Thought Box



by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri June 9 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 43 secs

Thanks to the efforts of the Film Heritage Foundation, Shyam Benegal’s masterpiece has reached a new generation, proving cinema’s power to educate and inspire societal change, writes Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri.

Dr Verghese Kurien: ‘Do you think these documentaries will be enough for us to spread the word?’

Shyam Benegal: ‘No, I think we need to make a feature film to maximize reach.’

Dr Verghese Kurien: ‘Then why don’t we make it? How much money do we need?’

Shyam Benegal: ‘About 10 to 11 lakh rupees…’

Dr Verghese Kurien: ‘That’s all? Where’s the problem then? It’s quite simple. I will get my farmers to fund this. Consider it done.’

In the way Shyam Benegal narrates it, the making of Manthan appears as easy as that. We are seated in the legendary filmmaker’s office in Tardeo, gearing up for the premiere of the restored version of the iconic afilm at Eros theatre in Mumbai. Forty-eight years after the film was released, the excitement in the ninety-year-old director’s voice is palpable. ‘I was connected with the Amul cooperative movement from my days in advertising films. I had made a couple of documentary films on aspects connected with Amul. Which is when Dr Kurien broached the subject of a feature film.’

Milk farmers supplied milk twice a day, morning and evening. The morning supplies were paid for in the evening. And the supplies made in the evening were paid for the next morning. According to Shyam Benegal, Dr Kurien sent a message across to all the farmers: ‘Let’s tell your story. For that, what you need to do is take Rs 2 less just one time.’ Over 500,000 farmers actually did that. And a classic of Indian cinema was born. Dr Kurien not only helped organize the finances, but remained committed to promoting the film nationally and internationally. As Shyam Benegal says, ‘When the film opened, all the milk farmers made the film a huge success. When we first embarked on it, there were the sceptics who said, “Who would want to see a feature film about milk farmers in Gujarat?” As it transpired, it not only had a great run in India, it did well overseas too – in countries like China, Mexico, Peru, in south and central America. What became known as the “Anand pattern” resonated all over. It became an international sensation.’


At the grand event to mark the screening of the restored version a day later, watching the galaxy of luminaries on stage – the director, actors Naseeruddin Shah and Kulbhushan Kharbanda, cinematographer Govind Nihalani, art director Shama Zaidi, singer Preeti Sagar, and assistants to the director Prahlad Kakkar (who went on to become one of India’s best-known ad filmmakers) and Dayal Nihalani – one could not but reflect on those who were missing: Smita Patil and Girish Karnad, Amrish Puri and Sadhu Meher, Kaifi Azmi, who wrote the dialogues, Vijay Tendulkar, the screenplay writer, and Vanraj Bhatia, the composer nonpareil, undoubtedly one of the film’s ‘heroes’.

As Mr Benegal remembers, ‘Smita used to stay almost next door from where we are. Her father was a Congress worker, who went on to become a minister. Her mother was a firebrand feminist. An activist. Her elder sister Anita is a doctor. These are people who contributed to modern India. Manthan is part of that scheme. What’s remarkable is how much Smita looked the part. When we went to the location, I asked her to change into the clothes of the locals. Naseer too did the same. Normally, when a film unit goes on location from Bombay, you expect crowds all around. But here was a film where nobody knew we were shooting. People would gather round the crew and ask: “Where are the stars?” I would point to Smita and say, “There she is.” The response almost always used to be: “No, no, she can’t be. She is one of the local women.”’

Naseeruddin Shah, whose Bhola became one of the film’s iconic roles, remembers, ‘I was part of Nishant, but nobody gave me any credit for it. A year went by and I was beginning to feel quite frustrated by the lack of recognition and appreciation when Manthan happened. Suddenly people woke up to my presence. Manthan means the world to me. Though looking back on the film today, I do feel that my performance was slightly immature, I think for the times, it worked well.’ A lot has been made about Naseer’s penchant for ‘living’ the role by staying in the same clothes for the entire duration of the shoot and not having a bath. To my question on whether the director insisted on this, he deadpans: ‘I was asked not to change my clothes. I chose not to bathe – that was entirely my decision.’


One of the factors that has contributed to the film’s recall even after forty years is its music. Even those unaware of the finer details of the narrative will remember Vanraj Bhatia’s score for the film with that memorable refrain of what sounds like the sarangi but is, according to the filmmaker, a local three-stringed variant that the crew came across during the location recce. ‘The madaris with monkeys would go around playing the instrument and I loved its sound. Vanraj picked it up after I mentioned it.’

From the film’s first shot, the train arriving at Semla station, to the refrain, is the film’s very soul, conveying its many moods. The understated passion and longing of the relationship between Dr Rao and Bindu, the sorrowful realization of the insurmountable caste and class barriers that exist between them, the harsh majesty of the unforgiving landscape, the colourful attire of the natives that contrasts the poverty of their lives. Like some of the great cinematic themes in cinema anywhere in the world, the refrain brings instant recall.

And then there’s the voice that conveys all these sentiments – Preeti Sagar’s. Close to 50 years later, her rendition of ‘Mero Gaam Katha Parey’ remains an abiding memory of Hindi film music, a standout of the decade. Fresh from the success of ‘My Heart Is Beating’, a world apart in terms of the genre, Preeti Sagar proved that she was as much at ease with the Western beats of Rajesh Roshan’s composition as she was with the raucous folksy strains of Vanraj Bhatia’s unforgettable melody.  

Interestingly, a happy accident led to Preeti’s sister Neeti writing the song. ‘We were at Vanraj’s (uncle) house and Shyam (uncle) was going over the lyrics that a legendary name in Gujarati literature had written. Shyam uncle kept shaking his head saying that it was not what he wanted.’ At this juncture, Neeti, who happened to be there, piped up to offer to try her hand. As Neeti reminisced at the screening, she was all of eighteen at the time and what she came up with met Mr Benegal’s approval immediately. ‘This is exactly what I want,’ Preeti remembers Mr Benegal saying.

So great is the listener’s identification with Preeti’s rendition of the song that the moment one hears the lines ‘Main toh dekhu teri vaat, din na beete nahi raat, ko se kahu dil nai baat, main toh thaaki re’, one is immediately reminded of Smita Patil’s expressive face conveying the despair of love unexpressed. At the same time, the exuberance in the lines ‘Ja doodh ki nadiya wahe / ja koyal ku ku gaye / mare ghar angana na bhulo na’ comes forth much like the river of milk they speak of.

As Preeti remembers, she was very tense before the recording, and once she started singing, ‘Shyam uncle had to cut me short. “I do not want you to sound like the Preeti Sagar of Julie. I want a voice that conveys the soul of the soil, the earth.”’ Further validation, if any were needed, came from none other than the current King of England. Prince Charles, at the time, was one of the many fans of the song. On one of his trips to India, the prince was visiting Anand and expressed his admiration for the song. Preeti was called to Anand and asked to render it in front of Prince Charles who, as Preeti says, was immensely moved by the experience of hearing her sing it live.


As was the audience at the screening of the restored version at Eros theatre, breaking out into a thunderous applause. Before the screening got under way, the guests on stage reminisced about the making of the film. While Shama Zaidi remembered Prahlad Kakkar’s dismay at the absence of toilets on location and having to go into the fields – that found its way into the film in a sequence involving Anant Nag – Kulbhushan Kharbanda mentioned preparing till the last moment for the role that was eventually played by Amrish Puri, and being unaware of the character he was to eventually play until he was given the sarpanch’s turban.

Speaking of the restoration, Mr Benegal reiterates what a remarkable job Shivendra Dungarpur and the Film Heritage Foundation had done. ‘It is absolutely brilliant. I made the film. And I can say that the original did not look as good. The restoration was better than the original.’ Naseeruddin Shah agrees: ‘It is stunning. I wasn’t particularly struck by the film’s visual quality when I watched it all those years back. But the restoration makes it a whole new experience. Imagine going through a film frame by frame.’

How important is the restoration of films? The star says, ‘We are so full of history, but have no awareness of preserving it. Film is the only medium that can capture a certain time. A hundred years from now, if anyone were to look for an aspect of the history of India, a film like Manthan would give an idea of what it was like.’ He adds with a mischievous wink, ‘Not Sholay. Not every film should be restored. Some films should be destroyed.’


What strikes one about watching Manthan after all these decades is how contemporary the film is. The gender and caste politics in the film are as relevant today. Though the caste equation has changed, with the lower castes finding a voice in the last three decades, the atrocities inflicted on and the discrimination against Dalits and women are as true today as they were in 1976.

What is also striking, apart from the restoration, is the impact the film has had. For a film that was, in the words of Shyam Benegal, pooh-poohed with comments like ‘who will ever watch a film about milk farmers in Gujarat?’, the film, highlighting the work of legends like Dr Kurien and Tribhuvandas Patel, and the contribution of the milk-cooperative movement in India, became hugely influential. Mr Benegal points out how Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was one of the early pioneers who played an important part in the establishment of the cooperative movement in India, and had the vision to point out that we needed to think not only in terms of cows but buffaloes too – which is what farmers in and around Anand owned. Dr Kurien and Tribhuvandas Patel built on that.

Shyam Benegal has the last word, ‘India had the largest number of cattle. But we were a milk-deficit nation. We depended entirely on foreign baby food. Thanks to the efforts of pioneers like Dr Kurien and Mr Patel, we became a milk-surplus nation.’

Thanks to Manthan, India and the world came to know of this transformative story. For those who insist on cinema being just a means of entertainment and of little informational value or capable of bringing any societal change, Shyam Benegal’s masterpiece is the answer. And thanks to Shivendra Singh Dungarpur and Film Heritage Foundation, which estimates more than 10,000 tickets sold over the weekend in the 100 theatres spread across 50 cities, a whole generation that was not even born when the film was made is now aware of an important piece of India’s history.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.