Kumar Shahani is a filmmaker who has been able to carve an aesthetic path and create a new cinematic language that is very much his own and as iconoclastic as his colleague, Mani Kaul. The two of them are largely responsible for the development of the ‘New Indian Cinema’ or the ‘Indian New Wave’ in creating an avant-garde cinema whose ideology was vastly different from the aesthetics of mainstream cinema as it was prevalent then.
Shahani was born in Sindh in 1940, now in Pakistan. His family migrated to India during the partition, where he graduated from Bombay University in 1962. Shahani then enrolled at the Film and Television Imstitute of India (FTII), Pune, graduating in 1966 with specializing in Film Direction. In 1967-68, Shahani was given a scholarship by the French Government for further film studies. Shahani studied at the IDHEC in Paris and in France, he assisted Robert Bresson on Une Femme Douce (1969) besides participating in the May 1968 student rebellion.
Shahani’s first feature film was Maya Darpan (1972), financed by the Film Finance Corporation (FFC). It was an extraordinary but controversial debut. The film is, to quote Ashsish Rajyadhyaksha in Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, “the only successful colour experimentof New Indian Cinema.” The colours and tones of the film are totally original, which serves as an allegory of the state of mind of the protagonist Taran, for instance going from yellow to harsh blue in order to capture the harshness of light and the aridity of the Rajasthani landscapes while contrasting with the green colours of Assam, where the heroine’s brother works in a tea-plantation.
It took Shahani 12 years to raise the money for his next film, Tarang (1984). Tarang explores themes of conflict and betrayal when different worlds collide as a result of India’s industrialisation. Rahul, the son-in-law and heir of an old industrialist, conceals his personal ambitions under a cloak of liberalism, while encouraging indigenous production. He clashes with Hansa, the industrialist’s loyal daughter, and Dinesh, his cousin by marriage who is openly unscrupulous. The arrival of Janaki – a trade unionist’s widow, and victim of industrialist ambition – drives the film towards its denouement. The film, Shahani’s biggest film to date, is an elaborately plotted melodrama precisely realising his theory of epic cinema. Quoting Shahani himself, “Directors from Eisenstein to Goddard to Jansco have worked on the epic form in the perspective of their lives and their own histories. For me, the individualisation of a tradition is essential. Tarang contains a large number of characters – individuals who come from diverse social classes; for each individual, I have tried to bring out a series of perspectives so that the spectator can see ‘beyond’ them and thereby go back to his own personal perspective and reflect on it.”
Khayal Gatha (1988) merges the history of the Khayal form with several legends associated with it for eg the legend of Rani Roopmati and Baaz Bahadur, Heer-Ranjha, Nala-Damayanti and others. These legends are then worked into some of the key figurations determining the Khayal narrative as a music student moves through these epochs and legends. The result is a visually stuunning film encompassing legend, history and poetry, emphasizing hybridity in all cultural practices. The film won the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Prize at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 1990.
Shahani next adapted a little-known Chekov story, In the Ravine, as Kasba (1990). The film, extremely well ‘Indianised’, shows Shahani’s complete mastery of the narrative mode and goes into the depths of human nature and its worst impuses – ambition and greed. Superbly staged and acted, Kasba works brilliantly with its colourpallette that reflects not just the seasons but also comments on the states of mind of the protagonists. Shahani expertly distances the spectator from raw human emotions by introducing allusions to miniature art found in the Kangra Valley and to diverse local musical traditions as well.
The last film to date directed by Shahni has been Char Adhyay (1997), inspired by a Tagore novella. According to Shahani, the film is “a homage to Tagore, Ghatak and to all those who have made our lives liveable, whether they be from the crowded streets of Calcutta or from some faraway country full of love and laughter.”
Other films directed by Kumar Shahani include Bhavantarana (1991), a spectacular part-fictional documentray on India’s famous Odissi dance, seen through its formost exponent – Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra and The Bamboo Flute (2000), Shahani’s cinematic tribute to the flute and its importance to Indian civilisation.
Shahani has also written various essays on cinema, co-edited the book Cinema and Television (1991) and directed actress Alaknanda Samarth in two stage plays La Voix Humaine and Kunti.