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Kumar Shahani on days of Bresson, cinema of grace and the unknown, interviewed by Khalid Mohamed

There could have been so many more masterworks from him, following his deeply original films of a distinct, soldierly individuality, during the New Cinema movement of our nation, which peaked in the first half of the 1970s.

Yet, Kumar Shahani despite the culs-de-sac, could forge an estimable body of work down the decades. It was tough going, to put it mildly, to raise adequate finance for his feature and short films. Unfazed, scripts would incubate in his mind, and still do.

Now years have elapsed since his journey back to the camera, but he has been teaching cinema without any let-up, travelling nomadically between Pune, New Delhi and occasionally, Mumbai.

At this point an aside: Truth be told, in a fit of totally unfounded anger, a few years ago I had lost my temper with him for an entirely idiotic reason. Yet, when I met him in Delhi by chance, it was the Kumar Shahani I have always known—forgiving, logical and a friend for life. A sense of humour, sheer artistry, understanding of an epic framework and the worship of cinema in its myriad forms, have been his constant companions. His work has been profoundly beautiful, exploring essential question of identity, morality and ethics.

He has never repeated himself or been imitative. If there was a labour strike to be depicted in ‘Tarang’, for instance, he could have referenced Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’. To that observation, he had commented, “Even the most ‘bourgeois’ filmmakers as it were, the most commercial ones, or their opposites would all do that…. So, I remembered him while shooting that sequence, constantly like a prayer…That is why I feel very happy with that particular sequence in ‘Tarang’. It doesn’t have, in any sense, an imitation of Eisenstein.”

For this e-mail interview, the parenthesis was his apprenticeship with the great auteur Robert Bresson. Without much ado then, over to our conversation, of the close kind even from a distance:

Kumar, how far would you agree with Bresson’s irrevocable belief, “My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.”

It is violently true of his oeuvre. That is how he would address his spectators as well.

I discovered that when I saw his work for the first time at a ‘permanent’ screening.

I saw it twice over in a cinema hall in Lyon continuously while several people walked out! The film was ‘Au Hasard Balthasar’.The donkey was baptised. So, also the spectator,

attaining grace at the end, as he dies in the crossfire of vicious forces.

Ritwik Ghatak at the Pune Film Institute, D.D. Kosambi, patriarch of the Marxist school of Indian historiography, and Bresson whom you assisted on ‘Une Femme Douce’, are your major influences. Could you elaborate on the ‘influence’ aspect? How did your single-minded vision as a filmmaker evolve from them?

All my gurus, each in his own way, encouraged me to seek the Random Sign which would reveal something of the unknown, to share your particular being with every frisson of bird, beast and blade of grass.

Could you describe your internship in Paris with Bresson on ‘Une Femme Douce’? Were you in touch with him after the film was completed?

It was joyous, the internship! Paris had broken free after May 1968.Bresson often drove me to see the rushes after the shooting. Then,dropped me home at 312,Rue St.Jacques.On the way, he would discuss the different takes of the shots, make references to his contemporaries, speak of his faith in DominiqueSanda, sometimes to the bewilderment of Mylene (his wife -to-be), and me.

When he dropped me home for the first time, he exclaimed, “You live here, in the Valley of Grace!

What a coincidence, isn’t it?” After the shooting was completed, I left Paris. Three years later, I returned to France for a couple of shows of ‘Maya Darpan’. I invited Mylene and him for one of the shows. He was intensely involved in its rhythm line. And Mylene in the douceur of the lighting.

What was Bresson’s technique, if it can be called that, in extracting the sparse and yet emotionally dense performances from his two actors in ‘Une Femme Douce’, especially from Dominique Sanda.

Forty rehearsals and forty takes sometimes!

Not till the actor stopped ‘acting’ would Bresson say, “Okay”…something unanticipated by anyone had to show itself through a subtle hand movement or the look or an intonation

of monosyllabic exchanges.

You were in Paris during the 1970s, at the peak of the Nouvelle Vague. Cinema was in the air, could you tell me about some filmmakers, artists and technicians you met at the time?

I often revisited Paris in the 1970s. But I was there earlier from 1967 to ’69. The most important meeting was with Jean-Luc Godard. He was brilliant, nervous, always near suicide, it seemed. He wanted several of the immigrant film makers to collaborate with him as he had done with Chris Marker on ‘Loin du Vietnam’. Godard wanted to make a film sketch on France “independently conceived” but put together by him. I thought the idea was outrageous.

The other interesting person was, of course, the cameraman of ‘Une Femme Douce’:Ghislain Cloquet. His black and white work is absolutely superb.

At Cannes once, I had joined the whole lot of filmmakers, actors and technicians to move to a better, braver world -- Milos Forman, Carlos Saura, Roman Polanski, the petite heroine of Susumu Hani’s ‘She and He’ and the stunning beauty Monica Vitti, memorable…

How constricted did you feel after returning to India? Was it difficult to make ‘Maya Darpan’ within the funding system here, or did you get freedom from NFDC, called FFC then?

It was made with such little money but there was great love from everyone in the making of the film. It was also received with great warmth

in Europe. However, not only the FFC but also

a whole spectrum of politically dubious elements even stopped the export of the film.

As a result, I had to wait for another 12 years before the completion of ‘Tarang’, my second feature.

The use of colour in ‘Maya Darpan’ is especially remarkable, where did the palette emerge from?

It is from my childhood—we all belong to a sub-continent that celebrates colour. We have a superb tradition of dyeing and have enjoyed a near 5000-year supremacy in the world from the time of the Indus Valley and its trade with the Arab world. I was born in Larkana. The family went for picnics to Mohenjo-Daro.

Moreover, Jaisalmer, this side of the border ,has the resplendent colour and music that is embedded in all our hearts.

The mise-en-scene of ‘Maya Darpan’, ‘Tarang’, ‘ Kasba’, ‘Char Adhyay’, in fact are all extremely individualistic and indigenous. Of your work, which came closest to your original conception?

The mise-en-scene of ‘Maya Darpan’ emerged

from the need for freedom that the Sufis have always expressed from the circumambulations

we perform everywhere on holy grounds, either around our own vertical axes or a stone or even an abstract ascension into the sky.

By the time I made ‘Tarang’, I wanted to elaborate and extend and expand the frame

beyond any single vanishing point of perspective.

‘Khayal Gatha’ took off from the winged ecstasy of Gandharvas and dervishes, the mendicants-- from the folly of love, desire. And

‘Kasba’, from the irony of the ego, making fun of oneself.

‘Bhavantarana’ celebrated the other in body and spirit.

‘Char Adhyay’, written by Tagore at the end of his life, was on the incredible conjunct between the word and the flesh, mukti and moksha, where ethos and ethics meet in tangled melodic sorrow.

‘The Bamboo Flute’ sought in the clouds the call of divinity for us mortals, beseeching her, you and me.

‘Priye Charu Shile’,yet unseen except by a very few awaits the resonances to appear, to find the freedom that we are born to realise.

It has been disheartening to say the least, that you could not find adequate funding for many of your projects and documentaries? How many films do you still have within you?

As you know, I have researched and scripted many projects worldwide, wanted to bring to the screen other individuals’ dreams.

Irani Cafe would have been one such.

People in the USA, Japan, England have tried to raise money for the poetry of their lands to be brought to light by me.The unfinished film based on psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion’s ‘A Memoir of The Future’ can be seen on YouTube.I am at the moment in Pune where Kosambi had made me stand on the threshold of ages gone by and the ages to come.

One of your much-cherished desires was to make a film on the Constitution of India. What were the roadblocks against this?

Yes, I still want to make it as a spectacle of dance and music with all the freedom that we ever promised ourselves. Someone has to find me the sponsor.

To quote Bresson again: “When you do not know what you are doing and what you are doing is the best –that is inspiration.” Would you agree with this?

One has to go beyond one’s unconscious to reach the pinnacle which Bresson and (the 17th century French mathematician) Blaise Pascal

spoke of glimpses of that which are as palpable as the most intense music, as the most marvelous cinema.

Kumar, now at the age of 80, what’s your take on the current state of Indian and world cinema? Where are we heading?

Young people come to visit. There is so much love, hope, talent. Equally, there is an oppression of all sorts, the tyranny of technological surveillance, the poverty of means, the levelling down of imagination. Will we all come together and find the courage to change the equation?

Lastly, this is a hypothetical question… if Bresson were to make a film today, what kind of subject would he have selected? Would he have ever changed his ‘style’ at all?

All I know is that he would have touched new horizons. He really excelled himself in ‘L’Argent’.

When I saw it, I would have said to him,


As indeed he had said to me when I showed him ‘Maya Darpan’,“Continuez!”

Khalid Mohamed is a well known film critic, screenwriter and filmmaker.

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Rajendra Bora
Rajendra Bora
Oct 06, 2021

Enjoyed the interview although it does not give any new insight into Kumar Shahani's work.

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