Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar
Artwork by Camilla Anvar
Kumar Shahani is one of the finest film makers in the post-Independence era of India. He was born in Larkana, Sindh in Pakistan, and raised in Mumbai after his family lost their ancestral home after Partition. In 1966, he joined the Film and Television Institute of India under the tutelage of Ritwik Ghatak, the great Marxist film maker from West Bengal. Ritwik Ghatak’s own preoccupations had been with the idea of Myth, folk tales, and the layering of sound, music, and noise within the cinematic realm of melodrama. Shahani spent time learning with the finest polymath from India – D.D. Kosambi. In later years, Shahani was to learn music first from Neela Bhagwat and then rigorously under Pandit Jal Balaporia. In sum, Shahani only made four full feature films, a handful of documentaries, several short films, and Khayal Gatha, a film which was never fully realised as a complete documentary or feature in categorisation. However, Shahani’s ambitions stretched beyond this: his primary concern was to formulate a vision of cinema that explores the Epic form. In the years that followed, Shahani’s work continued Ghatak’s practice; eventually leading him to master his own Idiom.
Shahani’s great influence on cinema is something that has only been recognised recently. His work has been left out of major discourses on the creation of an Indian aesthetic in post-war and post-partition cinema – hence it is also absent from the study of Indian Cinema. When I studied for my masters at SOAS, Kumar Shahani’s work (despite his political position) was not a subject of any conversation or screening. Even in the major classes offered on Indian cinema, he was missing. Back then, it was impossible to get a copy of any of his films. I was lucky to come across his work by interacting with insiders in Indian cinema, back home in Mumbai.
SOAS created an environment within its institution that enabled students to question everything. For me, this spurred my first big revelation: that culture and society must be understood from the point of view of the means of production. That culture is a product of labour in day to day living. That man was the active subject residing within nature – the object.
In 2011, no major works commenting on Shahani’s oeuvre had been released yet. I remember seeing the first major book written about him by Prof. Laleen Jayamane, only in 2014. While I always had the desire to make films, I knew that the only way forward for me would be pursuing a path of learning in an intimate space with a master. So in 2015, I started to investigate how I could learn the art of filmmaking from Kumar Shahani himself – this came into fruition after I met him in person in early 2016. Since then, I have been researching for him and learned from him at a workshop at the Film and Television Institute of India. As a guru, he has always been very forthcoming and has always pushed his students to work on their own metaphors, and their own concerns while suggesting ways in which their praxis can develop. In my years after my Masters, I have realized the joy of learning from a Guru through discussion, debate, and monologue across every topic conceivable. I could only attain this form of freedom once away from a university.
Unfortunately, aside from a few academics who have pursued the understanding of Kumar Shahani’s works, his films have been largely left out of film curricula of major universities around the world. Barring a few centres of access for films, he has not found a major following within his own country. He has written expressly and extensively on the filmic medium and its potential to influence life sciences and rituals. He has written about the aesthetics of Bollywood as well as ‘middle’ or ‘parallel’ cinema, terms I use to describe a middle ground approach which invariably took on the form of middle class and upper caste consciousness values, examples of these can be seen in the works of Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihlani. In the end, Kumar Shahani’s work and his values could not make him a part of the establishment, either in the mainstream or the middle-ground cinema camp.
I now move on to analyse Shahani’s first feature film, Maya Darpan (1972), which was hailed as India’s first formal film in colour. The film is based on a short story written by Nirmal Verma. The arduous task of creating this work has been well detailed by Ashish Rajadhyaksha in his essay on Kumar Shahani’s work. Shahani’s style of cinema learned and absorbed from traditional forms within the country and in Maya Darpan, these are expressed via architecture, Indian classical music, and dance forms. The film explores the social milieu of a failing feudalistic and patriarchal structure. Taran, the primary protagonist, navigates this feudal structure through the parallel lines of movement ascribed to her. Eventually, her movement, along with the camera’s own movement, creates a strange sense of dissonance. Through the film, Shahani actively works against the perpendicular lines inherent in the film camera’s grid. By his own admission, Kumar Shahani achieved the writing of the film in three interventions; he lists them as ‘colour-movement-sound interventions’ (Shahani 361). The viewer is then engaged in a sensuous experience between the layers created within the colourful reverie of Taran’s textiles, the placement of sound spaces that exist as independent of their visual scapes and the use of Indian classical music to subvert the dramatic mode and recreate reality into the sublime or the Epic. By this, I mean that even on repeated viewings it is impossible to fathom a cause/effect relationship with the film, as nearly all the specifics are hard to pin point in memory and later recollection of the exact filmic sequences is difficult. This makes the work even more evocative, as repeated viewings might yield other pockets of thoughts, sounds, movements, dialogue.
Throughout the film, Taran is not a bystander in her life, but retains agency of her own desires, wishes, and fantasies. At one point, a constant voiceover repeating of a letter from her brother, thus in repetition, even a syllable or a vowel can become evocative. Imaginatively she gets located into greener pastures while in the ‘realistic’ sense she also finds joy in her jaunts within the local or the immediate. Her body also becomes a metaphor for the change in a traditional feudal household that begins to move towards a paleo-industrialized world.
Maya Darpan displays a remarkable movement within the interior of a grand old feudal house, the waning power of an aging patriarch. The film never attempts to fetishize Taran’s body; instead, the inner monologue relies on extensive quotations from the book, which float in the form of free, indirect discourse.
The film climaxes into a series of crane shots (in my opinion, one of the finest use of crane shots in film history) in which Taran is led to discover the sexuality and violence within her in the form of Chhau, a form of dance from Mayurbhanj. The sequence was choreographed in collaboration with Chandralekha, an iconoclastic and feminist dancer, who worked towards revolutionising the traditional practices within classical dance in India.
Despite the creation of Film Finance Corporations (FFC) by the government, the plan to create distribution channels (art house cinema halls) never materialised and thus the film was never released commercially.
While the status of Kumar Shahani as a contemporary master is unquestionable, only an inter-disciplinary approach to his work may allow one to fully realise the depth of his films. On that same note, the constituent elements of his work can teach us a lot across the academic fields of literature, painting, psychology, classical arts, and political science. From the point of view of contemporary film makers who have looked to the arts to form a unique connection with cinema, Kumar Shahani’s works are exemplary.
Shahani, Kumar. The Shock of Desire and Other Essays. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2015.
About the writer
Elroy Pinto completed his masters in Global Cinemas and the Transcultural from the School of Oriental and African Studies University of London. His research thesis focused on the works of from the Indian New Wave. Since graduating in 2011, he have lectured on Cinema at Wilson College, Mumbai, written and curated a film programme at an art gallery in Mumbai, provided research support to Kumar Shahani’s upcoming film projects and worked closely with him since 2016. Elroy is editing a monograph in English on the life and aesthetics of Pandit Sharadchandra Arolkar by Neela Bhagwat, from whom he has been learning Gwalior vocalism for the last three years. Elroy has recently completed a short film on the Tabla and Ustad Nizamuddin Khan titled ‘Kaifiyat’.