When the illustrious and multitalented Bhupen Hazarika passed away in 2011, few were aware that he was leaving his partner of 39 years, Kalpana Lajmi, behind to cope with the loss. Filmmaker Lajmi had stopped directing films since 2006 because she had to tend to her ailing partner from the time he suffered his first heart attack. Lajmi, born in 1954, was the daughter of one of India’s most outstanding painters, Lalitha Lajmi, and niece of filmmaker Guru Dutt. “It was a tumultuous relationship because I was an anonymous 17-year-old when we got together and at 45, he (Hazarika) was an internationally recognized celebrity. Besides, there was the age gap. It is only since 1980 that he publicly began to introduce me as his partner,” said producer, director, screenplay writer Kalpana Lajmi, who passed away on September 23rd, 2018, after suffering from kidney cancer.
This happens to a part of the contradiction in life that a fearless, candid to a fault, temperamental woman like Kalpana Lajmi could bear such a relationship with a music master, singer, actor and director for so many years. This did hinder her career as a director but she remained undaunted in sticking to the relationship. They never got married, not did he ever introduce her as his live-in partner or his ‘companion’ but rather, as his ‘secretary’ or ‘assistant’. Lajmi poured her heart out in her book, which was launched shortly before her death, and whose launch she could not personally attend as she was too ill. The book, Bhupen Hazarika: As I Knew Him, offers us an insight into the constant tumultuous storms that are bound to place a relationship into the danger of collapsing specially because on the one hand, stands a legend who created a legacy of his own and on the other, a much younger woman, no less a fountain of talent, which was nipped in the bud and could not sustain the bloom that it held within itself.
Kalpana’s entry into the film industry was under the guidance of her uncle, Shyam Benegal, as the assistant costume director for Bhumika (1977). “I worked under him (Bengal) for ten years in various capacities but finally found that I needed to step out on my own,” she once said to this writer in an interview. She went on to create her own style and approach. This made her stand out as her own woman as a director and as a woman because her works hold up well on their own even when placed along a line of equally talented women directors with varying ranges of filmmaking such as Aparna Sen, Bijoya Jena, Vijaya Mehta, Prema Karanth and others. She held on to her convictions, never mind whether the critics panned her films or the audience did not get even the opportunity of watching her creations because of insufficient marketing, promotion and advertising.
Her first film Ek Pal is based on a story written by Maitreyi Devi and is a love triangle of an unique kind. The story is set in Assam, opening with detailed rituals of an Assamese marriage in which Priyam (Shabana Azmi) gets married through negotiation with a very successful man (Naseeruddin Shah) who is mostly stationed away. It is a story of adultery where Priyam, during her husband’s long absences, has an affair with and is summarily dumped by her lover (Farooq Sheikh). By then, she has become pregnant. But credibly, her husband accepts the baby. Other characteristics that enhanced Ek Pal were the beautiful music by Bhupen Hazarika, the fine performances by the main actors and the till-then picturesque backdrop of Assam.
Lajmi’s second film Rudaali (1992), also perhaps her most well-known film, is based on one of the most famous stories of Mahasweta Devi. Nevertheless, Kalpana makes it her film as taking off from the story, she relocates it in Rajasthan taking advantage of the reds and blues and bronzes and browns of the setting to enhance the aesthetic composition of the film. The other strong quality of the film was its tight script (Gulzar) and the beautiful music and songs by Bhupen Hazarika besides, of course, the central performance by Dimple Kapadia that deservedly fetched her the National Award. Rudaali not only defies comparison with the original story, but stands apart as a film with an independent existence of its own.
Her next film, Darmiyaan (1997), is among the early films on an eunuch in Hindi cinema and also one of the most unique in its exploration of a transgender individual who tries his best to fit into his genetic identity but has to pass through severe torture – emotional, physical, psychological and sexual. The film stars Arif Zakaria as the eunuch who is left to care for his lunatic mother, once a famous actress but now trapped in her once-famous Anarkali performance. She never acknowledged him as her son because he was born different. But the film, for all its merits, was largely ignored by by audiences because Kalpana reportedly had a big fight with the producer who backed out of giving the film a decent theatrical release. The interesting sub-plot in the film offers a delightful insight into the Mumbai film industry during the time the mother is at the top till she is succeeded by a much younger rival portrayed by Tabu in a very empathetic role. Sparklingly fresh performances from Arif Zakaria, Ritha Devi, Hilla Sethna, Tabu and Kirron Kher underscore the fact that Hindi cinema was finally liberating the image of the mother from the taboos and constraints of a patriarchal culture to make it a subject of serious psychological study. Lajmi, herself can be said to have attained cinematic and directorial maturity with Darmiyaan.
Daman (2001), set once again in Assam revolved round the most brutal, cruel and cold-blooded story of domestic violence. The leading lady, very meaningfully named Durga, from a lower caste, is married off to the older son of the very famous industrialist the Saikia family. But the older son is a debauch who ill-treats his wife in unimaginably violent ways. How Durga gets rid of her husband on Vijaya Dashami day and kills him as brutally with Durga’s spear marks the journey of the film. Despite Raveena Tandon getting the National Award fro Best Actress, Daman perhaps marks the downfall of the director in Kalpana. The film was mapped with terrible scenes of graphic violence in different degrees and Shivaji Shinde as the husband gave a loud, crude and overloaded-with-melodrama performance while Raveena is not very convincing expect in the climactic sane of the film.
Following Daman, Lajmi tried her hand at a thriller mixing politics, murder, a major kidnapping and ransom thrown in. The name of the film was Kyon? (2003), which Kalpana also produced. But the film is neither here nor there and turned out to be a diluted hotchpotch of several thrillers and put together without much coherence.
Chingaari (2006) was the cinematic death of a very talented director like Kalpana. Based on a story The Prostitute and the Postman, by Bhupen Hazarika, this film is a crude, gruesome statement, looking at a small village controlled by a terrible, red-cloaked priest/tantric (Mithun Chakraborty) who controls the entire village with his vile ways. He also finds brutal ways in sexually torturing a prostitute to whom he is a regular visitor, Basanti (Sushmita Sen). Events play out where ultimately Basanti kills the evil tantric in the climax of the film. I found it to be an extremely destructive film where Basanti, who is the mother of a growing girl for whom she wants a better life, gets angry when she finds her daughter applying lipstick and trying to deck herself but at the same time, is not careful enough to keep her terrible sexual trysts away from the eyes of the same daughter!
While enough has still been discussed on Lajmi’s films, few remember perhaps the best work, Lohit Kinare (1988), a serial for Doordarshan, which was hardly publicised and sparsely viewed. It was an adaptation of short stories based in Assam and authored by Bhupen Hazarika. It was a low key, subtle and well controlled serial. But few recall this serial or the filmmaker who directed it so sensitively and seamlessly.
The question that tends to raise its ugly head in all this is – Was her long association and fascination for and with a man much older, of a different temperament, from a different cultural and geographical background with a leaning towards both women and alcohol responsible for killing the creative artist in Kalpana Lajmi? It was a very demanding relationship where the balance was always tilted in favour of Hazarika and against Lajmi. But no one really knows the answer because many actually tend to believe that her association with Hazarika was, in fact, the inspirational source of her continued line of films in every way.