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Interview with Kumar Shahani

 | Interview |

  BY Rafique Baghdadi and Rajiv Rao

"In Tarang, Urvashi becomes the Universal Mother, standing for everyone who is oppressed."

Innovators are rarely honoured in the land of their birth. And, if honour comes to them, it is often a belated recognition, grudgingly given. Despite the lavish praise it received abroad, Maya Darpan (1972) met with hostile reception in India. Critics panned it for its excessively languid pace. Others found the film to be too European in its sensibility. Those who expected poverty of metaphysics were disappointed. Eleven long years later, Shahani returns with Tarang (1984). The film deals with the tensions of a modern industrial family. Shriram Lagoo is the Seth who had made his fortune during the war. His madonna-like daughter, Hansa (Kawal Gandhiok) is married to Rahul (Amol Palekar), an ambitious man waiting to take over the business from the Seth. The Seth's nephew, Dinesh (Girish Karnad), wants to import foreign machinery and clashes with Rahul. Pitted against them is the world of the workers, hovering between confrontation and cooperation. Janaki (Smita Patil), widow of a factory worker, enters the life of the industrial family. Rahul tries to meet the demands of the young workers and to secure industrial peace and progress. The attitudes of the old Seth and Dinesh thwart him. Action and counter-action lead to tragic and violent events.

The film reflects the fratricidal conflict, on an epic scale, as a a characteristic of contemporary society, which found its most telling expression in Bengal between 1969 and 1973.

Baghdadi: It's been a long time since Maya Darpan was made. Do you perceive any significant changes that affect film-makers?

Shahani: It's well worthwhile to try and make films that one believes in. Certainly the whole environment has changed since Maya Darpan. The change, I think, is two-sided, not unilinear. On the one hand, society is getting very aggressive and more and more people are measuring their own selves in terms of rupees and paise. On the other hand, people are more sharply aware of their condition.

Baghdadi: You were in Paris during the May 1968 revolution. What kind of impact did the revolution have on you? Did you feel like getting involved with any political party in India or any political issues?

Shahani: I saw something beautiful happening to people in May '68 in Paris. It was happening o the streets, in the offices, everywhere! One of the slogans, spontaneously discovered, was "Let imagination take over power". It was not just a slogan. Everyone noticed that suddenly the cold stiff atmosphere of the western world gave way to a daring warmth of that spring. Some people who laughed at it dubbed it a folkloric event. All barriers broke down, including that of man-woman, student-worker, rural-urban…except that of class, supported as it was by state power. In Paris, I had friends from almost all those who participated from the 'orthodox' to the 'extremists'. It's the same here. I have never wanted to join a party. I think for someone who wants to work in literature or film or even history, you have to keep a distance. Even Kosambi had conflicts with the organized parties of his time. I don't imagine myself a political worker. It needs a different kind of personality. I do support specific political causes.

Baghdadi: To what extent do you try to consciously shape your political beliefs in you films?

Shahani: I think the biggest mistake being made about films is that if I, for example, photograph you, most people will say that my film is about you, about the middle class, about Bombay, about a man who wears glasses and has a moustache. But it may not be so. That is only what is being photographed.

Baghdadi: Godard said something similar…

Shahani: It is absurd to think that if you are depicting something, that is the content. The content emerges through the way you relate to the object, to what you show, your theme. When people say there is visual beauty in the film, it is deeply connected to the editing, the rhythm, the shot taking, the pattern of movement and also the sound…all constitute the content…look at the majesty of Vanraj Bhatia's music, for instance…who would say that it is beautiful without implying at the same time that it touched him, that it was meaningful.

Or take the example of Buddhist art in India. The motifs of burgeoning wealth- the figures, animals, vegetation on the Sanchi gateways- it is the same as the precedent Hindu iconography; yet the meaning has shifted. The Yakshi image offers a world of nourishment. Nature itself is in a reverie, serene, not overwhelming, in it power. When Michelangelo painted the Sistine chapel, he was supposedly depicting Christian mythology. But what he did was to assert the human spirit and celebrate the human body…something else.

Baghdadi: You received the Homi Bhabha Fellowship to research the epic form. Could you tell us something about your preoccupations with the epic traditions in Indian art?

Shahani: The fellowship was a great thing for me. It helped me a lot in formulating Tarang and releasing the kind of energy which only an epic structure can give you. I long wanted to work on it and signs of it were there in Maya Darpan. Every since I met Kosambi and Ritwik Ghatak in Poona, I wanted to try and evolve something that would be close to a modern epic.

As it happens, other people across the world have been concerned with the epic form- Godard had begun to move towards the epic. Jansco has done some significant work in Hungary. In America, Francis Ford Coppola has attempted it. Rossellini, for many years, worked on the didactic elements in his films with the support of reality. The work of the Soviets after the revolution in 1917 is well-known.

The epic tradition overcomes the division between the giver and receiver of art. It is a pity that societies tend to make museum pieces of art when, in fact, the need for it is as natural and instinctive in people as eating and drinking.

Baghdadi: The process of selection of images and how you relate them to each other shapes and colours the contents of your film. Considering that two of the teachers who have influenced you - Kosambi and Ghatak- were Marxist, do you think this influence has exerted itself in your films, even unconsciously?

Shahani: If you have to contribute anything while working in a tradition of any sort, Marxist or Liberal, you have to be critical of that tradition itself. Tradition grows through criticism. In my film I must be able to overcome the structure of that very work itself. One must discover something in the process of making the film not only in the themes one presents.

Baghdadi: There is a lack of critical tradition in the country. Film critics often resort to making parallels with Western concepts and techniques. In your own case, Maya Darpan was seen to be Bressonian, whereas it is deeply rooted in the traditions of this country.

Shahani: I think film criticism is still growing. There is an absence of standards, ironically enough, in the countries that lead in film production- India and the USA. Often, critics make no reference to any tradition, not even the cinematic one. When people speak of a Bressonian influence, they must specify where it lies. If I say that Ritwik was influenced by Eisenstein, then I must be able to show it: that he went to anthropology of sources of reference, that he used sound contrapunctually and so on…

Baghdadi: There are a number of film-makers in the garb of experimental film-makers, who expect to be taken seriously.

Shahani: The experimental film-maker has difficulty in surviving. By the nature of experiment, any experiment, he is trying to find out a new language. He will accept criticism if it is made within the parameters of his language. In an abstract painting, you may not be moved at all. When Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d'avignon, everybody was shocked. By the nature of experimental work, it is very rare to appreciate it the first time you see it. If you're uninitiated in certain forms, say classical music, you don't reject the music for that. Tomorrow if I hear an Indian musician trying to experiment with something he has learnt from Korean music, I will be able to get some significance from the slight shift he may make. This is because I am initiated to music. If Kumar Gandharva takes from certain influences of folk music which you or I have not heard of, I would like to find out what it is. What we have to in criticism of experimental art is to understand the tradition and then to understand what shift is being attempted; and, within that shift alone can we really appreciate or criticize. It has to be an internal thing to the work of art itself.

Baghdadi: Western critics often claim they have popularized Indian experimental films. Do you feel their critical writing has had some influence in gaining Indian films a wider audience?

Shahani: Certain critics take a lot of trouble and those who do that, wherever they may be from, can come up with some interesting insights. An important fact which I would like to state here is that Western critics are not ashamed to say that they like a film. You know that the Cahiers group only wrote about authors they liked.

Baghdadi: How did you come to use the epic form in Tarang?

Shahani: The traditional mechanistic structure with the beginning, the middle and end is a dramatic structure which originated in 19th century in Europe. It was closely related to the methodology of physical science- cause and effect in a chain. As far as I know, science today goes beyond this and accommodates fluctuations. One has to find new ways that are linked to our actual perceptions. Ritwikda and Kosambi made me probe into the epic form. You also see it all around. It enters the consciousness of people in such a way that they can take it home with them.

I believe that people like Costa Gavras who claim to be changing lives are really only doing the instant churning up of emotions. Immediately after a Costa Gavras film you may feel that the revolution has occurred for you. The next day you are faced with a harsh reality, when you can't change your own family or yourself, or the timing of that train that you have to catch. Costa Gavras told a film critic here, that before showing the torture of men on the screen, he tried it on himself- electric shocks on the testicles. You see how sensation replaces significance. The image of torture turns into a thrill. As against the epic form which makes the sensuous significant. Every life is treated with respect.

Baghdadi: One critic has stated that Tarang is a story straight out of the Bombay formula film industry turned on its head…

Shahani: What I wanted to do was to take into account the way our traditions are surviving in popular art. Both folk and popular art always have epic elements. Even pulp literature is a distortion of the epic form. A lot of artists in different parts of the world are trying to understand that a. Europe and America have certain disadvantages compared to us. In our classical arts, you continue to see a constant formalization of folk culture. Europe had lost it, but now there is a revival of narrative not only in film but in painting as well. I genuinely feel that Vivan Sundaram has a greater potential of success in narrative painting than say a Western master like Kitaj. I am sure that we are better placed to retrieve the narrative.

Baghdadi: The method of acting in Tarang is different from the one used in Maya Darpan. It was a conscious decision to use that method?

Shahani: The method has evolved from Maya Darpan to meet the demands of the epic. I think the actor's own being should never be denied, if you wish to discover the archetype.

Baghdadi: Like Janaki becoming the mythical Urvashi in Tarang was the idea inspired by Kosambi's description…

Shahani: Originally, yes. I am deeply inspired by his work and I go back to it again and again. For Urvashi's appearance in Tarang, there were many experiences that came together. Kosambi relates Urvashi to water and fertility. When we were hit by a drought in Maharashtra, I met a lot of women who bravely shouldered the burdens and responsibilities during those harrowing days and I was inspired by their courage. I was shooting a documentary on the drought. Later, when I was studying the epic form, I requested my Sanskrit teacher to read for me the Brahamanas' and the Rig Vedic versions of the legend.

Baghdadi: Does Urvashi in your film represent eternal woman, who is everything- seducer, murderer and all the other characters played by Smita Patil? Or is she alone the symbol of the oppressed?

Shahani: Urvashi has fantastic aspects. She is represented in a different way in Mahabharata. There she tries to seduce Arjuna who looks upon her as an ancestress. In my film, Urvashi becomes the Universal Mother, standing for everyone who is oppressed.

Baghdadi: How do you see the role of Hansa, the wife of Rahul. Is her acceptance of events a reflection on the passivity of Indian woman as well as the democratization of a class?

Shahani: Hansa is certainly not passive. There is a reference to Ophelia (Hamlet) in her characterization, evoked through water and flowers. Her name and the images around her relate her individuality to the archetype. A lot of tenderness towards Hansa is expressed through the camera. Her own warmth is conveyed through her gestures of giving and her grace in the song sequence, I wanted her bathed in sensuous light…K K Mahajan (the cameraman) has done such a marvelous job…Each character in the film has, in fact, his own little world. The individual warmth of character, the potential of the particular actor's presence and the archetype- all are important for me.

Baghdadi: There is a point in the film when the audience feels that everything will be alright for Hansa. This however is also the point of crisis.

Shahani: There is a splitting of the personality. Anything can happen at that moment. Things might turn out right or there could be a disaster. This splitting provides the tension.

Baghdadi: You are making a film on the psychoanalyst, Wilfred Bion. What is his essential world view? At its broadest, his vision is comparable to the twin concepts of cannibalistic violence and nurturance found in the symbolic representation of Kali.

Shahani: Yes, he was concerned with archetypes, mythology and dreams. His basic concern emanated from the instinct for knowledge. Apart from that, he has done whorl on the behaviour of groups. He has tried to find neutral symbols for the creation of a theory of emotion, symbols devoid of associative or moralistic or other forms of loaded concepts. Finally, two other things are important. His fictional work puts together his different concerns and his grasping of extra rational reality goes deep into the mystical tradition of the East.

Baghdadi: Bion, as a subject, is anti-film and anti-drama. How did you decide to make this film and what kind of treatment are you likely to five the film?

Shahani: I have a friend, Udayan Patel, who is a psychoanalyst. I have made a short film, Object, with him. Udayan an his wife Anuradha have been greatly inspired by Bion's work and when they met him in England, they discovered that he had an abiding love for India.  He had, in fact, spent the first eight years of his life in India. He was invited to visit Bombay but he died a few weeks before his expected arrival. It was decided to make a short documentary on him when he was in India. Later, after his death, the idea got expanded through several stages into a feature film. It is visualized as a fantasy.