Kumar Shahani (1940-2024): A polymath’s relentless search for a unique cinematic idiom

Shahani, who passed away in February at the age of 83, was among the most radical and original minds Indian cinema has ever produced.

Published : Mar 19, 2024 20:49 IST - 12 MINS READ

Filmmaker Kumar Shahani talking about Mani Kaul at Asian College of Journalism in Chennai on July 21, 2011

Filmmaker Kumar Shahani talking about Mani Kaul at Asian College of Journalism in Chennai on July 21, 2011 | Photo Credit: K.V. SRINIVASAN

Fresh out of the National School of Drama (NSD) in New Delhi, Mita Vasisht was lucky to get a chance to work as a make-up artist on a play directed by Kumar Shahani. Soon after, she was chosen to play the lead in the director’s 1987 short film, Var Var Vari. For Vasisht, starting her career under Kumar Shahani was like being ushered into the sacred portal of serious cinema.

“On meeting Kumar I was immediately and instinctively aware that he was an extraordinary person and filmmaker. He had an almost sensuous intellect and engaging with him meant you were engaged at a deep level with your spirit, mind, body and senses,” she tells Frontline. When the veteran actress first met the man who would eventually become her mentor she had neither heard about him nor his highly acclaimed “arthouse films”.

Also Read | Kumar Shahani: Visionary filmmaker who pushed Indian cinema’s boundaries 

These memories are almost three decades old but Vasisht, who is 56 today, remembers it as if it were yesterday. “Those days, you only knew the likes of Shyam Benegal because all his actors, such as Om Puri, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, and Naseeruddin Shah, would win all these awards and they were very different from the typical mainstream Hindi stars,” recalls Vasisht, who went on to team up with Kumar Shahani in Khayal Gatha (1989) and Kasba (1991) and remained his close friend till the very end. The fact that Shahani—who passed away in February at the age of 83 in Kolkata—was different even from Shyam Benegal and his parallel cinema cohort is, oddly, an apt introduction to the filmmaker whose avant-garde body of work is as revered as it is little understood and inscrutable.

New Wave of Indian cinema

Shahani is an anomaly in the Indian cinematic pantheon as one whose films were so deeply an artistic reflection of his singularly restless mind, fierce intellect, and polymathic aesthetics that it has become difficult to put a finger on him. Along with contemporaries John Abraham, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and Mani Kaul, he belonged to the 1970s New Wave that gave Indian cinema its first taste of postmodernist filmmaking. Like Abraham and Kaul, Shahani studied at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and was among filmmaker-pedagogue Ritwik Ghatak’s favourite protégés. History has proven him to be a worthy heir to what one might call “Ghatak’s epic lyricism”.

“He was a well-read man and an outstanding aesthete, who was inspired by radical thinkers like D.D. Kosambi (a renowned historian and mathematician), Robert Bresson, and Sergei Eisenstein. He was the first to introduce us to dialectical materialism and other theories of Karl Marx,” says fellow FTII-ian Kamal Swaroop, the director of the cult classic Om-Dar-Ba-Dar, who knew and worked with both Mani Kaul and Shahani. Having recently returned from France after training under Bresson, he was a product of May 68 (the French cultural and political movement) and often discussed existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre.

“He was friends with the psychoanalyst Udayan Patel and had interests in metaphysics, psychology, linguistic studies and a variety of disciplines others might have found too abstract. It was intellectually stimulating to be with him. All this was new for us and it is thanks to Udayan and Kumar that we learnt about surrealism,” Swaroop adds.

Champion of Indian aesthetics

Even though Shahani was well-versed in Western philosophy, at heart he remained a champion of Indian aesthetics. For example, his passion for Indian classical music and dance was beautifully reflected in Khayal Gatha (1989) and Bhavantarana (1991), an ode to Odissi dance maestro Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, while at the same time, he was an admirer of Pahari miniature painting, which influenced his frames in Kasba (1991). Most of his films were based on great works of literature, by Rabindranath Tagore, Anton Chekhov, and Nirmal Verma.

“He did not reject the materialism found in Indian writing and mythology, unlike some other Left-leaning intellectuals,” remarks Swaroop, adding, “I worked as a dialogue writer with him on Tarang in which he took a formalistic approach while dealing with the class conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.” According to Swaroop, Tarang reads like a “communist manifesto” but its fantasy-laden climax scene featuring Amol Palekar and Smita Patil was a marked departure from the rest of the film’s otherwise realistic tone.

Kumar Sahani

Kumar Sahani | Photo Credit: Courtesy: Mita Vashisht’s Instagram page

“In that sequence,” Swaroop explains, “we incorporated the legend of Urvashi and Pururavas (previously reinterpreted by Raja Ravi Verma in a dramatic painting). He was also reading Sanskrit and the Natyashastra for a better understanding of the formal aspects of dance and music. So, here was a man who appreciated and retained his roots and was not afraid to push the boundaries of his craft and thought towards what he felt was a path of purity, truth and a kind of cinematic authenticity.”

Raissa Padamsee, the Paris-based daughter of the late modernist painter Akbar Padamsee, remembers him as a soft-spoken man and yet, enigmatically intense. “Quite romantic, in fact,” suggests Raissa, who’s an art historian by training. “I always had the greatest respect for his intellectual integrity and his ethical intransigence to which he remained faithful throughout his life. And although he defined himself as a Marxist filmmaker I feel there is a humanist quality in his cinema, especially in the way he placed the human figure at the centre. He presented the core of individual characters and deciphered their psychological complexity set in the society in which they lived. Needless to say, he resisted all the conventions of commercial cinema and even those of parallel cinema.”

Introduction to minimalism

Shahani was born in Larkana (Pakistan) in 1940. After Partition in 1947, his family shifted to Bombay while he was still young. One of the most significant milestones of his life was going to France on a scholarship in the late 1960s and spending time under the tutelage of Robert Bresson, regarded as the master of minimalism. “He had a choice to study under either Robert Bresson or Luis Buñuel. I wonder if his life would have turned out differently if he had opted for Buñuel, instead,” laughs Swaroop, whose own early work traces the imprint of Buñuel and other Surrealists and Dadaists.

After returning to India, Shahani directed his first feature film, Maya Darpan in 1972 (based on Hindi writer Nirmal Verma’s story), three years after Mani Kaul’s paradigm-shifting debut Uski Roti. In one interview, available on YouTube, the director was asked to evaluate Maya Darpan to which he replied, somewhat half-jokingly, “I know that it is a film which nobody has liked the first time they see it.” To make matters worse, Maya Darpan is a movie where, as he conceded, “nothing much happens.”

Even though titles like Maya Darpan or Uski Roti have long enjoyed a mythic status in arthouse discourse and are admired by cinephiles, it is easy to see why the average Hindi audience accustomed to formulaic Bollywood potboilers could find it challenging to sit through them. Their obscurity is part of their charm for certain kinds of viewers who prefer to unpack symbolism when watching movies and usually care more for stylistic and formal innovations than narrative logic.

Sahani’s 1997 film Char Adhyay, based on Rabindranath Tagore’s last novel by the same name, written in 1934, talked about nationalism, among other things.

Sahani’s 1997 film Char Adhyay, based on Rabindranath Tagore’s last novel by the same name, written in 1934, talked about nationalism, among other things. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The winner of the National Film Award for best feature film in 1972, Maya Darpan is exactly such an esoteric creature. It is a portrait of the young daughter of a landlord as she probes her inner world and contemplatively stares into the void, from time to time allowing us fleeting glances into her stifled desires—or “the unwashed dream” of her body, as one of the monologues goes. There is a bewitching stream-of-consciousness quality to the storytelling, evoking the Bressonian truism of making “visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen”.

Maya Darpan is visual poetry and ought to be viewed as a bold experiment in colour theory, argues Raissa Padamsee. Raissa, who played the young bride in Mani Kaul’s magical realist fable Duvidha, remembers that her father and Kumar Shahani worked closely during the transdisciplinary Vision Exchange Workshop of 1969. She says, “They shared the same obsession with colour, its speed and complementary qualities and were interested in the dynamics of images. On Maya Darpan, they were finally able to concretise those talks.” Akbar Padamsee conceived the Vision Exchange Workshop with the idea of bringing together artists from different fields for creative interaction. It is while watching films with Shahani and others that Padamsee famously quipped, “The cinema is condemned to be cubist.”

Anarchic spirit

Were the films of Shahani “cubist”? Perhaps not. But just as cubism revolutionised the visual arts, Shahani’s cinema contained a similarly anarchic spirit. “An actor in cinematography might as well be in a foreign country. He does not speak its language,” Bresson, who made such world cinema classics as Pickpocket, Au Hasard Balthazar, and L’Argent, wrote in his influential book Notes on the Cinematographer. Bresson had an unusual way of handling actors. He eschewed all visual ornamentation and sought to strip actors—or models, as he liked to call them—of their artifice to summon performances that relied more on interiority and intuition than drama and expression.

Shahani’s psychological spell on actors recalls Bressonian austerity. The director, for instance, never told Mita Vashisht much about her character Tejo in Kasba. “He didn’t say, ‘She’s like this or she’s like that and these are her emotions,’ the usual stuff, you know. He just said, ‘I need you to find a walk for her. How would she walk?’ So, I would take a train to south Mumbai and reach his flat at 10 am every morning where for two hours I would walk up and down in his drawing room and we would keep trying out the walks.” The director showed her the paintings of Marc Chagall and encouraged her to look at how Chagall’s figures don’t seem to walk, they float. “If you watch Kasba you can see Tejo has an enigmatic walk. And the more languid she gets, the more dangerous she appears,” observes Vashisht.

Mita Vashisht played a leadng role in Kumar Sahani’s Kasba, which was based on the short story “In the Ravine” by Anton Chekhov.

Mita Vashisht played a leadng role in Kumar Sahani’s Kasba, which was based on the short story “In the Ravine” by Anton Chekhov. | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

Vashisht also worked with Mani Kaul in Siddheshwari in 1989 followed by Idiot in 1991. “There was such a fire in both Kumar and Mani. They were not just making films, they were seeking cinema of their own,” she says, describing Shahani as a Renaissance man. “Leonardo da Vinci was a master painter and sculptor but he also understood the craft. He delved deep into the studies of anatomy to be able to paint realistically. Likewise, Kumar was interested in all subjects because he believed everything was so deeply connected and correlated, and while the medium of expression might be one thing, he was thinking in several ways about everything.”

Accomplished teacher, gifted writer

Not everyone appreciated Shahani’s genius and audacity, though. Satyajit Ray was among one of his most vociferous critics, who went to the extent of accusing Shahani of “threatening film language with extinction”. Coming from a different generation, Ray’s reaction—or overreaction—was hardly surprising. “Ray had mastered the art of dramatised narrative. Perhaps, he expected others to have a similar fluency. And we must not forget that Mani and Kumar in the 1970s were just starting out and still some years away from fully developing their idioms,” Kamal Swaroop counters.

Shahani, who is survived by wife Roshan and two daughters, Uttara and Rewati, was a man brimming with ideas and it is quite possible that he took with him more than what he ever gave the world. Till his final days, he was working on many interesting projects but none came to fruition—these include an adaptation of Anna Karenina, a biopic on Amrita Sher-Gil, and a screenplay on the history of cotton trading. He also wanted to film Roberto Rossellini’s screenplay of a biography of Karl Marx and Udayan Patel’s story of an idiosyncratic patient frightened by a red bus. “With him gone, we will never be able to see what would have been perhaps some of his greatest creations,” Swaroop laments.

Also Read | ‘The state’s dread of cinema is absolutely huge’: Ashish Rajadhyaksha

Apart from his film career, Shahani was also an accomplished teacher and a gifted writer whose personal takes on cinema can be found in The Shock of Desire and Other Essays. Edited by Ashish Rajadhyaksha, the book is a compilation of the director’s writings over the decades, which casts an insightful eye on a wide range of subjects. Reading it confirms Shahani’s flair for language and imagination, as he offers his readers fresh perspectives on the art of creativity and filmmaking. Writing about Ritwik Ghatak, he observes that his beloved teacher was “the first to try and integrate neorealism with an operatic, epic structure, working directly from the folk arts and the theories of (Sergei) Eisenstein and (Bertolt) Brecht”.

Reflecting on nationalism, the subject of his 1997 film Char Adhyay, he rhapsodises: “We have known with the utmost clarity ever since the Mauryan age that a genuine decentralisation of creative energy can take place only through a grid where communication and exchange are not regionalised. In Ashoka’s times, the proselytising Buddhist monks provided the grid. In our own, art could well serve its function if it frees itself from the falsifying motions generated by nationalism.”

Weighing in on music, he writes, “To me it seems a worthwhile conjecture that a civilisation best expresses its construction of time through its music.” The opening sentence of his Charlie Chaplin obituary reads: “’The news of my death has killed me,’ says Napoleon at the end of a film planned but never executed by Chaplin. Chaplin is dead. I hope that we will not bury him with praise.” And finally, in 2013, in the pages of this very magazine, he jotted down lapidary gems on the centenary of Indian cinema. “Walking with DD Kosambi,” he recounts, “on the hills behind FTII in Pune—50 years after the first feature film was made in India—I learnt to distinguish between the marks of erosion on stone and the etched evocations of experience in spirals, the goddesses becoming conscious of their own terrible splendour.”

Shaikh Ayaz is a Mumbai-based journalist, writing on art, films and culture.

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