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Kumar Shahani Redefined the Cinema in India

Kumar Shahani was said to have been uncompromising. That, if any, was the word that famously defined him.
Kumar Shahani. Photo: Special arrangement

It wasn’t a radical film by any definition of radical that existed at the time.

The maker himself was clearly a radical figure. The first impression was always that of frailty: a pronounced limp, sharp eyes and a shock of hair. A Marxist, it would be said in whispers in the form of the time, with an intellectual genealogy that had European roots that also spoke to histories of Indian materialism. He had returned from Paris, and had all the hallmarks of an active participant in the events of May ’68. As a student at the IDHEC in Paris, however, he had chosen to work with the decidedly antediluvian Robert Bresson, as against the far more attractive figures of soixante-huitard (‘sixty-eighter’) cinema: Jean-Luc Godard and the rest.

Kumar Shahani’s student ID at the IDHEC, Paris. Photo: Special arrangement

He had returned to an India still inflamed by Naxalbari, Srikakulam and indeed Calcutta of the late ’60s. Radicalism was decidedly in the air: time, then, to make a radical film. What he did do, when he got the chance, was to make a film that defied one’s understanding of the radical gesture. Maya Darpan, it was called: a slow, slow, saga of a woman whose inner traumas mapped onto the world: a desert landscape from which she would occasionally depart in the fantasies of luxurious green foliage, a finale of Chhau dance and a tilting camera.

The film, it was said, was unreleasable. It was widely attacked – among others, by Satyajit Ray, who accused it of threatening film language with extinction. Maya Darpan survived however, and even grew and changed, seen by viewers in India and elsewhere in numbers exceeding the viewers of most of the ‘art cinema with a commercial edge’ that many were making at the time. Problem was, there was no way of commoditising the kind of value his cinema represented: a problem with which he was familiar, as would have been his teacher, D.D. Kosambi.

Kumar Shahani was said to have been uncompromising. That, if any, was the word that famously defined him. He put India to the test, both in the films he actually made, and more in the ones he could not make. In both, he transformed, and eventually owned, the famous question, what is cinema in an India that has been confusing to historians, economists and cultural theorists alike. What defined India? Could this be captured in narrative practices at all, and if so what might such practices look like?

Alaknanda Samarth as the sphynx in Khayal Gatha (1989).

It was clear that music had something to say to this, especially forms that arose as much through improvised means, the better he said to evade hierarchical order. Answers, if we could use the word, were to be found in the most unexpected of places, on street corners as much as in obscure turns of phrase in obsolete languages, in craft found in traditions of weaving, primitive manufacture, tribal cultures and those of the modern working class. It was the cinema that, above all, could take absorb, take on, such a span. Sound, picture, the minute gradations of colour, the moves of the camera – and above all, the cinema’s ability to capture silences that were not the absence of sound, but an audio-visual presence that was unique to fully processed celluloid.

Shahani was of course saying this in a country with chronic cinematic overproduction: a ‘medium’ (a term he disliked, as he did the concept of communication theory that converted all audiences into recipients of a ‘message’) being sought to be owned as much by the state as by the market. He redefined cinema in this sense of cinema. Widely seen as having been ‘sidelined’, as unable to make films, in a space that had powerful antagonists with significant political and economic interests. In a way he was marginal to those interests. In another way, he remained central to the entire discourse, a constant point of reference for everything to do with the question of cinema, and the span of what the cinematic could straddle in a place like India.

Over the years this related as much to unmade films as it did to completed ones. He could not make a full length film for over a decade after Maya Darpan, but then he did complete Tarang, the first – in the end, the only, fully realised instance of several truly epic works that he had planned and, sometimes, even scripted. Among the several that were in some stage of initial production, was a film on Anna Karenina for which he had provisionally cast Dimple Kapadia, another one on the history of cotton in the modern world which, if he had made it, would have been shot over three continents and spanned five hundred years of modern history. Less realised, but in some way into production was Hamlet featuring Michael Jackson.

Smita Patil ae Janaki, the working class protagonist of Tarang (1984).

After Tarang, he made two works of fiction, Kasba and Char Adhyay, adapting Chekhov and Tagore respectively. Both his completed works and several that remained incomplete or unrealised, were epic in the sense of both scale and structures of signification. He meant epic not exactly in Brecht’s sense, or even in Eisenstein’s, but rather in the sense of Kosambi, sometimes borrowing from the Mahabharata. He saw such epic structures as much in classical formations as buried under the dominance of the dramatic-lyrical, the form preferred, he said, by the modern bourgeoisie: forms such as the folk, or even of the proletariat, such as (we saw in Tarang, the lavani).

By the 1990s, the form changed: the budgets he needed were not forthcoming, and an increasing abstraction – the way round the barriers of capital’s domination of value – appeared to him to be the only way forward. It was an abstraction that could be performed only by dancers, as against actors – Pandit Birju Maharaj in Khayal Gatha, Kelucharan Mahapatra in Bhavantarana and Alarmel Valli, among others, in Bamboo Flute: unrealised films included one with Pina Bausch. All of these are abstract in a somewhat particular sense: focusing on narrative sequence, usually driven by music – sequence being literally as important a concept for him as montage had been to one of his mentors, Sergei Eisenstein – and a performative mode that could sustain such sequences.

Stone carver from Bhavantarana (1991).

Finally, it was not about what he was able to achieve in the cinema that defined him. In the myriad locations where he taught, showed his work, spoke, workshopped, at FTII and SRFTI and in several different spaces both formal and informal, it was an idea of what could be done – a condition of possibility, to quote him – that remains. And the fact that the cinema seems to have something to say to that condition.

Ashish Rajadhyaksha is a film historian, cultural theorist and occasional art curator.

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