Death of a master filmmaker: Kumar Shahani (7 December 1940–24 February 2024)

Between the austere and the ornamental, his way was truly novel, writes Udayan Vajpeyi

Kumar Shahani was a visionary filmmaker known for his innovative approach to cinema (photo: @nfdcindia/X)
Kumar Shahani was a visionary filmmaker known for his innovative approach to cinema (photo: @nfdcindia/X)

Udayan Vajpeyi

He was far ahead of his time in his cinematic imagination and his understanding of techniques needed to realise that imagination. Ironically his cinema was, at the same time, the finest realisation of tradition in modern times.

Kumar Shahani, one of the greats of Indian cinema, died on 24 February 2024 in Kolkata, the city which loved him—and loved to question him and his films. Especially the film he made based on Tagore’s 1929 novel, Char Adhyay (1997), which investigates—deeply—questions of nationalism, violence, swadharma (one’s inherent ethical sense and vocation) and swabhav (one’s inner disposition).

Amongst all his contemporaries in world cinema, perhaps his was the only cinema where each shot or piece of sound and music was endowed with a kind of singularity which could reflect not only its own subjectivity but could also unveil a vibration of the divine for us to sense inside ourselves.

I am trying to suggest that, in his films, even a pebble is bestowed with a subjectivity that remains un-subsumable within any kind of generality. It was the way this master of cinema could make us feel—in the depths of our being—our irreducible singularity and thereby open the doors for the unfolding of our freedom and deliverance. Not only the freedom of our being but also the singularity of our possibilities.

Kumar Shahani studied in the Film Institute of India, Pune (now known as the Film and Television Institute of India) in the mid-sixties. His classmate was Mani Kaul, and both students—who would go on to make masterpieces of their own—were taught by the filmmaker’s filmmaker, Ritwik Ghatak, who was then vice president of the institute.

During his institute days, Kumar found another genius in Pune. That was D.D. Kosambi, mathematician, historian, polymath, who also wrote a remarkable, pathbreaking paper on genetics.

After having finished his diploma, Kumar went to Paris to further his knowledge and understanding of cinema. It was here that he saw a film by a unique director, who he would later go on to work with. That director was Robert Bresson.

The year was 1968. The year of student revolts in Paris; the year that writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre publicly interviewed a young student leader; the year that—as Kumar told me—every kind of thinker, writer or artist was engaged in conversation with every other kind of intellectual.

I believe that the ambience of 1968 Paris had a deep impact on the way Kumar thought and lived. He had those great teachers in his life, and he interacted with them, he was inspired by them. But he did not imitate them. Unlike what ill-informed reviewers keep reiterating, his films did not repeat the way his teachers Bresson and Ghatak made their films.

Kumar’s cinema engaged with every tradition—whether it was Buddhist tradition or Advait Vedant or modern Marxist traditions of thinking—and through such engagements, created something absolutely novel.

Bresson’s was the cinema of austerity. Only those who don’t believe that we, too, are capable of creating something new and meaningful go on comparing Kumar’s cinema to Bresson’s, forgetting that Kumar’s is not the cinema of austerity but of ornamentation.

If one finds austerity, it is only because the path was austere. It was through that austere path that Kumar’s cinema was attempting to discover the ornament at the core of the subject or object.

It was a kind of existential ornament that his cinema searched for. In this sense, his was the cinema of the dynamic dialectics between the austere and the ornamental.

All his films were different from each other. Kasba was quite different from Tarang, which in turn was quite different from Khayal Gatha, which in turn was not like Bhavantarana or Char Adhyay or The Bamboo Flute.

And yet there was a certain continuity between all of them.

This was the continuity of his search for the possibilities of the traditional arts and the human mind in a modern, technological world. His cinema had the awareness of the displacements that modernism wrought on human beings, traditional art forms and modes of thinking.

Kumar was born in Larkana, Sindh, now in Pakistan. After Partition, he was displaced to India, and spent his childhood in Bombay. He didn’t go to school until he was around 10 years old.

He used to tell me that it was a strange irony of his fate that his family were displaced because they were not Muslim, but when they came to Bombay, he was treated as Pakistani.

The language spoken around him was not his language and, as a child, the ambience too was strange for him. This linguistic and cultural situation led him to accept all possible languages as his own (that’s the precise reason that he was learning Bengali in Kolkata in his last days); to consider trees, animals and birds as his family.

All his films are testimony to his acceptance of the totality of languages and the world as his most intimate family.

It was never easy for Kumar to find money to make his films.

Thus, he could make only a few masterpieces. And while this might have been painful for him—I know very well that it was painful—it is also a matter of shame for us.

We have increasingly become a society which respects its creative geniuses, its maestros less and less. We suffocate them, we taunt them, we make it impossible for them to create works of art.

The philosopher Navjyoti Singh used to say that there can’t be a bigger injustice in a society than not to recognise and support its great artists. Kumar unfortunately met with precisely this injustice throughout his life, yet went on giving us the best that was possible in world cinema.

Farewell, Kumar.

I will miss our long conversations where you—just as you did in your films—would elaborate on ideas and emotions of different kinds.

But I will not stop trying to find you in your films. I am aware that you will live forever in your classics.

Udayan Vajpeyi is a distinguished Hindi poet, essayist, novelist and scriptwriter, based in Bhopal.

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Published: 01 Mar 2024, 2:57 PM