He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1976 and the Padma Bhushan in 1991. On 8 August 2007, Benegal was awarded the highest award in Indian cinema for lifetime achievement, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for the year 2005. He has won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi seven times.
Shyam Benegal, was born on 14 December 1934 in Trimulgherry, Secunderabad, then a British Cantonment, and now a twin city of the state capital, as Shyam Sunder Benegal. It was here, at age twelve, that he made his first film, on a camera given to him by his photographer father, Sridhar B. Benegal. He received an M.A. in Economics from Osmania University, Hyderabad. There he formed the Hyderabad Film Society.
Famous film director and actor Guru Dutt's maternal grandmother and Shyam's paternal grandmother were sisters.
In 1959, he started working as a copywriter at a Mumbai-based advertising agency, Lintas Advertising, where he steadily rose to become a creative head. Meanwhile, Benegal made his first documentary in Gujarati, Gher Betha Ganga (Ganges at Doorstep) in 1962. His first feature film had to wait another decade while he worked on the script.
In 1963 he had a brief stint with another advertising agency called ASP (Advertising, Sales and Promotion). During his advertising years, he directed over 900 sponsored documentaries and advertising films.
Between 1966 and 1973, Shyam taught at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, and twice served as the institute's chairman: 1980–83 and 1989–92. By this time he had already started making documentaries. One of his early documentaries, A Child of the Streets (1967), garnered him wide acclaim. In all, he has made over 70 documentary and short films.
He was awarded the Homi J. Bhabha Fellowship (1970–72) which allowed him to work at the Children's Television Workshop, New York, and later at Boston's WGBH-TV.
After returning to Mumbai, he received independent financing and Ankur (The Seedling) was finally made in 1973. It was a story of economic and sexual exploitation in his home state, Telangana, and Benegal instantly shot to fame. The film introduced actors Shabana Azmi and Anant Nag and won Benegal the 1975 National Film Award for Second Best Feature Film. Shabana won the National Film Award for Best Actress.
The success that New India Cinema enjoyed in the 1970s and early 1980s could largely be attributed to Shyam Benegal's quartet: Ankur (1973), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977). Benegal used a variety of new actors, mainly from the FTII and NSD, like Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Amrish Puri.
In Benegal's next, Nishant (Night's End) (1975), a teacher's wife is abducted and gang-raped by four zamindars; officialdom turns a deaf ear to the distraught husband's pleas for help. Manthan (The Churning) (1976) is a film on rural empowerment and is set against the backdrop of Gujarat's fledgling dairy industry. For the first time, over five lakh (half a million) rural farmers in Gujarat, contributed ₹ 2 each and thus became the film's producers. Upon its release, truckloads of farmers came to see "their" film, making it a success at the box office. After this trilogy on rural oppression, Benegal made a biopic, Bhumika (The Role) (1977), broadly based on the life of well-known Marathi stage and film actress of the 1940s, Hansa Wadkar (played by Smita Patil) who led a flamboyant and unconventional life. The main character sets out on an individual search for identity and self-fulfillment, while also grappling with exploitation by men.
In the early 1970s, Shyam made 21 film modules for Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), sponsored by UNICEF. This allowed him to interact with children of SITE and many folk artists. Eventually he used many of these children in his feature length rendition of the classic folk tale Charandas Chor (Charandas the Thief) in 1975. He made it for the Children's Film Society, India. To quote film critic Derek Malcolm:
what Benegal has done is to paint a magnificent visual recreation of those extraordinary days and one that is also sensitive to the agonies and predicament of a talented woman whose need for security was only matched by her insistence on freedom.
Unlike most New Cinema filmmakers, Benegal has had private backers for many of his films and institutional backing for a few, including Manthan (National Dairy Development Board), and Susman (1987) (Handloom Co-operatives). However, his films did not have proper releases. He turned to TV where he directed serials like Yatra (1986) for the Indian Railways, and one of the biggest projects undertaken on Indian television, the 53-episode television serial Bharat Ek Khoj (1988) based on Jawaharlal Nehru's book, Discovery of India. This gave him an added advantage, as he managed to survive the collapse of the New Cinema movement in the late 1980s due to paucity of funding, with which were lost many neo-realist filmmakers. Benegal continued making films throughout the next two decades. He also served as the Director of the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) from 1980 to 1986.
Following the success of these four films, Benegal was backed by star Shashi Kapoor for whom he made Junoon (1978) and Kalyug (1981). The former was an interracial love story set amidst the turbulent period of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, while the latter was based on the Mahabharata and was not a big hit, although both won Filmfare Best Movie Awards in 1980 and 1982, respectively.
Benegal's next film, Mandi (1983), was a satirical comedy about politics and prostitution, starring Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. Later, working from his own story, based on the last days of Portuguese in Goa, in the early 1960s, Shyam explored human relationships in Trikal (1985).
Soon, Shyam Benegal stepped beyond traditional narrative films and took to biographical material to achieve greater freedom of expression. His first venture in this genre was with a documentary film based on Satyajit Ray's life, Satyajit Ray, in 1985. This was followed by works like Sardari Begum (1996) and Zubeidaa, which was written by filmmaker and critic Khalid Mohamed.
In 1985 he was a member of the jury at the 14th Moscow International Film Festival.
The 1990s saw Shyam Benegal making a trilogy on Indian Muslim women, starting with Mammo (1995), Sardari Begum (1996), and Zubeidaa (2001). With Zubeidaa, he entered mainstream Bollywood, as it starred top Bollywood star Karishma Kapoor and boasted music by A. R. Rahman.
In 1992, he made Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (Seventh Horse of the Sun) based on a novel by Dharmavir Bharati, which won the 1993 National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi. In 1996 he made another film based on a book, The Making of the Mahatma, based on Fatima Meer's, The Apprenticeship of a Mahatma. This turn to biographical material resulted in Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero, his 2005 English language film. He criticised the Indian caste system in Samar (1999) which went on to win the National Film Award for Best Feature Film.
Benegal is the current president of the Federation of Film Societies of India. He owns a production company called Sahyadri Films.
He has authored three books based on his own films: The Churning with Vijay Tendulkar (1984), based on Manthan; Satyajit Ray (1988), based on his biographical film, Satyajit Ray; and The Marketplace (1989) which was based on Mandi.
In 2009 he was a member of the jury at the 31st Moscow International Film Festival.
In 2008, his film Welcome to Sajjanpur, starring Shreyas Talpade and Amrita Rao, was released to a good response. Its music was composed by Shantanu Moitra, and it was produced by Chetan Motiwalla. Shyam Benegal is slated to direct an epic musical Chamki Chameli, inspired by George Bizet's classic Spanish opera Carmen. The story revolves around the eponymous Chamki, a beautiful gypsy girl with a fiery temper and is written by Shama Zaidi. The music is by A. R. Rahman and lyrics are by Javed Akhtar.
In March 2010, Benegal released the political satire Well Done Abba.
One of Benegal's future projects is a film based on the life of Noor Inayat Khan, daughter of Inayat Khan and descendant of Tipu Sultan, who served as a British spy during World War II.
Benegal made a comeback on the small screen with Samvidhaan, a 10-part mini-series revolving around the making of Indian Constitution to be aired on Rajya Sabha TV from 2 March 2014. Along with Benegal, Dalip Tahil, Sachin Khedekar, Divya Dutta, Rajendra Gupta, K K Raina, and Ila Arun were seen at the press conference for the TV series.
Shyam Benegal is married to Nira Benegal and has a daughter, Pia, who is a costume designer for feature films.1984 Best Historical Reconstruction for Nehru
1985 Best Biographical Film for Satyajit Ray
1986 Best Director for Trikal
1993 Best Feature Film in Hindi for Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda
1995 Best Feature Film in Hindi for Mammo
1996 Best Feature Film in English for The Making of the Mahatma
1997 Best Feature Film in Urdu for Sardari Begum
1999 Best Feature Film for Samar
1999 Best Feature Film on Family Welfare for Hari-Bhari
2001 Best Feature Film in Hindi for Zubeidaa
2005 Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration for Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero
Best Film on Other Social Issues for Well Done AbbaFilmfare Awards
1980 Best Director for Junoon
Cannes Film Festival
1976: Golden Palm: Nishant: Nominated
Berlin International Film Festival
1974 Golden Berlin Bear for Ankur: Nominated
Moscow International Film Festival
1981 Golden Prize: Kalyug
1997 Golden St. George: Sardari Begum: Nominated
All Lights India International Film Festival
2015 Lifetime Achievement Award
B. N. Reddy National Award for contribution to Indian Cinema
1970 Homi Bhabha Fellowship (1970–72)
1976 Padma Shri
1989 Sovietland Nehru Award
1991 Padma Bhushan
2012 D. Litt. Honoris Causa of the University of Calcutta
2016 D. Litt. "Honoris Causa" of ITM University, Gwalior (M.P.)