A navrang of Shantaram's films
Suchitra Film Society is holding a Shantaram retrospective from May 4. SUGANDHI RAVINDRANATHAN does a second take on the pioneer's career.
Still from 1951 Marathi film, Amar Bhoopali.
THOSE WHO have seen V. Shantaram's Do Ankhen Barah Haath can never forget the moving scene of prisoners singing the bhajan, Ai malik tere bande hum, written by Bharat Vyas and set to music by that genius, Vasant Desai.
And who can forget the sexy, sinuous, gravity-defying dances of Sandhya in Navrang and Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje? And Aadmi, the remake of what is arguably his finest film, Manoos, where he used nights and shadows to enhance the narration, a pioneering technique at the time.
In fact, this 1939 film even had the gumption to spoof Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani in Achoot Kanya, made three years earlier!
Technique played a big part in Shantaram's films and he was one of the earliest filmmakers to realise the potential of the medium as an instrument of social comment.
Among the firsts to his credit are the first children's film (Ranisahiba, 1930), first use of the trolley (Chandrasena, 1931), first colour film (Sairandhri, 1933), first to use telephoto lens (Amrit Manthan, 1934), first to use animation (Jambukaka, 1935), first to use back projection (Amar Jyoti, 1936), and the first films to be shown abroad were his (Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani and Shakuntala).
Sandhya in Pinjara, inspired by The Blue Angel.
Not bad for someone who had no formal education, started his career at 12 as an apprentice in a railway workshop and then as a curtain puller at the legendary Bal Gandharva's Gandharva Natak Mandali.
Rajaram Vankurde Shantaram was born in Kolhapur in 1901. His first brush with cinema was with Baburao Painter's Maharashtra Film Company. It was Baburao who taught him the basics and cast him in his Savkari Pash (1925) as a young farmer.
A couple of years later, Shantaram had picked up enough to direct his first film, Netaji Palkar.
He then moved on to found the Prabhat Film Company along with V.G. Damle, K.R. Dhaiber, S. Fatelal and S.B. Kulkarni.
Initially, Shantaram, like his mentor Baburao, stuck to lumbering mythological and historical sagas.
However, a visit to Germany opened his cinematic eye and he came up with Amrit Manthan (1934).
The film had a Buddhist theme and its most famous shot was a close-up of a priest's right eye, something that staggered audiences back then.
It was at Prabhat that Shantaram made three of his most famous films - Kunku (Duniya Na Maane in Hindi) in 1937, Manoos (Aadmi in Hindi, 1939) and Shejari (Padosi in Hindi, 1941).
The first is a starkly realistic film about a young woman refusing to come to terms with her marriage to a much older man.
Shantaram did away with non-essentials, including background music, and showed great economy in the narrative. Aadmi, probably his finest film, is a love story between a cop and a whore.
Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje has superlative dances.
Here again, Shantaram used film technique effectively to convey the characters' state of mind. Padosi promoted communal harmony with a Muslim character playing a Hindu and vice versa!
After this trilogy, Shantaram left Prabhat to found Rajkamal Studios in 1942, where his maiden venture was Shakuntala which was screened at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1947.
Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani is the strange but true story of a patriotic doctor who was a member of a goodwill mission to China, sponsored by the Indian National Congress.
The group, comprising four others, left India in 1938. The film recorded the trials and tribulations of the valiant doctor who gave up his life in what was to be his adopted homeland, to uphold liberty.
Shantaram's Amar Bhoopali is a cult film in Marathi and is a biopic of Honaji Bala.
The Lavani dances and the song Ghanshyam Sundara Shirdara are still remembered by generations of fans.
Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, a technicolour confection that lurches from one melodramatic scene to another, was a smash hit.
Though its cinematic value was debatable, the audiences lapped up the music and dances.
As if in atonement, two years later, in 1957, came Do Ankhen Barah Haath and Shantaram was on familiar ground, returning to his pet social concerns.
His characteristic imagery and imaginative use of black-and-white photography, apart from the story of a courageous jailor who reforms a bunch of convicts, won the film the President's Gold Medal for the Best Feature Film, the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and the Samuel Goldwyn Award for the Best Foreign Film.
From sublime to the ridiculous was Navrang, his next film.
Critics trashed the kitschy and convoluted tale, but audiences loved it. Moreover, the dances and the music were superlative.
His last significant film was Pinjara, based on Josef von Sternberg's 1930 classic, The Blue Angel (where the sultry Marlene Dietrich, as the cabaret entertainer Lola-Lola, destroys an uptight professor played by Emil Jannings). Shantaram substituted cabaret with the Tamasha, the robust Marathi folk theatre.
His last film was Jhanjaar, in 1986. It bombed, spelling an end to a career that had spanned nearly seven decades.
Shantaram's films will be screened at the Suchitra Film Society's premises at 6:45 p.m. every day, except the first day when the screening is at 7 p.m. The schedule is as follows:
May 4: Navrang (Hindi, 1959) May 5: Pinjara (Marathi, 1972) May 6: Do Ankhen Barah Haath (Hindi, 1957) May 8: Aadmi (Hindi, 1939) May 9: Duniya Na Maane (Hindi, 1937) May 11: Sehra (Hindi, 1963) May 12: Amar Bhoopali (Marathi, 1951) May 13: Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (Hindi, 1946) May 14: Shakuntala (Hindi, 1943) May 15: Shejari (Marathi, 1941) May 17: Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje (Hindi, 1955) May 18: Geet Gaya Pathraron Ne (Hindi, 1964) May 19: Portrait of a Pioneer (Documentary in English on Shantaram, directed by Madhura Pandit Jasraj). More details may be had from the Suchitra Film Society, 36, 9th Main, Banashankari II State, Bangalore 560 070, Ph: 6711785, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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