William van der Heide: Who would you regard as your main audience? I suppose it's a leading question in a way because if it is the Indian middle class, why are you so critical of it?
Shyam Benegal: Whether one likes it or not, the agenda of the country is being set by the urban Indian middle class. By definition, the middle class is the one that is both extremely conservative and also oriented to change. The rural communities tend to be more driven by tradition. The middle classes also fear losing their traditions. They have both an attraction as well as a revulsion towards modernity. Cinema audiences have been largely middle class int he country. We haven't been able to reach beyond the middle classes for a very long period of time, because if you look at the number of cinemas in this huge country, there are no more than between 13,000 and 14,000 cinemas. Obviously they are in urban areas. Even the audiences for television are those whose essential ambition is to be part of the middle class. So whether you like it or not your audience is bound to be the middle class.
William van der Heide: Are you suggesting that this is also the case for the Hindi commercial cinema?
Shyam Benegal: Absolutely. In fact the real problem is that agenda for the mainstream movie is set more by the middle than it is for my kind of film, because I want to be much more inclusive. I want to broaden the agenda and to have this very large section of the population constantly seen, not kept out.
William van der Heide: Even if you can't address them, they have to be incorporated in your films?
Shyam Benegal: That's very important to me personally.
William van der Heide: One of the first things you told me was that the Indian films you watched as a boy were selected from New Theatres films and Prabhat films. In a way, have you become a filmmaker in that tradition?
Shyam Benegal: In some ways you might say that, because the concerns of those films were about and for a much larger section of Indian society than the concerns of the mainstream cinema are today.
William van der Heide: Yes, I agree.
Shyam Benegal: One of the most successful films of recent ears was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). It addressed the interests and concerns of the urban affluent middle class, which is of interest to everybody, because that's where everybody wants to be. It uses a very interesting strategy of looking at tradition as not being inimical to modernity. The two are seamlessly brought together in such films. So they're great wish fulfillment dreams for the audiences.
William van der Heide: When Riyaz, identifying himself as a film reporter, sets out to find the missing reel of the film in which Zubeidaa performed, I was reminded of Citizen Kane (1941) and continued to be on and off during the film. Did you set out to make such a connection?
Shyam Benegal: Not consciously, but it's one of the films that I admire greatly. But I don't think I consciously thought in those terms, because it's a common enough pattern--such a structure doesn't only occur in Citizen Kane.