and all sorts of different kinds of people. But once you enter the office, it’s a different world. As in a gallery, large, beautifully printed posters of Benegal’s movies are displayed near the entrance: Bhumika (1977), Junoon (1978), Mandi (1983) and Trikal (1985) on one wall, Nishant (1975) and Ankur (1974) — his second and first feature film respectively — on the other. They must have been spread out a lot more, before Benegal decide to put the other half of the office on sale about eight months ago.
From 19A & B, Shyam Benegal Sahyadri Films has now become 19A. Everything has been halved from its original size, including Benegal’s cabin.
From 19A & B, Shyam Benegal Sahyadri Films has now become 19A. Everything has been halved from its original size, including Benegal’s cabin. He sits by his desk, on which heaps of papers are piled up, and different kinds of paperweights scattered over them. The desk is a rosewood table that, according to Benegal, must be over a hundred years old, that his wife bought from Chor Bazaar. “When we moved from the Jyoti studio office, this was one of the first things that was brought to me so that I could have a desk,” he says. I wouldn’t know how the room looked before the other half was put on sale, but Benegal says that the books lined up on the shelves on the wall would extend all the way to the end of the building.
During our chat, he takes phone calls as and when they come. Once, it’s the organiser of a Lit fest who wants Benegal to be on a panel, following which he calls in his secretary, a Parsi lady with short hair who could be straight out of Bombay cinema from the eighties, to discuss his dates. Another is an unnecessary call from a Tata Sky customer care executive, which bothers him but who he tells politely to message or email him instead. Benegal doesn’t have a computer, he doesn’t browse the internet. When he needs to look something up on the internet, his secretary, and one of his peons, do it for him; they print his emails and hand it over to him. Nowadays he has started checking emails on his phone because it is convenient; but cleaning junk mail irritates him.
Surely, it says something about Benegal’s work ethic that he has attended office since the seventies, and continues to do so, despite age — he is 84 now. But there’s also the romance of it. Benegal’s deep love for this part of the city meant that he never left it even as the film industry kept shifting northward, to Bandra, Juhu, Andheri because of continually rising real estate. The road on which his office stands was one of the the original Film Studio Roads after all, home to great studios such as Central, National, Kardar.
The Everest building itself came up in place of the once-famous Famous Studio, which got destroyed by fire. Benegal and company — his partners Mr Ghanekar, Mr Mani and Mr Kamath, of who only Mr Kamath, 102 years old, is alive — shifted here from their space at Jyoti Studio, Bombay’s first sound studio. It used to give Benegal a special kick that he was working from a place where India’s first talkie, Alam Ara (1931), was shot. “For somebody whose ambition is to be a filmmaker, what better place to have an office?,” he says. But then the Shapoorji Pallonji group, which owned Jyoti, started selling parts of it to other commercial outfits, and Benegal’s partners decided that it’s best to leave the premise and look for a new one. Benegal remembers being resistant to the new office in Everest building at first, but his partners told him, “Get used to it”. And gotten used to he has. “I am one of those… once I settle somewhere I don’t like to move,” he says.
Which makes Benegal one of the few filmmakers operating from South Mumbai (Dibakar Banerjee being another). The idea that he move away from South Mumbai is unthinkable to Benegal, to the point that he jokes that if he were to draw the map of Mumbai, he would’ve put the limits at Worli. “This was the original Bombay in any case,” he says. Benegal feels the environment in which a person works makes a lot of difference “in the manner in which you connect yourself to people around you”. And about commuting to the Andheri part of the city, where most film offices and studios are, he says it’s just about “adding more to your traveling time”. “If I am shooting in Film City (far north, in Goregaon), and I have to be there between nine and nine thirty am, for instance, I would leave my house at about seven,” he says.
But Benegal hasn’t had to go to Film City in a while. The last thing he did was the mini series Samvidhan (2014) five years ago, and it’s been ten years since his last feature film Well Done Abba (2009) – if we discount the documentary he made on the history of Punjab for the Government, an installation film that plays all day on loop in the Jang-e-Azadi memorial in the Chandigarh-Amritsar highway. But a new feature film seems to have been finalised: the biopic of a historical public figure — a genre that Benegal, a lifelong history buff, has repeatedly found himself returning to. But he doesn’t want to go on record lest he jinxes it. There is something assuring about Benegal, one of the giants of Indian cinema, being as jittery about the possibility of his new film falling through as any new filmmaker would. “I don’t want to jump the gun. Let it all come from the right sources,” he says.
Last year, along with the selling of half his office, one more thing happened. Benegal finally accepted the Lifetime Achievement award that the Mumbai Academy of Moving Images (MAMI) had been wanting to give him for a few years. He had been avoiding it because it felt strange to him to get an award from an institution he had been associated with for many years. He gave in after they insisted; ’It was a nice feeling, and they genuinely wanted to do it,’ he says. But there is another reason: he didn’t want it to look like he is done making films.