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 auteurs in their own right and are largely responsible for the development of the ‘New Indian Cinema’ or the ‘Indian New Wave’, especially in creating an avant-garde cinema whose ideology was vastly different from the aesthetics of mainstream cinema and even parallel Indian cinema, as it was prevalent then.
Shahani was born in Larkana in the Province of Sindh, now in Pakistan on December 7, 1940. His family migrated to India during the Partition, where he graduated from Bombay University in 1962 in Political Science and History. Shahani then enrolled at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, where he was a student of the great Ritwik Ghatak. He graduated from the FTII in 1966 with specialization in Screenplay Writing and Film Direction. In 1967-68, he received a scholarship by the French Government for further film studies. Shahani studied at the IDHEC in Paris and while in France, he assisted the great French filmmaker, 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 that took on feudalism and explored female sexuality. The film, set in 1947, is, to quote Ashsish Rajyadhyaksha in Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, ‘the only successful colour experiment of New Indian Cinema’. Taking about this, Shahani noted, “I had to spend more than half of the budget on getting the raw Kodak stock; it was an ambitious undertaking to make a film in colour on such a low budget. All of this was made much worse since the captains of the film industry and the bureaucrats did not believe in the concept of filmmaking as an art form. Moreover, the film labs were bound by manuals and accustomed to a certain convention of grading and colour correction without the director being present. Whereas we were trying to go beyond the manuals, especially to create desaturation and experiment with colour.” Film scholar Devdutt Trivedi, in his piece for scroll.in, observes, “Maya Darpan is structured according to the ajrakh technique of woodblock printing, which emphasises a multi-centered dynamic joined together by a rectilinear grid.” The film, screened at the Locarno International Film Festival of 1973, went on to win the Filmfare Critics’ Award for Best Film but met with a mixed reaction from Indian audiences who found its slow pacing and European art-house cinema feel highly difficult to endure.
It took Shahani a whole twelve years to raise the money for his next film, Tarang (1984). The film explores themes of conflict and betrayal when different worlds collide as a result of India’s industrialization. Rahul (Amol Palekar), 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 (Kawal Gandhi), the industrialist’s loyal daughter, and Dinesh (Girish Karnad), his cousin by marriage, who is openly unscrupulous. The arrival of Janaki (Smita Patil) – a trade unionist’s widow – drives the film towards its denouement. The film, Shahani’s biggest film, is an elaborately plotted melodrama precisely realizing 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 instance, 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 stunning 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 besides getting Shahani his second award for Best Film (Critics) at the Filmfare Awards.
Shahani next adapted a little-known Chekov story, In the Ravine, as Kasba (1990). The film, extremely well ‘Indianized’, 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 lighting, compositions and colour palette 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 film also sees the clever casting of mainstream actor, Shatrughan Sinha.
Char Adhyay (1997), sees Shahani inspired by Tagore last novel, written in 1934. Talking on what drew him to the story, Shahani said, “The novel was written in Kandy and already Tagore was moving towards a pan-Asiatic internationalistic vision. He believed in the right to self-determination, self-realisation, what was higher than any ethnicised concept of nationalism. ” He further elaborated that 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.” The film is set in Bengal of the 1930s when India’s freedom struggle had gained momentum. It focuses on a group of people fighting for India’s Independence from the British and explores how this affects their personal lives.
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, The Bamboo Flute (2000), Shahani’s cinematic tribute to the flute and its importance to Indian civilisation and As The Crow Flies (2004), an exploration of the works of painter Akbar Padamsee.
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. He passed away in Kolkata on February 24, 2024.