Despite an Adoor Gopalakrishnan here and a Buddhadev Dasgupta there, parallel cinema seems to have folded up in India. But in his new film slated for release next month, doughty Amol Palekar makes his own ‘Samaantar’ (Parallel Folds), and with a Marathi film debutante in Sharmila Tagore. After the initial surprise of being invited to act in a Marathi film, Tagore quipped, “How can I refuse when you played opposite me in a Bengali film?” She was referring to the late 1970s blockbuster ‘Mother.’

Palekar too admits to surprising himself in opting to act under his own direction in ‘Samaantar,’ 30 years after ‘Ankahee’ (Unspoken) where he performed these twin tasks. Why? “When I heard my wife Sandhya (Gokhale) read her script aloud, I was fascinated by the multi-layered structure of scenes, characters, their inter-relations, and the aura of quiet reflexivity. What a challenge for an actor! I had to do it.”

Myths and metaphors

Gokhale herself explains that the script draws its layers from myths and metaphors. “They underline intense yearning, frame contradictions, draw parallels between life and death.”

The excitement in Palekar’s voice makes you wonder: back in the 1970s when the painter turned actor became a household name as the boy-next-door in middle-of-the-road ‘Rajnigandha,’ ‘Chitchor,’ ‘Gharondha’ or ‘Gol Maal,’ did he ever think he would make films as stark as ‘Akriet’? Or find a wholly different pace with a village school teacher’s saga in ‘Bangarwadi’? Follow a reformist’s trail in ‘Dhyas Parva?’

Despite his directorial success in Hindi with films like ‘Thodasa Romani Ho Jaye,’ or ‘Paheli’ (India’s nominee for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars), Palekar remains at heart a Marathi filmmaker. A moving subject such as ‘Samaantar’ had to be shot in his mother tongue. But doesn’t he restrict his film’s reach by opting for a regional language? “Why should Maharashtrians be deprived of Assamese cinema? Why shouldn’t Gujaratis have access to Malayalam features? We are always bombarded with masala kitsch from Bollywood. I want our regional films to transcend linguistic and geographic barriers. If Iranian cinema can have fans worldwide, surely we will find viewers for our regional films that is, if we develop content-based works.”

He also believes that prejudice against subtitles is a thing of the past. “Don’t television buffs watch even Hollywood films with subtitles? Why would they not welcome regional cinema with subtitles,” he asks.

Viewer’s response

The director in him was most thrilled when a viewer declared, “You don’t allow me to leave your film with popcorn bags inside the hall. You compel me to take it home!” Palekar hopes that ‘Samaantar’ too will linger in minds and provoke debates.

At first glance the story seems to be well worn – village boy rising from rags to riches, but losing something inestimable in transit. Keshav Vaze learns that global reach and material wealth through corporate triumphs alone cannot buy happiness. But as Palekar describes the theme, something akin to a spiritual quest emerges through the melancholic haze. The man begins to look for the traces of something below, behind, beyond.

On his 60th birthday, Keshav glimpses Shama, who once anchored his existence. A potter and sculptor, Shama has chosen to be reclusive – not to escape from reality, but to be more vibrantly creative. The film contrasts his hectic activity, her quiet withdrawal, and explores their passage from the parallel folds of love and longing. No melodrama, no shouting from rooftops. The scenes fade in and out of silence, leaving the audience to find their own space, their own moments. Palekar adds, “Life and death are companions on this journey.”

After this summing up, there is no need to ask why Sharmila Tagore was the obvious choice for the main role. Her poise and dignity are assets, as also her ability to speak with her eyes, as she did so long ago in the evergreen ‘Anupama’(1966) and ‘Aradhana’ (1969).

As always, Palekar uses ragas redolent with romance to say the unsaid. ‘Samaantar’ revels in the non-synthetic sounds of the flute, violin, sitar and sarod. But will these nostalgic strains appeal to present day youth craving for rhythmic din and remix dazzle? “Why not? Anand Modak’s music breathes fresh colours into the lyrics by Saumitra (actor Kishore Kadam’s pseudonym), who is immensely popular among the younger generation.”

Neither Palekar nor Gokhale will reveal more about the film’s actual story.

They end with a chuckle, “We hope we’ve said enough to make you curious and want to see it on the screen!”