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Kumar Shahani: The Tarang that needs to continue by Sharad Raj

Kumar Shahani on location, Tarang. Pic by Roshan Shahani

Pelva Naik, one of the few woman Dhrupad singers of India while working on the background music of my film said, “your film is about the missing mother!” I was thrilled by her response as the mother or mother figure was at the center of my adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Munshi Premchand’s stories for the screen. The mother was not only absent from each character’s life, but the two women in the film find themselves in violently oppressive structures and environment. Anita, the sex professional as she leaves the narrative space, finds herself immersing in water, bloodied, to the sound of the immersion of Durga during Pooja. Anita also transcends boundary of religion for she is a Muslim, yet an archetype and a real mother. She is finally killed.


Gomati, the second woman in the film becomes a mother figure to her adoptive father, much like Nita in Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara, only to be objectified, desired by a father figure and subjugated. But this time it is not Nita/Gomti who will be facing death but her son-father. This mother is liberated by love! Gulmohar the connection between Anita and Gomti is motherless too. The world without mothers is a violent, alienating world.


The archetype is permanent and universal but it’s reflection can keep shifting.


Kumar Shahani, one of the pillars of the Indian New Wave passed away last month on 24th February in Kolkata at 83. The first thought that occurred to me was to return to Tarang, a film that was made when my umbilical cord with my mother was intact and the motherland was awakening to the possibilities of State funding of films and broadcasting. Nation and the State as the mother was shifting and evolving as it was starting its descent, of which we were not aware at that historical moment. I remember watching Tarang on Doordarshan, the State broadcaster primarily because of its star cast of Smita Patil, of whom our whole family was a huge admirer, Amol Palekar, Girish Karnad, and Dr. Shriram Lagoo. NOT because we knew or were even remotely aware of Kumar Shahani or who he was.


The so-called Hindi Parallel Cinema movement was at its peak and the educated middle-class was striking a balance between the star persona of Amitabh Bachchan in potboilers and those who were in this alternate space. Realism was the buzz word. Unfortunately, it still is. “This is so realistic”, “bilkul natural” are phrases I don’t even respond to anymore. Social realism was the State policy of Stalinist Soviet Union. Indira Gandhi had added “Socialist” allegedly under pressure from the Soviet Union to our Preamble during Emergency in 1976. Nehruvian non-alignment was beginning to give way to overt alignment in the Cold-War era. And State sponsored filmmakers of the new wave were catering to this state policy unlike the rebel Polish artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski, who refused social realism as an aesthetic choice at all costs during Soviet occupation of Poland. But then he was a painter! Photography may have rescued painting from realism but in the process got consigned to it for times to come. Therefore, from Benegal to Mani and Kumar, we painted them all as “realistic filmmakers”. The actors in Tarang were all leading lights of Hindi Parallel Cinema introduced by Shyam Benegal, the torch bearer of social realism in Hindi cinema.


Władysław Strzemiński, Łódź Landscape, 1932, tempera, cardboard (fragment). Photo: courtesy of Muzeum Regionalnego w Stalowej Woli

Hoping for dollops of realism on the Sunday evening we sat down to watch Tarang when Doordarshan used to telecast films. Alas, we were disappointed and how. Parents wondered why someone like Smita Patil did the film in the first place, it was boring and obscure, completely away from the “realistic” formula we were so used to consuming. The song and dance of Hansa (Kawal Gandhiok) in the middle of the film, prolonged absence of Karnad in the story and of course the last scene of Janaki (Smita Patil) with Rahul (Amol Palekar), disappointed the parents. We followed suit. Tarang and Ketan Mehta’s Holi, was another film we thought was bringing a bad name to the bourgeoning parallel cinema. Both were unanimously rejected.


There was something alienating about Tarang. While I continued with my undergraduate education in biological sciences, my interest in cinema enhanced and I started to read on films. Back in the days gone by National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) used to bring out a magazine Cinema of India, there was Deep Focus, a quarterly journal from Bangalore and around the same time I started to subscribe to The Journal of Arts & Ideas and was introduced to the writings of Rashmi Doraiswamy, Geeta Kapoor, Madan Gopal Singh, Ashish Rajadhyaksh and Amrit Gangar amongst others. These readings made me ponder and comprehend the art of filmmaking better. It was a fascinating world that was slowly opening. I remember having picked up a book called The New Indian Cinema by Aruna Vasudev and there Aruna says that Mani and Kumar abandoned realism! But she doesn’t delve further, and this left me even more confused than before. If Uski Roti, Sateh Se Uthta Aadmi and Tarang were not realistic films what were they?


The answer to all questions were in the Mecca of cinema in India, the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. I still remember entering the gates of that hallowed place and the moment I saw the old Prabhat Studio floors all I wanted was to die in the director’s chair like Guru Dutt in Kaagaz Ke Phool! Such was the romanticism associated with FTII and cinema. But a world opened there. A world 100X of the cinemascope screen and one realized one had very little almost inconsequential idea of what films are. Suresh Chabbria unleashed Godard and Truffaut and Antonioni in the first few weeks itself. I was shellshocked. And then came Meghe Dhaka Tara of Ritwik Ghatak. I had never had such an experience watching an Indian film ever before! The face was wet and after a quiet walk up the hilly FTII road to the boys hostel for dinner all that I wanted to do was cry, “cinema, ami bachtey chai…” ! (Cinema, I want to live!”)


Ably aided by Saghir Ahmed I entered the  world of epic form of Ritwik Ghatak and two of his favorite students Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. Ghatak had said during his stint at FTII, “I pin my faith on Kumar Shahani and John Abraham. Mani Kaul is there too, but he has a tilt in his brain, slightly astigmatic, just like boys like you-always falling in love with words. Kumar Shahani is my best student.” Saghir through the films of Ritwik Ghatak, Miklós Jancsó and Kumar Shahani introduced us to the epic form, episodic structure, Brechtian alienation, archetypes, Jungian concept of the individual and collective consciousness, re-interpreting myths, amongst others.


Such was the impact of Ghatak that thanks to Saghir and films of Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, my very first continuity film was a disastrous attempt to re-interpret the myth of Kunti and the sun God! However, one was sure one was on course to delve deeper into the poetics of these filmmakers. And it was at FTII that Tarang started to make sense to me. Though I may still consider it a tad fidgety but the significance of its structure and form and the presentation of Janaki cannot be lost. It was for the first time I understood what Aruna Vasudev meant when she said Mani and Kumar abandoned realism.


In Meghe Dhaka Tara, Ghatak has three women, the mother, the sensuous younger sister, Gita, and the elder sister Nita, but Ghatak as if playing musical chairs, shifts them around. The mother in Meghe Dhaka Tara is only a biological mother, but essentially a child who instead of nurturing needs to be nurtured herself. She throws tantrums and is demanding. It is her daughter Nita who is the provider, the nurturer of the family. In post-partition trauma of migration, the mother archetype has leaped from one generation to another. The roles have reversed. Nita, the working girl is the provider, yet not free from the structures that are exploitative. If the nurturing Nita in Meghe Dhaka Tara reaches the sanatorium and cries for life, in Subarnarekha, the mother figure Sita, forerunner of Janaki in Tarang also takes care of her elder brother. Her consort Abhiram (means the same as Ram but an incarnation of Shiva while Ram was an incarnation of Vishnu), are consigned to poverty in the city as migrants and after the death of Ram alias Abhiram, Sita/Janaki takes to prostitution. Sita by now has nurtured her brother enough and she can no longer satisfy his carnal desires or bear his decadence and kills herself instead.


Madhabi Mukherjee in Ritwik Ghatak's Subarnarekha (1965)

The passing away of Kumar Shahani for some reason made me watch Tarang (1984) again. The discomfort of the first viewing and the desire to seek more had not settled yet.


Janaki there is a disturbance, a Tarang of the same legacy of Nita and Sita. The post-independence trauma of partition and migration has now metamorphosed into rapid industrialization, strikes, students’ unrest, growing prices, corruption, unemployment, and the failed experiment of the JP movement for a more just and socially sensitive society. Indira Gandhi is back, Soviet Union has taken over Afghanistan, terrorism is fast becoming a global problem and the Khalistan movement is at its peak. The Capitalists are gaining power and control over our lives and profits are fast becoming the sole goal, State preference for Socialism notwithstanding.

 Kawal Gandhiok & Smita Patil in Kumar Shahani's Tarang (1984)

It is in this historical moment that Janaki finds herself as a working-class woman, whose late husband was a worker in the factory of Sethji (Dr. Shriram Lagoo), his warring son-in-law Rahul (Amol Palekar) and nephew Dinesh (Girish Karnad). This time around Janaki’s Ram or Abhiram are absent from the very beginning. Janaki without him may not have resorted to prostitution like Sita in Subarnarekha but is an object of desire for both her working class men in the neighborhood and Rahul, the Capitalist son-in-law of Sethji wying to take control of the factory. Janaki surrenders to his carnal desire and soon becomes a consenting consort, permitted by Hansa, the wife but not without a latent agenda of getting Rahul to support a certain faction of the workers’ union. But the Capitalist master is way too smart, manipulative, and vicious for her. He doesn’t look beyond personal gain which he can reap from the communalization of the working class, making Janaki the scapegoat. Once again. But this time Janaki transforms or metamorphoses revealing her true self.


Shahani’s Janaki is transcendental. She doesn’t resolve the crisis of Tarang between the factory owners and the working class instead on seeing the true mercenary face of the owners reveals her ethereal self, her essence which is beyond the comprehension of Rahul. Janaki is Urvashi. She makes Rahul lament her loss. Kumar unfolds the myth of Urvashi and Pururavas in the historical context of class struggle. Mind you she does not become Urvashi, she is Urvashi. Rahul could never really know Janaki as she tells him, but Janaki by the end knows what Rahul and his ilk all are about. She is beyond that. In the light of fire in the factory/basti blast, she could see Rahul clearly. The class conflict(thesis-antithesis) synthesizes into a phenomenon that is both material and metaphysical in my view. For she is not just an apsara but the new dawn (Usha’s Kiran). Urvashi-Janaki leaves him by the waterbody, urging him to introspect, much like the original myth.


Hopefully this Tarang of formal experimentation will be carried forward the onslaught of digitization and AI notwithstanding.



Sharad Raj is a Mumbai based independent filmmaker, Senior Faculty at Whistling Woods International & Editor of Just Cinema.

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