Defying the Male Gaze: Shyam Benegal’s Lens Deftly Captured Women’s Inner Worlds

Even when he made films centered on sex workers, Benegal saw his characters as strong 'subjects’ and not 'objects’.

4 min read
Hindi Female

Shyam Benegal, who celebrated his 89th birthday this month, is one of the most outstanding filmmakers in Indian Cinema. He has never claimed to be a "feminist” filmmaker but his films clearly show his regard, respect, and concern for women across caste, class, status, education.

They defy Laura Mulvey’s theory of the "male gaze” framed in 1975 in which she says that women in films are objects of titillation that sensualises their bodies without probing into their minds.

She stated that as the director was male and so were his technicians, with the audience majorly male, the women in their films were reduced to 'objects’ and not 'subjects’ of the films they featured in.

Benegal did not subscribe to this theory. Even when he made films centered on sex workers, he saw that they were strong 'subjects’ and not 'objects’.

Benegal’s Films Dabbled With Women in Socially Sensitive Contexts

  • Benegal's first feature film Ankur (1974) introduced the powerful FTII gold medalist Shabana Azmi. She is the wife of a deaf-mute farmer who is a Dalit wage-labourer played by Sadhu Meher, in the village zamindar (Anant Nag)’s home where his wife works as a housemaid.

    The young zamindar manipulates an affair with the maid though he is a married man. Through these incidents, the film defines a sharp critique of casteism, sexual exploitation, silent abuse of the zamindar's wife played by Priya Tendulkar, and physical torture of the deaf-mute labourer.

  • Bhoomika (The Role, 1977) was based on the autobiography titled 'Sangtye Aika' (Listen to this) penned by a famous Marathi-speaking actress of her time, Hansa Wadkar. For Bhoomika, Benegal based the film on Wadkar's autobiography and had actress Smita Patil play her on screen.

    The film was much ahead of its time when the audiences could hardly be expected to digest a film with a woman protagonist who lived a very controversial life completely on her terms after a stormy and exploitative girlhood in which she was victimised and exploited by her own mother and her lover, financially and sexually.

It explores the invisible and little-known areas of female subjectivity. Although biographical in intent, Bhoomika's structural complexity seems to suggest that the journey of self-exploration undertaken by Usha (named Urvashi for her screen persona) portrayed by Patil when she was very fresh in films, is circular, full of snares, forever incomplete.

Portrayal of Complex and Conflicting Themes With Ease Was His Forte

  • Mandi (Marketplace, 1983) is one of the very few films that revolve around an old brothel the existence of which stands threatened because of land-grabbers, including local politicians, and landlords who wished to grab the land on which the brothel stands without offering them any alternative space.

    The brothel, located along the fringes of Hyderabad city, is headed by a madam portrayed by Shabana Azmi. Benegal has used burlesque as the mode to explore the dynamics of a whorehouse. He tempers the film with an air of black comedy, allowing for some crude voyeurism in keeping with the social environment in which the women live.

Mandi makes a delightful case of depicting the conflicting and complex aspects of prostitution.
  • Sooraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (The Seventh Horse of the Sun, 1992): Based on Dharamvir Bharati's noted Hindi novel of the same name, this film is not only a classic example of the transcription/interpretation of literature on celluloid, but also, one of the few celluloid experiments with the lost art of storytelling.

    Characters of one story telescope and move freely in and out of the other two, growing with time, and subtly hinting at the changes in their lives, as seen from the point of view of Manek Mulla played by Rajit Kapoor who grows from a gawky adolescent with a big crush on young girl Jamuna in the neighbouring house to a young man in the second story till in the last episode, he is a fully grown adult trying to cope with the pained and tortured and exploited young gypsy girl Sakti (Neena Gupta), but failing to come to a definite closure in any of the relationships.

    Suggested adultery enriches the tapestry and texture of Sooraj Ka Saatvan Ghoda. Of the three women who enter Manek Mulla's life, one is adulterous purely by suggestion, even before she becomes a widow. Jamuna, forced to marry an old widower, suddenly finds herself pregnant.

But can one rightfully call it adultery? The question is left hanging in mid-air, leaving you to find the right answer which would depend on your perspective on morals underlined by patriarchy.
  • Zubeidaa (2001) is said to be Benegal’s costliest film before Netaji – comprising four female characters that offers an insight into Benegal's mastery in understanding and handling the woman psyche from every angle transcending barriers of communal identity, age, background, status, and education.

    Apart from Zubeidaa (Karishma Kapoor), there is Fayyazi(Surekhha Sikri) her mother, who is not very educated and is Muslim. She is submissive and never raises her voice against her domineering and abusive husband Suleiman (Amrish Puri) even when he openly flaunts his keep, Rose Davenport (Lilette Dubey) in public.

    But Fayyazi takes a critical decision when Zubeidaa decides to marry her Hindu prince of Jodhpur, Hukam Singh(Manoj Bajpeyee) though he is already married to Mandira (Rekha) and has kids. But she does not permit Zubeidaa to take little Riyaz with her.


When Riyaaz comes to meet Rose, she is a ghost of her former self, without work or identity because, post Independence, the Anglo Indian was gradually falling out of favour with the newly formed Indian Government. Mandira (Rekha), the original queen of Hukam Singh, is officially acknowledged by the Royal family, by the Royal family and by the subjects of Fatehpur.

She speaks impeccable English but is always bejewelled and costumed royally like any Indian princess of her time. Her name is abbreviated to the British-sounding Mandy, probably motivated by the sycophantic allegiance Indian royalty bore towards the British.

But she had affection for the much younger Zubeidaa and was pleasantly surprised by her free spirit, her living life completely on her own terms though it brought her not only unhappiness but, a lack of rootedness that finally led to her death in the plant crash. Was the crash a sabotage? Or, was it just a crash? Benegal leaves the question open.

(Shoma A Chatterji is an Indian film scholar, author and freelance journalist. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Shabana Azmi   Shyam Benegal   Patriarchy 

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