Legendary director Shakti Samanta showed us what we wanted and needed to see

Back in 1940s, there was a man from Burdwan busy moulding the minds of young Muslim boys at a suburban school in Mumbai. He taught there for barely a year but such was the impact he had on the young minds that some 60 years later when he breathed his last on April 9 this year, some of his students, now themselves greyed and retired, could not help shedding a tear of sorrow in dignified remembrance.

Shakti Samanta had earned it. Even as he stoked the fire of ambition in his students, he realised he had to chase a secret little dream of his own.

Having already had to say goodbye to a career in the Air Force because his mother wouldn’t let him fly, (she had lost her pilot husband when her son was merely two) Shakti Samanta was destined to fly higher than a pilot, navigate his own course with skill and acumen.

Back then it might have been sacrilegious for anybody from a decent family background to voice the idea of entering tinsel town. But Shakti da bade his time, then showed the world what he was capable of. A journey that started with “Bahu”, and continued with films like “Howrah Bridge”, “Anuraag”, “An Evening in Paris”, “Aradhana”, “Mehbooba”, “Amar Prem” and Amanush”, among others, conveyed the joy of destination. He was prolific without being profligate; he came up with quality in great quantity. In a directorial career of around four decades, he had 43 films to his credit, and a vast majority were box office successes.

A retrospective

The Directorate of Film Festivals in New Delhi recently organised a Shakti Samanta retrospective, showing films like “Amar Prem”, “Howrah Bridge”, “Kati Patang” and “Amanush”, in the presence of the legendary filmmaker’s son, Ashim Samanta, himself a director of note.

Hailing from an era when the medium was clearly demarcated on the lines of socially-responsible cinema, and the other offering only entertainment, Shakti da brought all the traditional mores and values to the canvas of emerging India. And added a dash of ardour, shades of romanticism, with everlasting melody. The result? A string of films that the young could enjoy, and the seniors pick subtle messages from.

In “Amar Prem” he showed the society’s double standards towards women it abhors as those of easy virtue, while hailing men who frequent them as ‘sahibs’. In “Kati Patang” he talked of a widow’s plight without being judgemental. In “Aradhana”, he focussed on ambition wedded to emotion: the film had stark similarity to the difficult choice his own mother had to make when Shakti da wanted to pursue a career in the Air Force after his father’s death.

In “Amanush”, he did not allow himself to slip into abysmal pathos, and didn’t compromise on the profundity of the subject. Such was Shakti da’s hold over the medium that almost all his films had a dash of melancholy without being steeped in sorrow, many of his women characters appeared weak on surface but had the innate strength of courage and conviction.

And then of course, there was his famous ear for music. Songs as varied as “Aaiye Meherbaan” from “Howrah Bridge” where Asha Bhonsle ventured into Geeta Dutt’s territory or S.D. Burman’s “Kahe ko roye” in “Aradhana” or “Chingari koi bhadke” from “Amar Prem” or the eternal romantics’ anthem “Mere sapno ki rani kab aayegi tu” and “Ishaaro ishaaron”, came out with a beguiling regularity.

Recalls Shakti da’s son Ashim, “Dad always told me to remember that the story should have a lot of emotion, with good screenplay and good music. He assured me that with this formula you won’t go wrong.”

Indeed, Shakti da seldom did, except in the odd case of “Naughty Boy” or much later “Alag Alag” or “Awaaz”.

A feminist

Though he worked with Shammi Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, Shakti da was a feminist without shouting from the rooftops. Just sample the roles of his heroines in films like “Amar Prem”, “Aradhana”, etc. “Yes, his women had a strong role. In fact during the making of both ‘Amar Prem’ and ‘Aradhana’ Rajesh Khanna was initially unhappy with his role and smiled only after seeing the finished product.”

Ashim adds, “Dad never compromised on quality yet worked at a brisk pace. ‘Amar Prem’ was made over six months only. He did not look at the commercial angle of the story, just the scope in it to appeal to people. He treated songs as a scene in his films, they had to take the story forward, not give people a little break. He made films as per the requirements of the story, not the cast.”

And the only time Shakti da changed the script to suit the star, the result was forgettable. The film was “Awaaz”, which was initially written with Dilip Kumar in the title role with Anil Kapoor in it too.

Once “Avatar” became a hit, Rajesh Khanna persuaded Shakti da to work with him again. “Once dad signed Rajesh Khanna, Anil Kapoor went out as did Meenakshi (Seshadri). Dilip Sahab could not do the film. So the script had to be redone. The original one went for a toss.”

Well, that failing was merely a reiteration that Shakti da was human too. His films were a reflection of our times. He showed what we wanted to see. And also what we needed to see. Truly an unforgettable genius, for whom one must recall a song from one of his own hits “Pagla Kahika” — “Tum mujhe yun bhula na paoge”.