Kumar Shahani- a portrait

It’s difficult to be Kumar Shahani. Not that there is a great public demand or media attention like our superstars. But its his path to continue pursuing the struggle to understand and evolve the form of cinema and its relationship with life and other art forms that has made things difficult. It's best put in his own words:

"You know Subrato Mitra, whose camera work for early Satyajit Ray turned films into masterpieces. Subrato was also a film-maker in his own right. Can you imagine that all the films made by Subrato are reportedly reduced to ashes because of a fire in the studio which kept them in London?" asks Kumar. "Isn't it shameful that nobody seems concerned about such things?" Kumar should know. He is himself running from pillar to post to retrieve the negatives of one of his films. The lab, which is holding the negatives simply refuses to oblige because NFDC (the producer) has not paid it for its services rendered for some other film. He does not know the fate of the negatives: "I wonder in what conditions they are and, in fact, whether at all they exist anymore!" Kumar has similar strong views on the distribution system or the screening opportunities available to serious film-makers like him in the country.

"Take, for example, the Doordarshan(national television). I took one of my films and explained that it had been financed by the Madhya Pradesh Government. It had been very well received wherever it was screened and even went on to win an international award. The officer says that she has viewed the film but cannot find a `slot' for it. It cannot be scheduled during the prime time. It cannot be screened in the regional cinema slot because it is made in Hindi.

"We can only slot it during a mourning period when a national leader dies, because there is a lot of sarangi in it. But wait, we cannot use it even there, since the film has dance sequence!" Kumar is obviously pained: "What can I do beyond explaining, cajoling, requesting, and pleading. I can even possibly fall at the feet of the powers-that-be," he says, adding "I can only go so far. I have no `means' to go any further". The message is once again crystal clear. While on the subject, Kumar feels film-makers are also to blame for such a sorry state of affairs. "Many of our film-makers - some well-known names included — have compromised and started making `slottable' films to suit the `needs' of the system. They have also started making themselves adept in finding those other `means' for getting their films screened".

What about other channels, the private ones? "The primarily outlook for them is marketability with a capital M. If they can `sell' to sponsors, then yes, otherwise no. Haven't you observed that there were some fairly good programs on these channels? But, after the initial run, they've all been taken off." (1)

I meet him briefly at the Osian Film Festival 2008 while I was waiting in the queue for the screening of Eric Von Strohiem’s Greed. For a moment, before I introduced myself, I just thought; the fate of the film I’m about to watch, speaks a lot of the kismet he has faced all his life as a director. Later, that week, I paid more than 50$ for a membership of a film club just to watch Ritwik Ghatak’s Megha Dhaka Tara on the screen and listen to an introduction and closing comment from one of his favorite pupil, Kumar Shahani. But the money spend was worth every penny, because I got a very intimate understanding on Ghatak and his work, as Kumar Shahini knew him well. While the very next day, I saw one of the most fascinating documentary on Indian Bamboo flute constructed with such lush visuals that is hard to rightly state what it all stood for and meant.

To find Kumar Shahani films is as difficult as getting some information on him on the Internet. This post is portrait on him: a brief profile, an excerpt from an Interview published in a Cultural Print magazine and a link for those who can watch his film online legally. While if someone is interested in borrowing his Kasba can do so by sending me an email. So my brief meeting was really fascinating and we will be writing and covering his films extensively in one of our forthcoming Issue at Indian Auteur.

Kumar Shahani is a noted Indian Film director, born in Larkana, Sindh (now in Pakistan), on December 7th 1940. After the Partition of India his family shifted to the city of Bombay (now Mumbai). He received a BA (hons) from the University of Bombay in Political Science and History and studied Screenplay Writing and Advanced Direction at the Film and Television Institute of India, where he was a student of Ritwik Ghatak. He also studied under the renowned Marxist historian D. D. Kosambi. He was awarded a French Government Scholarship for further studies in France, [1] where he studied at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC) and assisted Robert Bresson on Une Femme Douce. He returned to India to make his first feature film Maya Darpan in 1972 and had to wait twelve years before he received funding to make his next full length feature film, Tarang. From 1976-1978 he held a Homi Bhabha Fellowship to study the epic tradition of the Mahābhārata, Buddhist iconography, Indian classical music and the Bhakti movement.

- wiki

He is one of the most significant filmmakers working in India. He has developed an epic idiom that engages with contemporary issues. Shahani’s films explore cultural memories embedded in nclassical Indian art forms, texts and objects. His visual explorations of Indian music and dance, the classical Indian epic and contemporary literature mark his practice as unique in the history of Indian cinema. Shahani also engages with European cinematic traditions. His first feature, Mirror of Illusion (Maya Darpan) 1972, is regarded as India’s first formalist film. His oeuvre is considered alongside renowned directors — Pier Paolo Pasolini, Andrei Tarkovsky, Stanley Kubrick, Jacques Rivette and others — whose work is similarly entwined with the visual arts. Read More

An Interview with Kumar Shahaini.

In terms of making a film, what is it that you see in a film like Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc?

The Art Director of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc was trained more in the expressionist tradition; so, in that movie the acting is very expressionist. But I don’t go much for that kind of acting. Obviously, it is much too festiculative. But Maria Falconetti, the star of Joan of Arc was a “non-actress”, so she would not gesticulate though the others did. So all this worked out well for the composition of that film. But overall what the expressionist did, especially at the technical level, was to develop the sense of how one should use the forms that were not imitational but were part and were suggestive, carried suggestion. So you could transform any landscape. They went far in exploring the avenue, may be s far that they fell over the precipice. It’s not that one wants to do that kind of thing, at least, I don’t believe in that. In fact, that view of the unconscious holds only terror. I don’t think that the unconscious is made only of terror though the element is present. So technically, what they have achieved has to do with movement, with using forms in a plastic ways. They have articulated plasticity to forms.

In that respect where will you place Battleship Potemkin? How has it contributed to your way of making films or in other words how has it contributed to your technique elaborating? You were looking at the third meaning (this is a term used by Roland Barthes in his text on Eisentein) like Sergei Eisenstein.Eisenstein does not elaborate in the way that you do?

No, No, not in that sense. He is doing this in a western musical manner with a conscious attempt at creating the third meaning about which the Japanese talked a lot. In Sanskrit, third meaning would connote “Vyanjana”. It is this which fascinated me; the fact that what was most important to Eisenstein was that the work of art should be significant. That cinema could done not through the context of images only but also by creating a third meaning, the oblique meaning as Barthes called it. Eisenstein then talked talks of over-tonalities or overtones. This interests me a great deal as well. Of Course. His films also concern themselves with freedom. In my case the concept of freedom is of a different nature, the kind of freedom that I seek for myself and for my people, as it were, is different from the one they were seeking in Potemkin. But there is that concern for freedom at the film’s core. There is not a single film in the world after Potemkin where if you are doing a scene with large groups can you forget this movie and move on. You will perforce have to recall the Potemkin. You many not imitate Eisenstein, but you can’t forget Potemkin. For if you do, you will actually end up with an imitation of the original. Ironical?

Do you mean absolutely any group scene?

Yes, You can see how everybody has taken from it, from its grammar. It is a film that has made a huge contribution to human knowledge, especially in the sense that people can’t get away with it.

How do you perceive Luis Bunuel and his filmmaking?

Bunuel was Spanish and the Franco regime allowed him to come and work in Spain. Initially, he had worked n Paris, then he went to America and then to Mexico. Before he made Viridiana, from the late 1920s till then, Bunuel had been continuously moving around. He was finally invited to make a film at home. But once the film was completed all its copies were destroyed by the dictator regime. Fortunately, the negative was in London. It is a terrific story as to how this film was saved. I would say that because they all believed in protests, they had asked him to burn his first film as a form of protest and that burning itself would become a form of art. We must remember that those were the days of the beginning of Surrealism. Bunuel had agreed that he would make a film and burn it but nobody came for the occasion or some such thing happened. Bunuel would do very strange things.

What is your view on the use of ornamentation, especially vis-a vis your liking for Bresson and Rossellini?

There is austerity in Bresson. But there is a possibility in cinema to have both: austerity and ornamentation. In Bresson, there is mainly austerity even though he aspires to have spectacle. When I work along those lines, I want the ornamentation to stand out. The magic of that reality must appear and we ought to allow that to happen. The notion of ornamentation that we have in India, the alankar, of how we play with it, that is something I like to retain in my work. And this is not there either in Rossellini’s work or Bresson’s in the works of Catholic filmmakers. When they move towards austerity, they really move towards it: Bresson in the tradition of St Augustine and Rossellini more in the manner of notational narratives.

What role Battleship Potemkin played in your filmmaking?

Well for Tarang for instance, I was shooting a strike sequence. It was an obvious point where one could have quoted Eisenstein. Most filmmakers in such a situation would do so, inadvertently and unconsciously. Even the most “bourgeois” filmmakers as it were, the most commercial ones, or their exact opposites, would all do that. That is why one should remember him, to remember what he did and not to repeat it. So I remembered him while I was shooting that sequence, constantly like a prayer. We can’t help saying that Eisenstein did it such a way and let only him do like that. That is why I feel very happy with that particular sequence in Tarang. It doesn’t have, in any sense, an imitation of Eisenstein.

In Tarang there was no attempt of any kind to cup up things, to get the montage effect. But not to do this also has certain dangers. The final formal concern that Eisenstein has is, of course, interesting. For example, his preoccupation with the question of signification where he wants so much in the cinema-overtones, abstractions-so that it goes much beyond the concreteness of images. How could any filmmaker achieve it? He, of course, could achieve them in his own way, through his own material context. As they say, one of the reasons for the montage to come up in a big way was that in those days the Soviet Union was so poor that only small strips of films were available. The montage came into being out of that material necessity. One doesn’t know whether this story is true or not, but in any case it is an interesting story, of how a creative output grew out a scarcity.

The other day you were talking about some rules of the game. How does that help in, for example, camera movement?

It is important in this respect to speak of modulation. I have not read Deleuze all these years, though as a French theoretician of cinema and one who speaks on this aspect of films. I have heard him quoted by friend. He and Hauston, and the filmmaker Renoir, are to my mind liberals both in the good and the bad sense of the word. The capitalist ideology has tried to portray them in a light as if they mystified modulation. But this was more how Henri Bergson propagated his idea in the West, though I think Bergson got it from India.

He might have come across some Indian text sometime. The idea of modulation is present in our culture right through. Consider the conventional way of describing someone, let us say the heroines of the Mahabharata the great heroines like Kadru, Vinita, Ganga Kunti, Draupado. Their descriptions may be very similar, like eyes like lotus, thighs likes banana leaves and so on. But each descriptions is modulated and through this a slight change is brought about which actually acts as an explosive change. It is the same in our music that continues on an infinite scale because there is no fixed scale but a continuous one. So you can touch any note anywhere. And yet we have a system of holding the notes together . You can approach a note from anywhere and again it is balanced by modulation. I am always more interested in this form of modulation.

But our way of looking at modulation is fare ahead of liberal way of elaboration, like a legacy, a real inheritance, not only through forms but also in actual life, beyond the essence. This has come not only from our philosophy but actual praxis. Therefore, I tend to reject the theory based on this kind of thing in the west, because I think their praxis must yield to it before they are really able to expound those theories, theories that I think are overloaded with liberal idelogoies.

Udayan Vajpeyi interview with Kumar Shahani published in Indian Horizons, Jan- March 2008.

Watch Kasba Online

KK Mahajan

- The Cinephile Meeting III listing to be announced shortly.

- (1) cited from an article on Kumar Shahani from The Hindu.
- pic- Kumar Shahani's Kasba.


MT said…
returning to watch kasba when I have some time, to be sure.
nitesh said…
Thanks for comment, Matt, do check the movie once your done with your own. :)
salik said…
Thanks for this post :D

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