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Musings of a Marxist

Kumar Shahani: Serious about film making

Kumar Shahani: Serious about film making  

"YOU SHOULD watch that tree. Every morning, it sheds its leaves and petals which settle to make a colourful carpet. I can sit and meditate below the tree for any length of time I wish to." On a pleasant Saturday morning, Kumar Shahani is in his elements. Suave, soft-spoken, modest, and informal. Relaxing in his apartment made available by his local hosts, the National Centre for the Biological Sciences at their sprawling campus, Kumar welcomes the housekeeping staff politely enquiring "Namaste, kaise hain aap?" even as the shy lady cleaning his kitchen reminds him that his tea kettle is short of catching fire! Local film-maker, Vasant Mokashi drops in and helps Kumar in his tea-making chore. A tea and a shower later, Kumar settles down for a lively conversation on the problems faced by a serious film-maker of his ilk. Not before speaking a word of praise for the excellent environment of the NCBS campus.

Not before teasing Mokashi (who considers Kumar to be his guru), to find some money for a film on the acoustic traditions of North Karnataka, which he feels has some excellent rustic music in its womb, far hidden from the public gaze.

Kumar is, incidentally, in the City, in connection with a series of films he is curating for the Bangalore Film Society. The event, Relocating the Film Sense, plans to include representative works of Ritwik Ghatak, Luis Bunuel, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, Yasojiro Ozu, Roberto Rossellini, John Ford, Orson Welles, and Francis Ford Coppola, among others.

George Kutty, Secretary of the Bangalore Film Society rings up to find out if all is well with Kumar. Though the film is well-accepted, Kumar is not impressed by the projection facilities.

"Both the projection equipment and the projectionist are below standards," he tells George. "I think our viewers deserve a better treatment. I wonder whether we should at all continue with further screenings this way. Don't you think, George, that we should stop with the two or three films we have already announced and wait until the theatre gets equipped with better projection facilities?"

Words that spell anguish, but not uttered with anger. Even if he is enraged (particularly when he talks of the sad state of film-making and its compulsions with regard to the distribution, screening, and sponsorship), Kumar expresses his views without a trace of malice or indignation. Nevertheless, the message is clear.

So are his views on all aspects of film-making: sharp, lucid, frank, and crystal-clear. Whether it is pre or post-production matters, Kumar speaks with candour and concern. "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. 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."

Why? "Despite all the problems and tribulations, Kumar has consistently produced internationally- acclaimed films. It is common knowledge that he was associated with the legendary director, Richard Bresson, when he was a student in Paris, and came close to working with the surrealist master, Luis Bunuel. He was one of the 16 laureates to be honoured with the Prince Claus Award in 1998. He is recognised by international institutions as a film-maker of great integrity and as one who refuses to trade his values and yield to market pressures. So, Kumar will not give up his vocation of making his films. "Guru Kelu Babu has an illuminating personality. His vibrations are excellent. True, he was a bit sceptical initially. But later on, when the three of us joined (Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, completing the trio), it turned out to be a marvellous experience for all of us. Kelu Babu, you'll be surprised to know, has profound knowledge of several other things, outside of Odissi dance."

Probed on the spiritual aspects of the film and in fact, of life itself, Kumar says that even Marxism displays a certain propensity about `spiritualism'. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Kumar does not disown his Marxist influences propelled as they were, by his close interactions with the legendary film-maker Rithwik Ghatak and renowned historian and anthropologist, D.D. Kosambi : "Rithwik's interest and ability to re-examine aspects of Indian culture through the cinematic medium and Kosambi's decoding of myths and metaphysical expressions (leading to the seminal work "Myth and Reality") have influenced me to this day," he confesses, adding that his Marxist leanings have continued because Marxism. For him, it essentially involves humanism and goes far beyond petty party politics and power games, which he was never interested in.

In the same breath, Kumar marvels at the fantastic energy of capitalism.

"I've seen and enjoyed the absolute power of capitalism in full flow and form in America," he says. "Let me give a small example from my personal experience there. We were driving and all of a sudden our car caught fire. But within minutes, we saw a full contingent of police and fire brigade by our side to help us out. If capitalism could achieve this ..." Kumar has his dreams. And one of them is to make a six-hour film on Cotton. "I truly believe that if there was one thing, commodity, product which has driven the human civilisation, it is cotton," he says passionately. "Cotton has a long history, may be four to five thousand years. Students of history know that it was cotton that made India. Cotton made America. And many, many countries across the continents. Across civilisations." Kumar is keyed up about his dream project and has already researched a great deal on the subject. He is looking for credible sponsors who could help turn his dream into reality. "There was indeed a sponsor who was prepared to fund the project with about a million dollars or so. But they wanted the film not to go beyond an hour and a half. I refused, because it is simply impossible to choke my project to that length and still do justice to whatever I want to say about cotton."

So, dreams and dilemma continue to dog the acclaimed film-maker.

Filmography

1966: The Glass Pane (short film)

1967: Manmad Passenger (short film)

1969: A Certain Childhood (short film)

1970: Rails for the World (short film)

1971: Object (short film)

1972: Maya Darpan

1973: Fire in the Belly (documentary)

1976: Our Universe

(short film)

1984: Tarang

1987: Var Var Vari (short film)

1988: Khayal Gatha

1989: A Ship Aground (short film)

1990: Kasba

1991: Bhavantarana (documentary)

1997: Char Adhyay

2000: Bamboo Flute

G.K.

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