Saturday, September 05, 2015

V Shantaram, the man who saw it all: a book about a pioneering filmmaker

[Did this book review for Mint Lounge]

Madhura Pandit Jasraj’s book about her father V Shantaram contains a story that sounds apocryphal at first. Researching for the film that will be made as Aadmi in Hindi, and as Manoos in Marathi, Shantaram goes to a brothel incognito – this is sometime in 1938 – and has a conversation with a prostitute. Which was the last movie you saw, he asks. “Duniya na Maane,” she replies, citing his own recent release, “That bugger Shantaram makes bloody good films.”

It is the sort of slick, anecdotal detail one might take with a pinch of salt. And yet, it could easily be true: if a casual viewer watching a Hindi movie in the 1930s knew the name of its director, that name would very likely be V Shantaram. Twenty years before the international “auteur” debates focused attention on a director as principal creative talent, Shantaram occupied a rare, top-of-marquee position among Indian filmmakers, comparable to that of Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch in the Hollywood of the same period. I have heard grandparents and their friends (all born in the 1910s or 1920s, a youthful audience for such celebrated films as Ayodhya ka Raja and Amrit Manthan) reminiscing about the special excitement of “a Shantaram movie”.

This can be a little hard to believe now, because V Shantaram is not exactly a fashionable name these days. Young movie buffs – those who watch the edgy “multiplex films” made by Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and their protégés – rarely speak of him, even when they discuss old cinema. By the 1950s and 1960s, when directors like Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt had become the leading names in their field, Shantaram was still highly respected within the industry, but was best known for flamboyant musicals like Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, Navrang (one of my all-time favourite Hindi films) and Geet Gaaya Patharon Ne. Much of his other work, including the devotional films he and his production company Prabhat were associated with, is perceived as being a little quaint, and falls within a tradition of homegrown social drama that many sophisticated viewers are now uncomfortable about. Films like Padosi (about two close friends, a Hindu and a Muslim, who fall out) and Dahej (about the evils of dowry) wear their good intentions on their sleeves, while Do Aankhen Barah Haath – though celebrated for its prison-reform theme – is allegorical and sometimes pedantic, hence vulnerable to being derided by those who champion narrow definitions of realism.

None of this can undermine Shantaram’s importance in Indian film history. He was a pioneer in so many ways: in his childlike enthusiasm for the formal possibilities of cinema (stories I have heard about him remind me of Orson Welles’s remark about being like a boy with a giant toy-train set when he was making Citizen Kane), the degree of holistic control he exercised over his productions, his ability to extract the best from traditional Indian storytelling, the intensely personal qualities he often brought to his work (Navrang, for instance, came in the aftermath of his temporary blindness and his new awakening to the wonders of colour when he recovered).

And so to The Man Who Changed Indian Cinema, which is the second recent instance – after the Rinki Roy Bhattacharya-edited anthology Bimal Roy: The Man Who Spoke in Pictures – of a book about a major Indian filmmaker being helmed by his daughter. This points to a shortfall in analytical writing about our cinema (in most countries with big film industries, there would be a few books about each major director, including some by non-family members!), but possible biases notwithstanding, Jasraj does a fine job of telling her father’s story, from his early dalliances with theatre and cinema, through the growing confidence that saw him become a leading director, and even reach a point where he could offer employment to a former mentor. She treads the line between the personal, affectionate tone and the detached, descriptive one: the book has a dual personality, often reading like an encyclopaedia entry but also containing a few interjections that could be from a note in a family album (the author usually refers to Shantaram by his name, in the manner of a conventional biographer, but occasionally she includes a personal memory of “Papa”).

For me, the most compelling passages were the ones that dealt with the country’s nascent film industry and the role Shantaram played in it. This was a primitive time in filmmaking, when editing might have to be done by the light of a petromax lamp, and film pieces joined together with acetone; when a director might bargain with film-stock companies by telling the less established one (in this case, Agfa) that providing stock for a blockbuster Prabhat production would raise its profile and help it compete with the market leader (Kodak); when socially conscious directors tried to integrate the swaraj message in medieval stories, without rousing the suspicions of the British censors; and when even some canny filmmakers believed that “talking pictures” were a momentary fad, they would never last. And through it all, there were Shantaram’s many innovations, such as the use of bold advertising (“Love Scene Between Tukaram and Jijau Under a Banyan Tree”) to build a buzz for the 1936 Sant Tukaram, the impromptu decision to shoot a short film that would be screened before a main feature, and the creation of a cartoon fox named Jambu Kaka for an animation film. In 1933 he travelled to Germany for the processing of India’s first colour film Sairandhri; his use of trolley shots and extreme close-ups became famous, as did the hints of show-offish Expressionism in scenes such as the one of an old man’s reflection laughing at him in shards of a mirror in Duniya na Maane.

This is a tidily written, well-produced book with no major flaws, though Jasraj does get overenthusiastic at times – as in her claim that a lengthy single-take scene in the 1946 Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani “was the first time something like this had ever been achieved in national and international cinema” (similar things had been done in Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons and Preston Sturges’s The Miracle of Morgan Creek, among other films). Black-and-white images – screen grabs as well as private photographs – are very effectively used alongside the text: I was particularly moved by the picture of Shantaram’s guru Baburao Painter, which appears exactly at the point in the text where we are told of the young Shantaram’s first glimpse of this venerable-looking, bearded man.

Most of all, this is a fairly comprehensive record of a prolific and fertile career that began in the silent era (for perspective, consider that Shantaram was acting in and assisting on films before Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt were born!) and stretched right till the 1980s. And in his own mind, he wasn’t close to being done even then: Jasraj mentions that her father proclaimed his intention to live till the age of 150, so he could complete a 50-film project about Indian society from the time of the Mahabharata till today, and even projecting into the future. With most other people, this would seem like pure whimsy, an old man’s distracted ramblings. But with V Shantaram, who played Lord Vishnu in a film but also insisted on singlehandedly carrying a bulky camera to a location some distance from the studio, because “no work should be considered too low” – in other words, someone so invested in filmmaking processes that he could be God and coolie at the same time – you can believe he meant it.

1 comment:

  1. 1930s and 40s were certainly the golden period of Marathi cinema thanks to this man and his Prabhat Films.