Filmmaker, designer and artist Gautam Benegal dies at 55

On July 16, Benegal—a filmmaker, writer, cartoonist and artist—died at home of a cardiac arrest. He was 55.

About a decade ago, Gautam Benegal showed a set of 24 paintings at a coffee shop in Worli Village in Mumbai. His series was dedicated to the city’s vanishing Irani cafes, their affordable kheema-pao, their eccentric owners and customers, and their convivial air. The same Benegal, capable of eliciting such warmth, was also one of most acerbic commentators of India’s politics.

On July 16, Benegal—a filmmaker, writer, cartoonist and artist—died at home of a cardiac arrest. He was 55.

He was born in Kolkata in 1965. He began a life in illustrations and art at a young age. When he was 14, he illustrated a book of poems called ‘Gabbus Gabba’ by Arun De. After the book was published, he took a copy of it to 1/1 Bishop Lefroy Road, where Satyajit Ray lived. Ray welcomed him inside, even though Benegal hadn’t made an appointment, went through the book and asked him if he would like to illustrate for ‘Sandesh’, his children’s magazine and a Bengali cult favourite.

Benegal later trained in animation and made several animation films.

In 2010, he made a one-hour animation film titled ‘The Prince and the Crown of Stone’ which won two Rajat Kamal National Awards. Benegal has also been associated with children’s books, from writing a collection of vignettes set in a lane in Kolkata, titled ‘1/7 Bondel Road’, to illustrating many others.

In 2018, Benegal exhibited his cartoons, many of them satirical observations of India’s politics and leaders in the garb of a chicken shop, at Chemould Prescott Road. At ‘A1 Chicken Sope’, the poultry in the coop are a political lot, where votes, the sliding economy and onion prices are discussed even as customers ask for the best ‘Brecht piece’.

Shireen Gandhy, who owns Chemould, recalled the exhibition as a moment when people of similar political alignments came together. “He had a sardonic way of expressing himself and you’d think he would be the kind of person to be difficult around, but he was charming and affable,” Gandhy said. In a social media post, Gandhy said Benegal and his commentary and writing are “essential in today’s India”. “He was very good with articulation. Everything that you wanted to say was well articulated by him,” she told The Indian Express.

Benegal had a substantial following on social media, for his cartoons as well as his sardonic wit in his prolific posts, which often led to heated debates and chuckles in the comments sections. On the recent death of Fatherr Stan Swamy, Benegal had posted: “It would be politic of INC to stay away from commenting on the plight and [untimely] demise of Fr Stan Swamy.” Earlier this month he had written, “I never understood what Gandhi meant by the three monkeys. Is it advice on how to go into denial? Shut our eyes, ears and voices to everything happening around us? Not critiquing or engaging with even injustice? Becoming conformist and passive?”

 

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