SHYAM BENEGAL’s model old person is a contemporary of his mother-in-law’s. “She’s wonderful. She’s 93 and she travels entirely by herself, flying to California to see her son and then Europe to visit friends. She can discuss the latest movie, she loves gossip,” he says with genuine admiration. “You don’t have to make a special effort to include her in the conversation. That is how one would want to be.” But Benegal, who turns 75 this December, is realistic. “It’s not something given to everyone. So many things are not in your hands, just physically. But we human beings are blessed with one thing – optimism.”
“When you’re young, you certainly don’t see older people and think of yourself as them. Intimations of mortality are constantly there – it’s romantic and dramatic [to think of death]. But ageing is something people block their minds against,” he smiles. “Even now, I don’t see myself as ageing – only as adding years to my life. It’s only when one attempts to leap across a puddle that one suddenly feels, uh-oh, it’s not happening like it used to.” He blames his ulcers on a cavalier attitude when he was younger (“you know, who needs breakfast, and so on”), one he has since abandoned for a practical understanding of what he needs to avoid to stay healthy. Within limits, of course. “I still enjoy my drink and savour my food. I want to try out a new restaurant as much as the next person.”
A champion swimmer in his days at Hyderabad’s Nizam College, Benegal once captained his state team. Nowadays, he’s rueful about not exercising as much as he thinks he should. He tries to go for a walk daily, at the Mahalaxmi Race Course when he’s in Mumbai and in Lodhi Gardens when he’s in Delhi to attend the Rajya Sabha (he’s a nominated MP). But what really keeps Benegal fighting fit is cinema. After the success of last year’s superb Welcome to Sajjanpur, he’s now ready with Well Done Abba, “a political satire” inspired by two short stories (‘Narsaiyyan Ki Bavdi’ by Jeelani Bano and ‘Phulwa Ka Pul’ by Sanjeev). Well Done Abba has just travelled to the Montreal Film Festival, and releases in October. More than that, he’s excited about new filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bhardwaj, and young writers like Ali Sethi.
“There are still so many books to read, movies to see,” he says. “Where’s the time to think about time?”