Kalpana Lajmi: Lone ranger

Kalpana Lajmi (1954-2018) defied conventional wisdom to make path-breaking films that established her as a formidable, feminist voice.

Published : Oct 10, 2018 12:30 IST

Kalpana Lajmi .

Kalpana Lajmi .

DELETE the word unconventional from your dictionary and you will struggle to describe Kalpana Lajmi. She was all that the patriarchal, stereotypical society did not order. She lived with the legendary Bhupen Hazarika, who was almost 30 years older to her. When she first met him, she was 17 and he was 45. They were together for 40 years until he breathed his last at the age of 85. She looked after him like a wife, nursed him like a mother, pampered him like a sister, and enjoyed his success like a friend. In the last two decades of his life, when his fame touched new heights, she even managed his career, his concerts and his recordings. To the world outside, she was a no-nonsense woman who did not allow her guard to drop when it came to protecting her partner. Inside the privacy of her home, though, she was the one who often put up with his tantrums, his idiosyncrasies and his mood swings.

Yet, she never married him. As she wrote in Bhupen Hazarika: As I knew Him , which was released a few days before she departed from this world: “He always said that both of us should celebrate our love story because it was a special, unique love that was undefined and would remain so given the conservative parameters and construct of society around us. Our lives, from youth to old age, were a continuous journey of mutual passion and love. We stepped into various chapters of our lives, sliding in and out of relationships with men and women, making memories along the way. We cherished some of them but there were some we wished we could forget but couldn’t.”

He was from Assam, the eldest of 10 siblings in a lower-middle-class family. She hailed from the stock of the legendary Guru Dutt and counted Shyam Benegal among her cousins. Socially, there were seemingly intractable polarities. Yet, she made the relationship work.

As she wrote: “Perhaps my entry in his life instilled peace, harmony and happiness in his persona and he became a comfortable householder with me. I was totally unaware of the depth of friction and complexities that enveloped the Hazarika household. We never discussed it and perhaps all the relationships that disintegrated in front of his eyes, the loss of his parents, sibling rivalry and jealousy, his wrecked marriage, disillusionment with his only son made him accept me and look upon me, I feel, with the love of a tender, concerned and caring father.”

It was not easy to begin with, their wide age difference apart. She did not know his language. She did not even understand much of his music. Born in an upper-class family, she had not experienced poverty and deprivation. Slowly, she found her way in his life; she learned his language and appreciated his musical genius. Way younger, she looked at him as a father figure of sorts. He indulged her. Slowly, the two warmed up to each other. And without realising it, Hazarika had got the anchor he never thought possible after all the domestic vicissitudes in his life back in Assam.

As for Kalpana Lajmi, she was happy to be in his shade. In that shadow lay comfort, familiarity and warmth.

It took a long time for her painter mother, Lalita, to come to terms with her daughter’s unique status in Hazarika’s life; it reached a fitting culmination when Kalpana Lajmi stepped forward to complete the last lap of Hazarika’s last journey. As she recalled: “He had elicited a promise from me that wherever he expired, I would take him back to Guwahati and cremate him by his beloved Brahmaputra. My mother, who had never approved of my live-in relationship with Bhupen, was the one to insist that I should not desert him now, that I had to forget all my personal pain and give him the dignified farewell that he deserved, thus closing this chapter of my life with fortitude.”

That was in November 2011. A little under eight years later, the curtains came down on Kalpana Lajmi’s life too, following almost a year-long struggle with kidney cancer, during which the actor Soni Razdan stepped forward to help her deal with mounting medical bills.

Her relationship with Hazarika hung on delicate threads; it was a relationship the larger world around her took a long time to understand. In conventional society, it was easy, almost inevitable, to label her a home-breaker, a gold-digger. Yet, Hazarika’s first marriage had long ended when Kalpana Lajmi stepped in. And Hazarika’s best phase of music, and subsequent rewards and recognition, came while in her company.

Yet, she never forgot she had with her a legend of his era. He may not have experienced much calm and harmony for years, but in the world of sounds and songs, he was an incomparable genius. She urged him to find solace in his work. Slowly, Hazarika was a changed man. As for Kalpana Lajmi, she made a handful of documentaries in their early years together. In 1978, she stepped into the world of cinema as an assistant to Shyam Benegal, and soon made a documentary on the noted Bengali film-maker Dhiren Ganguly. Then came other essays but nothing truly memorable.

Then, in 1986, came Ek Pal , a Naseeruddin Shah-Shabana Azmi-Farooq Sheikh starrer that Kalpana Lajmi helmed. With that film, she stepped out of Hazarika’s huge shadow and became a director in her own right. The film, which gently tugged at the heart, was a feminist essay. And in the world of mainstream cinema, it was as unconventional as it could get. Just like the director.

Based on a short story by Maitreyi Debi, the film narrated the story from a woman’s point of view. The censor board, unaccustomed to scenes of the leading lady in bed with a man she is not married to, gave the film an “Adults Only” certificate. It only heightened interest in the film that came at a time when Hindi cinema was dishing out mediocrity every week. In the era of Mard , Maqsad and Masterji , Ek Pal was cerebral fare.

Kalpana Lajmi had announced her entry as a formidable, feminist voice. It gained in volume with her next film, Rudaali , which came after almost seven years. Yet again, she defied conventional wisdom. In Hindi cinema, both the actors and the directors tend to follow up a hit film with another one in double-quick time to capitalise on the first one’s easy recall value. Kalpana Lajmi went to the other extreme; she waited for her audiences to forget Ek Pal before putting together a cinematic adaptation of a short story by Mahasweta Devi.

The trampling of stereotypes did not end with the subject of mourners. Instead of taking an art house giant like Shabana Azmi to play the lead, Kalpana Lajmi surprised everybody by pencilling in Dimple Kapadia as a mourner. Dimple Kapadia had started her career as a dream girl of sorts with Bobby and had not been suspected of having an art house card up her sleeve. Yet, through this tale of a woman enveloped in silent sorrow, she scooped up the National Award for Best Actress.

Rudaali , though, is remembered today for “ Dil Hoom Hoom Kare ”, easily the most memorable of Hazarika’s Hindi gems. The maestro himself sang the male lead while Lata Mangeshkar lent her voice to the female part. Together, the songs became the lasting imprint of the professional association between Hazarika and Kalpana Lajmi.

A few years later, she gave us Darmiyan , which talked of the intersection of gender and sexuality. Again, much before our cinema warmed up to the subject of alternative sexuality or people with a different taste, this Arif Zakaria-Kirron Kher film challenged viewers to look afresh at the world around them. The film got limited commercial but plenty of critical acclaim.

Then came Kalpana Lajmi’s weakest film, Daman , starring Raveena Tandon, which told a tale of domestic violence and marital rape. The subject was, yet again, ahead of its times, but it sank under the weight of melodrama. Not every commercial actor could pull off a Rudaali , and Raveena Tandon failed to lift the film above mediocrity.

Disappointed, Kalpana Lajmi renergised herself with Chingari , with Sushmita Sen as the protagonist. The film had no spark, and with it went the fire from the life of Kalpana Lajmi, the bold feminist film-maker who dared to tell stories from the point of view of her women characters.

The box office did not always reward her good intentions and artistes were not always able to put in sterling performances befitting her idea. But Kalpana Lajmi never failed for want of trying. She did it all on her terms, in her own unconventional ways. There was only one Kalpana Lajmi. Nobody could accuse her of not being original.

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