'Socially responsible film maker' seems to be his tag. People talk of his brilliant exploration of social issues, of his technical superiority, of the superb performances he extracted from his actors, etc. etc. All this gives one the impression that he was the party-pooper of the decade that was the 70s; that he made "meaningful" cinema which was too artistic to be enjoyed by any but the very intellectual classes (whoever they might be). Of course, there is no denying that his films were socially responsible, that they did have great performances, that they were artistically made. But what all these tags do not reveal is that his films were actually interesting and fun to watch, that he is a brilliant story teller, that his films have a sense of humor that helps you over the grim parts, without ever trivialising the subject.
For me, the Shyam Benegal love started in the 80s with his lovely tele serial Yatra. It was an almost-anthology of tales set within the compartments of a train, journeying from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and back. It sketched the stories of the people who boarded the train in a few beautiful strokes - through their actions and interactions within the train compartment. Yes, it was brilliant film making, but more important to my masala-fed kiddie self, it was fun and interesting. It felt like I was really meeting all these people and getting to know them.