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Kumar Shahani: A revered filmmaker who carved his own niche

ByKhalid Mohamed
Feb 25, 2024 05:43 PM IST

A significant name in the Indian parallel cinema, he directed films such as Maya Darpan, Char Adhyay and Kasba

Once, when I had asked him about his first waking memory, it was of Larkhana in Sindh where he was born. His mother’s delicate fingers were covering him with a light mulmul sheet and singing strains from a Sufi qawwali in hushed whispers.

The filmmaker was born in Larkana, Sindh in the undivided India. (Khaled Mohamed)
The filmmaker was born in Larkana, Sindh in the undivided India. (Khaled Mohamed)

“It couldn’t have been Duma-a-Dum Mast Kalandar, but who knows?” he smiled. “My mother was full of surprises.”

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Kumar Shahani (1940-2024), then remembered hanging around the shoot of a Dilip Kumar film on the Worli boulevard; the thespian called over the little boy in knee-pants and gave him ice-cream.

One of Kumar’s cherished dreams was to make a movie with the thespian someday. And on graduating from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, circa 1966, he did meet the Dilip Kumar on and off. Their conversations flowed, sadly no project ever transpired.

Also Read: Maya Darpan director Kumar Shahani dies at 83 in Kolkata, confirms Mita Vashisht: His health had been declining

Indeed, in a curious way, Shahani towards the autumn years of his life would suddenly pop up with impractical ideas, like the one on a feature film with Michael Jackson and another one with Julia Roberts.

International investors would discuss starting a film with him, some of them affiliated to prestigious art museums and culture centres, and would tell him that getting such inaccessible names would be no problem for them. Gullibly, Kumar would believe them, and wonder, “Why should those guys lie to me? They were serious.”

Way earlier, in the 1980s a multi-episode serial adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for Doordarshan, co-financed by the National Finance Development Corporation (NFDC), had almost fructified. Dimple Kapadia had assented to portray the title role. Either she backed off, since TV series wouldn’t have been a comedown for an A-list Bollywood heroine, or was stalled because of inadequate financing, a bane which dogged him throughout a career which is not only one-of-a-kind but rigorously uncompromised.

Deeply influenced by the works of polymath DD Kosambi, the patriarch of the Marxist school of Indian historiography, and by Ritwik Ghatak, the iconoclastic filmmaker who was the dean of the FTII during Kumar’s years on the campus, he rarely spoke about them, perhaps understanding they would be far too cerebral for me.

Three of his other ambitions went unrealised, one, a film interpretation of the Indian Constitution, two a portrait of the legendary Indo- Amrita Sher-Gil (the artist’s nephew the late Vivan Sundaram would only release the rights to him); and a feature on the British psycho-analyst Wilfrid Bion which was left incomplete again for lack of funds. I’d seen the rushes, it’s a shame that the visually ravishing and profoundly perceptive work didn’t get to the finishing line.

I bring up Kumar Shahani’s lost dreams simply because he was constantly brimming over with ideas, only to be cowed down by that trope of ‘arthouse cinema’ which he was ghettoised in.

On an upbeat note, he has left us with a visually sensuous (KK Mahajan was his regular cinematographer), thought-enticing, epic oeuvre: Maya Darpan (1972), Tarang (1984), Khayal Gatha (1989), Kasba (1990) and Char Adhyay (1997) based on a Rabindranath Tagore novel.

In their different ways, the all explored the essential questions of identity, morality and ethics within the context of contemporary social conditions.

In between there were the remarkable short films Fire in the Belly (1973), Our Universe (1976), Vaar Vaar Vari (1987), Bhavantarana (1991), The Bamboo Flute (2000) and As the Crow Flies (2004), besides a short video on the artist Akbar Padamsee and a book titled Shock of Desires and Other Essays.

On a personal note, whenever I had a professional or personal crisis, Kumar was the ‘shrink’-to-go-to at his apartment in Sagar Darshan building on Breach Candy where he lived with his wife Roshan, art and classical music critic, and their two daughters Uttara and Rewati – the former is now a professor at Oxford University and the latter, a globally exhibited artist.

So, when Kumar moved to Delhi, where he became a film educator, it was as if I’d lost a second home. I did run across him at the India International Centre, shared a cup of tea, and lamented that the filmmaker in him was killed by the System, to which he had laughed, “Don’t be so dramatic. Maybe, I will make another film or two. As you know I have the scripts ready to the last word.”

I wouldn’t leave the IIC, without asking a question which I hadn’t broached earlier.

Would he admit that the labour strike depicted in Tarang was an obvious reference to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. His response was that he did remember Eisenstein constantly like prayer. It wasn’t an imitation, it was a cry out within himself to get it right.

On his own volition, he continued that from his ‘influences’ – be it Kosambi, Ghatak or the French auteur Robert Bresson, whom he had assisted on the making of Une Femme Douce (1969) Paris, in their own ways, they had encouraged him to seek the ‘random sign’, which would reveal something of the unknown, to share yourself with every frisson of a bird, beast and blade of grass.

Now Kumar Shahani has gone, just like the touch of a mulmul sheet.

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