Auteur Kumar Shahani on his kind of cinema and aesthetics and its place in a new cinematic environment.
In these times when filmmakers can be likened to shooting stars, ‘here-today gone-tomorrow’, Kumar Shahani is like a pole star on the firmament. For over 50 years he has been making films, never for once repeating himself in anyway. But every film carries the imprint: languid in its pace, music with an osmotic effect and a meditative calm that create the alchemy on celluloid. He came under the influence of Robert Bresson in France where he was on a scholarship from the government and as a student of film in Pune, it was Ritwik Ghatak and the Marxist historian D. D. Kosambi. ‘Many say I am an avant garde filmmaker. No I’m not. I am very traditionalist,’ is how he describes his work.
Critics, film historians and the lay viewer would assign him a prime position among the leading names of the Parallel Cinema movement where a new aesthetic emerged as a counter to the films that used box office success as the sole determinant to label a film. He was in Thiruvananthapuram for a public lecture on ‘Indian Cinema: Continuing Traditions of Art and Aesthetics’ held jointly by the Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Kerala, and Kerala State Chalachitra Academy. Excerpts from an interview follow:
Maya Darpan has just crossed 50 years. Looking back what are the thoughts you carry of the impact of the film?
Fifty? Yes, it was 1972. Pleasantly surprised to see that it is on YouTube too. In fact, I had expected more interest in my later films but that’s not how it has been. Even then it was recognised in Kerala and Europe for being a pathbreaking film for the meditative quality, colour and sound. I did not own the film, it was NFDC property. The Controller of Exports and Imports would not let me take it out of the country. It was as if the film industry in the north had got together to stall the progress. It took me another 12 years to make my next film.
Undeterred you continue making films, what sustains this?
My lasting power comes from my friends and family who never lost faith in me. I make films with an integrity and do not want to repeat myself. And, there is this note of dissent with everything including myself.
Scars of the Partition often surface in the works of many who have lived through those times. Your films do not indicate even in the subtlest of ways the sense of loss felt in uprooting.
There is a faith in India that my family shared. There is the pain that comes when I think of what my parents may have gone through. My children, though they have no first hand experience, rue this loss. I lost out on the opportunity to learn the script of my mother tongue.
‘Slotability’ and ‘marketability’ are not two words assigned to your films.
I did not know whether to laugh or cry when I got the response I did for screening one of my films on national television. The official told me that she had viewed the film and could not find a ‘slot’ for it either in prime time or in the regional cinema segment. ‘We can only slot it during a mourning period because there is a lot of sarangi in it. But wait, we cannot use it even there, since the film has a dance sequence.’ As for private television it is marketability that matters and nowadays you have script doctors who package the film for approval!
You had said earlier that ‘Digital is not a cheap variant of the cinematic,’ now that ‘D’ is the word, is the cinematic receding?
The digital interface has become compulsory because the industry is organised that way. The rate of change is so fast. Kodak has announced it is closing down. One has to accept the reality and I wonder how the future will shape the ‘object’. I think the future of all art will be in that direction. How does one restore ‘randomisation’ without ‘fetishisation’ is the prime concern.
What are you working on currently?
A film on Odissi dancer Ileana Citaristi, Guru Kelucharan Mahaptara’s shishya. Having known her since the nineties the film has been in the making for long. For the film she had to undergo a virtual makeover for her thoughts on film. There is a total surrender that has to take place in the artiste for the quality to emerge and that happened with The Bamboo Flute (Hari Prasad Chaurasia) and Bhavantarana (Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra).
Keywords: Kumar Shahani