Meeting Kumar Shahani

The auteur, who died last week, visited Bengaluru in 1977. T G Vaidyanathan, the renowned film critic, met him and wrote this delightful piece for DH.
Last Updated 02 March 2024, 00:38 IST

Soft-spoken, good-looking if ultra-fragile (rather like the late Madurai Mani Iyer), in­tellectually very sophisticated, Kumar Shahani carries his ‘celebrity’ status very lightly indeed.

The maker of Maya Darpan who was here on the special invitation of Bangalore Film Society was relaxing in his room at Hotel Gautam after the somewhat stifl­ing ardours of an inauguration. We were a small group, expecting fully to be overawed by Shahini’s formidable reputation. But, as it turned out, he wore his learning lightly, leaning neither to the gravely ponderous or the willfully ridiculous. He was simply himself, a man who had made an imperishable masterpiece several years ago and had lived unbitter­ly in the shade of that ‘Heraclitan’ grandeur.

Yes, he liked Heraclitus and when he had quoted him, a western critic had been disappointed at the absence of definitive Indian wisdom. Some others had ex­pressed surprise that an Indian ate beef (frog legs too) while others made searching enquiries about Tarun’s tikka in ‘Maya Dar­pan’. Didn’t it hold any meta­physical significance and so on. “Western critics just don’t understand our films. They are very dishonest. They can be bribed, you know. They are sometimes willing to be patrons. But one wants to be taken for what one is,” Shahani said.


Were there any critics he ad­mired? “Yes. Andre Bazin. He was an idealist but, within that frame, he was very good.” And who were his favourite filmmak­ers? “Eisenstein, Rossellini.” Sha­hani was very effusive about Rosselllni whom he met last year when he had gone as member of jury for a Festival in a French provincial town.

“Rossellini too was spiritual but there was a movement towards the material base in his films. He had after all fathered a kind of naturalism in cinema but he repudiated the neo-naturalism in recent French cinema. France had given birth to the New Wave and now you have this neo-natural­ism,” Shahani observed.

Tea brought a brief respite to our inquisition of Shaham but soon we resumed. What were the experiences that had formed him? “Well, I didn’t go to school till I was nine when I lost my father.” Was he close to his parents? To his mother yes but not to his father. “I think it shows in Tarun’s relationship to her father, the Dewan, in ‘Maya Darpan’. School, in any case, was terrible and I had no wish to go.”

He had studied at St Xavier’s and Elphinstone College in Bom­bay where the family had migrated from Sind. Life in Bombay was not easy in the beginning as a member of a minority community. “I started school late,” he said. By the time he was sixteen, he had read Balzac, Flaubert and among the English novelists, Lawrence and Huxley. Any favourites? “Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’ and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ which left a very deep impression.”

No, he hadn’t read E M Fors­ter. He had met Ritwik Ghatak first in Bombay. Ghatak was, of course. a seminal influence (‘Maya Darpan’ has two passages of music from Ghatak’s ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’). “Of course, he was a difficult man to live with. Well, he would start drinking at 4 am! He was arrogant, of course, but very dependent. You had to look after him.”

D D Kosambi was another great influence. “He would invite you for walks in the morning,” Shahani reminisced. “Well I am a late riser. So I had to be up practically the whole night to be on time for the appointment! Kosambi was a very provocative person. “He would challenge you straightaway and ask you all kinds of questions. But he always invited you up to his place later on. He was a very warm person.” Kosambi admired Eisenstein (whom he knew personally) and Pudovkln but then he was no in­tellectual snob. “He liked ‘Quo Vadis’ not for its artistic merits but for its historical accuracy.”

We talked about Ray and Mrinal Sen, Antonioni and Godard. “On the personal level I get on well with Ray. But intellectually there is absolutely no communication. You see he makes films in the Bhadralok tradition. But whereas he had romanticised poverty in ‘Pather Panchali’, he had reversed the process in ‘Ashani Sanket’ where he seems to ridicule the villagers as stupid. Well, village life is stupid but then there was no evidence of the “man-made famine” in ‘Ashani Sanket’: the forces responsible were not shown.” The eating sequence with the impoverished Brahmin, he liked but in some of the scenes (Gangacharan teaching the school children, for instance), “the condescension was so blatant that as an Indian, I felt insulted.”

Mrinal Sen, he didn’t much care for: too gimmicky, there was no organising principle in his films. He had liked Antonioni’s ‘L’Avven­ tura’ and ‘Passenger’ but he found Antonioni rather uncommunicative personally. When the Italian director was asked whether the alienation theme which recurs in his films was derived from Marx or Freud, he had replied evasively, “It is mine!” Shahani felt that this was because Antonioni was too caught up with the business of “the originality of genius.” And this led to an unnecessary suspicion of “influences.”

The Polish director, Zanussi was good although, as usual, the critics got “clever” and called him a “Catholic Marxist!’ Zanus­si’s illumination which start with a quotation from St Augus­ tine took the first prize at Locarno in competition where ‘Maya Dar­pan’ too was entered. He had liked the Zanussi film though he found it patchy in parts. Zanussi too was fading a bit, “I think he is losing his innocence.”

Godard was eclectic. He was different; he was ebullient. Per­haps his films showed too much “destructiveness” and “self-lacera­tion.” “Perhaps, he is a little mad.” Asked if this bothered him, Shahani said, “Yes. Godard is very impatient but then the times (late ‘68, France) were bad, wrong and perhaps warranted it.” Once in London, Godard had pub­licly slapped his British distribu­tor for unauthorisedly including an unscheduled song in his film on The Rolling Stones. “But then,” Shahani smilingly admitted, “I would have done the same thing.” Godard, he recalled, had then asked the audience in London not to see his film and demand its money back! We talked some of Godard’s political films and his association with the Dziga Vertor group (mainly Godard and one other person.) There was even a possibility of working with Giodard and others on a film but nothing came of it.

Parallel cinema

He hadn’t seen Jansco before making ‘Maya Darpan’. When I told him that Ray had quoted a remark of Bresson’s ostensibly to Shahani after seeing Maya Darpan (“continue”). Shahani said that he must have got that one from Dilip Padgoankar. Actual Bresson (whose shadow, especially Mouchette, many have seen on ‘Maya Darpan’) had “found the film rather slow” Shahani ad­mitted without the least embarrassment.

And what about the parallel cinema and the celebrated walk­ out by Shahani and his friends during the ‘75 festival? “Yes, B R Chopra was presiding over that one in a rather pompous way. Shyam and I walked out. The west German director, Rein­ Hardt Hauff and the Brazilian Lelito Vianna too joined us on the lawns where, with a cassette re­corder, we got going. And seeing us, the information and broad­ casting secretary, Kidwai too joined in, Shahani said very un­emphatically. 

It was 11.35 pm. and time to leave. We wanted to take Shahani out in the morning to generally show him things. But he was spending the morning with an old classmate from the Film Institute of Poona. And so we left with a sense of the extreme modesty of genius and an even greater sense of the austerity and integrity of this little man from Larkhana.

(First published on Sep 3, 1977)

(Published 02 March 2024, 00:38 IST)

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