In 1957, when I was pursing a master’s degree in economics from Nizam College in Hyderabad, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had come for the inauguration of an inter-university youth festival where he spoke at length about communication and how it operates at both a conscious and sub-conscious level. His speech made a deep impact on me, an aspiring filmmaker. Here was a prime minister talking about communication — how many politicians can discuss a subject like that?
My introduction to Nehru, however, took place much before this episode. I was in school when my father, Sridhar Benegal, gifted me his book, Letters from a Father to His Daughter. This is a compilation of letters that he wrote to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, during the many years he spent in prison, away from her. The compilation was brought out by Hind Kitab, a publishing house that brought out many of Nehru’s books as well as writings of other nationalist leaders.
Even as Indira grew up, Nehru continued to write to her, encapsulating in his writings, the history of the world. Those letters were compiled in Glimpses of World History, a book, which an uncle, sensing my interest in Nehru’s writing, gifted me. By the time I was 17, I had read all of Nehru’s books, including his autobiography, which was published in the latter half of the ’30s, and The Discovery of India, which he wrote during his last imprisonment in Ahmednagar Fort Jail in Maharashtra between 1942 and 1946.
What becomes evident from Nehru’s elegant writing is that he was a mass leader with great communication skills. The Discovery of India tries to understand the complexities of our country, and it was this book that I turned to when I decided to make a television show in the ’80s.
This was the time when television had gone national in India and Doordarshan was opening a number of stations across the country. VN Gadgil, then Minister of Information and Broadcasting, decided to create many new programmes for national television and I was one of the directors invited to work on this. Ramanand Sagar was chosen to direct Ramayan and though I was interested in directing Mahabharat, BR Chopra was selected to adapt it. So, I decided to do a show on the history of India, based on The Discovery of India. We started televising Bharat Ek Khoj, which we shot and aired simultaneously, on November 14, 1988, the 99th birth anniversary of Nehru, and ended it on his birth centenary on November 14, 1989, followed by an episode of its recaps.
Even before Bharat Ek Khoj, I had directed a three-hour biopic, titled Nehru, based on his autobiography. The film, which was a co-production between the Indian and Soviet governments, was scheduled to be premiered at Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi, on November 14, 1984. For this, I had interviewed the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who introduced the biopic and had rounded up her introduction, saying: “He was more of a poet than politician.” A couple of weeks before the premiere, on October 31, 1984, she was assassinated.
Both in the movie and the television show, I decided to make Nehru the narrator. In the movie, Saeed Jaffrey is the voice of Nehru, while, in Bharat Ek Khoj, Roshan Seth appears as Nehru. Seth had played Nehru in the film Gandhi and has the same kind of intonation, diction as he had — Nehru’s English as well as Hindi were remarkably accent-less. However, in The Discovery of India, there were certain missing links. For example, Nehru has not written much about the history of south India. We had to do our own research on the Chola empire and the Pandyan dynasty among others, and made Om Puri the narrator for those portions in our show.
The impression of Nehru that I carry is that of a renaissance man. I admire him for his depth and breadth of mind. After Nehru, there has not been anybody with the same kind of intellect and worldview. The way he looked at civilisation, his respect for culture, not just ours but that of the world, is remarkable. There are very few people like him, especially among politicians.
It is difficult to point out how Nehru influenced my cinematic choices, but, perhaps, he is one of the reasons behind my deep interest in the immediate world around us, in our environment and our history.
(As told to Alaka Sahani)