Born in 1934 in Andhra Pradesh, Shyam Benegal originated what has come to be called "middle cinema". He was initially involved in the advertising industry and produced over 900 advertisements before his interest turned to films. His first feature film in Hindi, Ankur (The Seedling, 1973), tells the story of an arrogant urban youth who returns to his ancestral home in feudal Andhra Pradesh. His subsequent affair with the wife of one of his labourers (played powerfully by Shabhana Azmi in her debut) and her eventual call to arms against the feudal system brought him criticism for using a purportedly "un-Indian" approach in his films and also for "victimizing" women. The film unquestionably had the merit of bringing the problem of fedual and patriarchal structures to the fore. Nishant (Night's End, 1975), again starring Shabhana Azmi, is in some sense a continuation of Ankur. Again sexual exploitation of women is used to bring out the evils of feudal oppression. Manthan (The Churning, 1976), was financed in the most unusual manner, in that 500,000 members of the milk co-operatives in Gujarat each donated Rs. 2 towards the production of the film. This was truly a people's enterprise. In this film, Shyam Benegal introduces a westernized doctor to a village who sparks off an uprising of the local untouchables. The doctor is also attracted to a local woman, and consequently Benegal is once again able to explore the nexus of sex and power. Benegal was to explore the roles to which women are confined in Indian society in Bhumika (The Role, 1976), where he reveals the highly ambivalent attitudes of Indian society when it comes to letting a woman assert herself independently. The film is based on the autobiography of the Marathi/Hindi actress Hansa Wadkar, deftly played by Smita Patil.
For many years, Benegal's films were associated with grim representations of Indian realities, and the same set of characters appeared in many of his films and those associated with the New Indian Cinema: the oppressive landlord, the corrupt official, the hypocritical politician, the subjugated tribal woman, the struggling villager, and so on. But Benegal has always had wider interests, and in Kalyug he attempted to give the Mahabharata a modern interpretation by representing the dispute within a large business family. Moreover, the films of recent years show his lively engagement with questions of narrativity. In Suraj Ka Satvan Gora (The Seventh Horse of the Sun, 1993), the same story is told from several different standpoints, and each story houses other stories, somewhat in the strucuture of the Mahabharata. The same experiment in narration is witnessed, though less successfully, in Sardari Begum (1996), which is said to be a fictional exploration or representation of the life of the great vocalist, Begum Akhtar.
Shyam Benegal has also produced movies for various government organizations and a 53-episode television series on Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India called Bharat Ek Khoj (1988). He is also a respected documentary filmmaker, and his most recent endeavor in this direction is a cinematic study of the early years of Gandhi in South Africa: thus the Making of the Mahatma. He has also taught at the Film and Television Institute in Pune and continues to be an influential presence in Indian film circles.