Erotic heat is not the first phrase that come to mind when thinking of director Shyam Benegal's early films from the 1970s, full of rage against the system — caste, class, gender. His debut Ankur (1974) was made at a time torn between the fading star of Rajesh Khanna and the up and coming vigilante disillusionment of the Angry Young Man. Benegal's films are usually watched and studied from this perspective. Of being a pioneer of the Parallel Cinema movement, bringing in a new, more rooted perspective into the mix, a conscientious objector, a Satyajit Ray-like meditative, musical pace to his cinema, along with a relentless pursuit of realism — and a fresh crop of actors. Extremely hot actors.
Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Girish Karnad, Amrish Puri, Anant Nag, they all staggered from the Film And Television Institute Of India, Pune (FTII) or National School Of Drama (NSD) into Benegal's cinematic world with their brash, almost unkempt beauty; wide-eyed, smoky, interested in weaving art from pathos, striking the fire of sex alongside.
Over five films Benegal gave Naseeruddin Shah the pencil mustache of an arrogant, smoldering twink in Nishant (1975); the rough-edged, intense aloofness of a Harijan leader in Manthan (1976); the beard of an arrogant poet-director in Bhumika (1977); the sweat-drenched revolutionary in Junoon (1978); and the careless, evening shadow of a kind wastrel in Mandi (1983). Shah, today known for his sandpaper-like forthright attitude, alternating between craft and commerce, was not just a good looking man in the 1970s.
He would radiate softness and affection, and when needed, heat, much like the mousy Anant Nag or the stately Girish Karnad who would even make the shameless negotiation for sex with one's tired wife look like a dignified act, a beauty on his face that always cut through the surrounding grime. The kind of beauty that author Ramachandra Guha noted, "even straight men had a crush on".
Then, there is Amrish Puri, forever known to my generation as the aged villain — to romance in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and to idealism in Mr. India — who was, just four decades ago, the gruff, hot villain, when evil was allowed to be sexually appealing. In Nishant, bare chested, sculpted shoulders, a faint whiff of abs, he sits around in the heady entitlement of caste supremacy. Benegal has often commented on how Amrish Puri would be the one on set keeping everyone on their toes, gathering them for early morning runs, cutting the flab. In return, Benegal framed Puri's body through the film as oiled or massaged or lathered or just sitting shirtless, drinking by himself as the sun dunks away.
While there seems to be something uniformly pathetic about some of these men — hot, yes, but pathetic — Benegal's heroines, many played by Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi, were thinking women. And as Adrienne Rich warned us, thinking women sleep with monsters. Full lips, wide eyes, they had the capacity to pause an expression without heightening it to melodrama or dimming it to the mundane, with spacious noses, and blouses buttoned in the front, leaving a taut flatness at the back with the pallu just about grazing the hip.
Patil, in a Filmfare interview in 1985, says quite candidly, "There are very few actresses who can look young and do mature roles as well. Shabana and me, baaki koi hai nahin [there's no one else]," and maybe it is that heady mixture of fresh skin and knowing eyes that makes them such ravishing creatures. Watch how in Ankur, Anant Nag and Shabana Azmi circle each other around the empty house — Shabana Azmi plays his house help — with an expectant, cloth-ripping thrum that defines the film's tragedy. That caste is so strong, like enamel, it can even cut through desire.
These early films are full of casual references to sex, without sensationalising or sentimentalising it. Faces just merge into one another, and followed by an image of a field of wheat swaying in the wind or a sharp cut, the implication is clear. Characters ask and pursue sex with their spouses or throw flirtatious glances at strangers to consummate whatever burning need they have in a back alley. Shabana Azmi's character in Nishant uses it to get herself a new sari. In Bhumika, there is an extremely suggestive scene that, perhaps, alludes to Benegal being in on the joke. Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil are walking in a field together side by side. A thorn tacks onto Patil's sole. She bends down, but the way the camera frames this moment — Patil's forehead touching Shah's navel, with a bush of flowers blocking Patil's face and Shah's hand over her hair — makes it look like a blowjob in the open. Even the way Patil fingers slowly move down Shah's body as she applies the Holi colours on him the first time they meet, stinks of bursting desire.
The thing is hotness is such a low-hanging fruit — immediately apparent, intuitive — that in trying to comprehensively round up Shyam Benegal's filmography, it must have been a conscious choice to ignore his contribution to cinematic desire and sensuous beauty. As though that would diminish the social heft of his craft? But also, perhaps, because our minds are so attuned to mistaking glamour for hotness and sex appeal that when we speak of good looking actors of the Seventies, these names rarely pop up. It is always Rajesh Khanna, Shashi Kapoor, Zeenat Aman, the voice of Amitabh Bachhan. To this myopic roster, I submit the early films of Shyam Benegal.