Shyam Benegal’s rare film Susman (The Essence) is streaming on YouTube for free. The 1987 film documents the struggle of Andhra Pradesh’s weavers who were trying to compete with the rapidly growing industrialisation of that time. Like many of Benegal’s films from the ‘parallel movement’, even this one starred familiar names and faces like Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Mohan Agashe, Neena Gupta and Pallavi Joshi.
The film follows Mandira (played by Gupta), a designer who makes way to the village of Pochampally, for the right kind of fabric for her sarees. In fact, the film’s opening credits begin with Gupta’s voiceover where she explains all the wonderful variety of sarees available in India. What kind of prints, patterns, colour suits which style of saree, is something that easily rolls off her tongue. She doesn’t have any trouble dismissing a saree with the combination of blue and red, something she doesn’t think works very well.
When the action moves to the village in Andhra Pradesh, the focus shifts to a highly skilled weaver called Ramulu (played by Puri) and his wife, Gauramma (Shabana Azmi). Ramulu doesn’t wish his son to follow his footsteps as a weaver, while Gauramma is mostly taken by the worry over their daughter Chinna’s marriage. Like in most Benegal films from this time, he effortlessly handles the delicate cameos by the likes of Pankaj Kapur and Kulbhushan Kharbanda, while also managing an ensemble cast including names like a volatile Annu Kapoor and his wife, played by Ila Arun.
Susman was Benegal’s second film about the genesis of a co-operative, after 1976’s Manthan. However, the 1987 film hasn’t been seen as widely seen as the Smita Patil-starrer that traced the first steps of the White Revolution. Both films pushed the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, while also stitching together a fictional narrative with the help of the mundanities of daily life. It’s finally on YouTube, and you shouldn’t waste any more time and get to it.
Watch it here: