World Premiere of Shyam Benegal’s restored ‘Manthan’ at Cannes

Nearly 50 years after its initial release, the red-carpet world premiere of the 4K restoration of Shyam Benegal’s milestone film “Manthan” will be held at the 77th Edition of the Cannes Film Festival, scheduled for 14th to 25th May

 A significant cornerstone of the Indian Parallel Cinema Movement, ‘Manthan’ (1976) remains a timeless classic, with its evocative visuals, strong performances and peerless direction. A case study of cooperation with dairy farmers, who are not only the subject but also stakeholders in the film, such a unique feat may be difficult to accomplish.

‘Manthan’ is a film of notable firsts. Known as the first crowdfunded Indian cinematic project, with 500,000 dairy farmers contributing Rs.2 each towards the film’s production costs. The film’s story revolves around the groundbreaking milk co-operative movement under Dr. Verghese Kurien, highlighting the challenges and obstacles in the initiation of the project.

Directed by veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal and with the screenplay written by noted playwright Vijay Tendulkar, the film presents the struggles of dairy farmers and a glance into village life through the lens of an outsider. The presence of a rigid social hierarchy, practicing untouchability and resentment towards change are the main themes in the film.

Dr. Manohar Rao (played by Girish Karnad) a young and exuberant veterinarian, arrives with his team in a village named Kheda in Gujarat to setup a co-operative society. Met with resistance by the villagers used to selling milk to the only dairy owner named Mishra for paltry sums (Amrish Puri), he wins their trust by educating them about the true value of their milk, showing them testing techniques and offering them a fairer price. Saving a young boy’s life despite using questionable methods deepens the faith of the villagers in the doctor’s abilities.

The objective behind the co-operative is not only financial freedom for the villagers, but an escape from the cycle of systemic abuse and entitlement. However, this new development comes at the center of a caste conflict. The village head (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) is annoyed and resents being part of a co-operative along with lower caste members. The Dalit leader Bhola (Naseeruddin Shah) is the voice and fights for the lower castes, thus effectively splitting the village in two camps. Dr. Rao’s patience is constantly tested due to shifting loyalties and lack of unity in the village.

Bindu is the other central character (Smita Patil) who is wary of Dr. Rao and remains suspicious of his motives. Over time, she and Dr. Rao develop a relationship based on mutual respect and affection, despite the doctor’s marriage. The dynamics of their relationship change when Dr. Rao’s wife decides to visit the village and Bindu’s husband returns from the blue, while objecting to her participation in the co-operative society.

Dr. Rao is steadfast in his goal to help the villagers attain their socioeconomic liberation. However, the power politics at play, the prejudices of his team members and false allegations threaten to derail all his work. The dairy owner (Amrish Puri) is upset with losing business and his position in the village affairs, while the village head suffers a huge ego blow when he loses the election for the co-operative society. They team up with Bindu’s husband to make a scandalous plan accusing the doctor of sexual assault and lay waste to the village, ensuring that villagers lose their livelihood and stop change from taking hold.

Dr. Rao leaves in the wake of the allegations, but the dissident leader Bhola carries on his work of enabling the co-operative with Bindu’s support. ‘Manthan’ in Hindi refers to the process of churning of the milk into butter and through the events in the film; these two individuals emerge out of the churning marking a new beginning of moving the village from dependence to self-sufficiency.

Despite the passage of time, the film’s cultural and social significance remains undiminished. The events in the film marked the beginning of the ‘White Revolution’, the movement that turned India into the largest milk producer in the World from being a milk-deficit nation. The dairy industry accounts for nearly 5% of the Indian economy, while the value of milk is bigger than the value of rice and wheat combined, two major goods in the export basket.

‘Manthan’ is a tale of the reel meeting the real, a journey of overcoming the odds and a testament to the strength in collectivity. With its nuanced take on village life, with multiple power structures, caste conflicts and social ills such as untouchability the film treats these issues with empathy and sensitivity. Fostering unity and working towards the greater good is the message that lies at the heart of the film.

Restoration in 4K

Filmmaker and archivist Shivendra Singh Dungarpur and his organization Film Heritage Foundation led the restoration project. The screening also marks Film Heritage Foundation’s hat trick at the Festival de Cannes, as it returns for a third year in a row for the red-carpet world premiere of the 4K restoration of “Manthan”. The film has been restored by Film Heritage Foundation at Prasad Corporation Pvt. Ltd.’s Post–Studios, Chennai and L’Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory, in association with Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd. (Amul), the cinematographer Govind Nihalani and the director Shyam Benegal.

Manthan was restored using the best surviving elements: the 35 mm original camera negative preserved at the NFDC- National Film Archive of India and the sound was digitised from the 35 mm release print preserved at Film Heritage Foundation.

(Author is a New Delhi based film enthusiast since his university days and keenly watches the works of Basu Chatterjee, Chris Columbus, John Hughes, Nancy Meyers, Nora Ephron and Shyam Benegal amongst others).

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