V. Shantaram,

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V. Shantaram

Ayodhya ka Raja, the first sound film made by Prabhat in 1932, in Hindi and Marathi, was another version of the Harishchandra story, there would be a total of eight in five different languages. But Prabhat pulled a coup in successfully roping in a startlingly beautiful, upper crust Brahmin woman - the first for those times - Durga Khote to play the female lead. The film was a big success, and ironically this ws so despite Shantaram's initial scepticism about sound" My first reaction to talkies was rather one of diffidence. For, after seeing a couple of talkies on the Indian screen, I felt that they were just stage plays without a semblance of action or motion which we had come to associate with motion pictures in the days of silent films"After two more successful films Shantaram tried to make perhaps the first colour film in India, Sairandhari, which had been earlier filmed by Painter, and took the prints to Germany for processing. Unfortunately the results weren't satisfactory, but his German trip greatly influenced Shantaram. Dazzled by Nazi organisation and propaganda, Shantaram also got a chance to observe some of the leading German directors, Pabst, Lang and others and learnt much from them.On his return the company acquired land in Poona and built a modern, spacious studio there - complete with mountain scenery, marshland, soundproof recording, editing and shooting studios. Amrit Manthan, the first film made there was set in the Buddhist period and dealt with the battle against orthodoxy which the new movement faced. Flush with new techniques he had picked up in Europe Shantaram brought in new innovations in the use of the camera, for instance using an extreme close up of the eyes of the priest in once scene, and alternating such extreme lose ups with large panoramic shots to play with perspective.But the audience interest in period films was already on the wane, and New Theatres films' must take the credit for this diversification of tastes. This combined with Shantaram's own concern with the ills of Indian society, especially the status of women, turned Prabhat towards contemporary themes. Amar Jyoti, Duniya Na Mane and Aadmi, were three films, almost as a trilogy, which concentrated on the oppression against women. Duniya na Mane had been published as a novel by Apte in the 1920s and had caused a great stir because of the boldness with which it questioned the institution of arranged marriages. Shantaram decided to film it despite all opposition. A bubbly young teenager is tricked into a marriage with an elderly widower. While she transforms herself into a steely individual in the course of the film, refusing to consummate the marriage, the widower too passes from frustration, to understanding and then to tormenting guilt. In the end he commits suicide. There is hardly any background music in the film, the grandfather clock and everyday noises constitute the sound effects, and the former is well-used as a powerful symbol of age, life and death.There were other flourishes too. In one scene the old widower, Gets enraged when he is dying his hair in front of a mirror, and after he has smashed it into bits, each of those broken pieces staring back with his grey hair mocking him. The film proved to be an outstanding success and emboldened Shantaram into making another venture titled Aadmi., the english title of which, 'Life is for Living' was a direct rebuttal of the ethos which Shantaram perceived in New Theatres films. He said he was appalled by "the pessimism of Barua's Devdas and other such films...which affected the audience so strongly."Aadmi dealt with the chance encounter of a policeman Moti with a prostitute Kesar during a police raid. Deciding on an impulse to save her from arrest, Moti is subsequently greatly drawn to Kesar and the two begin to fall in love. It is when he takes her to meet her mother, and Kesar spends the night there with his mother that she realises that their world views are totally different. There is little moralising involved, Kesar's character, much the stronger of the two, is also drawn with great sensitivity and imbued with a rare dignity.

V Shantaram and the growth of a new aesthetic

"In our profession, an artistic failure is nothing; a commercial failure is a sentence. The secret is to make films that please the public and that allow the director to reveal his personality. "

John Ford

Rajaram Vankudre, better known as V Shantaram, was born in the princely state of Kolhapur in present day Maharashtra. As a teenager he worked on the railways, which after their initial spurt in the 1850s were undergoing the second major phase of expansion in the wake of the world war. Kolhapur was brimming with pioneering theatrical productions, and the young Shantaram, bitten by the bug, joined the company of legendary dancer and singer Bal Gandharva, which was known as the Gandharva Natak Mandali, in 1914-15. While working there he was trained by eminent musicologist Govind Rao Tembe and Tabla master Tirakhwan, whom he would later employ in his own company. Thereafter like so many of the other early pioneers of cinema, he became attached to a cinema hall as an odd job man. He also simultaneously became an assistant photographer in a local studio. While working there he became aware of the film company which the famous painter Babu Rao Mistry had launched and he decide to throw his lot with him. Shantaram's first initiation into cinema was through the Kolhapur film company of Babu Rao painter, one of the three great pioneers of Indian cinema. Artistically probably the most important director in the early period of Indian cinema Baburao had little formal education. It was while watching the films which he showed that Baburao learnt his cinema, studying each frame for its composition, lighting, decor and dramatic technique. A training which stood handy when he launched his own film company, the Maharashtra Film Company in Kolhapur in 1919. Raising finances through the patrons of his art, Babu Rao invited and trained many of his old associates, Sheikh Fatehlal, Vishnu Govind Damle and N D Sarpotdar all of whom became giants of silent cinema, fabricated a camera and started his first film. Sairandhari (1920)--another Mahabharata tale-- the first film made by him was based on a popular Marathi play Keechak Vadh. It was there that a young Shantaram joined him to start work. Initially a mere studio hand, Shantaram found his stock rising after Babu Rao had cast him to play the lead role of Krishna in a film on the Lord. As particular about his casting as he was about other aspects of his film making, Babu Rao was always on the look out for the right person, and anybody even a carpenter, or a technician could be called upon to play the lead role if Babu Rao thought that person fitted the role. Surekha Haran, the biopic on Krishna which Babu Rao made in 1921 found Shantaram catapulted into the lead role, and thus he began his long and fruitful association with cinema. As the actors were always around Babu Rao had the liberty to conduct meticulous and sometimes exhausting rehearsals. One of his actors, a contemporary of Shantaram recalled, " He wrote his own screen-plays with shot-divisions in a very systematic manner. HE would take umpteen rehearsals before actual shooting, study each character in minor detail...explain to the actor his role in situation and allow the artist sufficient leeway for interpretation. However he was very slow, and we sometimes get annoyed with him"

V Shantaram

Aadmi, or Maanoos in the Marathi version, is regarded by many as the finest film Shantaram ever made, although his career was to last another 50 years. Many see it as an attempt by Shantaram to adapt the expressionist images and style he had picked up during his German stay, to an Indian setting. Kesar's reputation and sense of guilt manages to resist all of Moti's efforts to rehabilitate her. Moti's (or Ganpat in the Marathi version) and is respectable mother symbolise all that Kesar would like to be but she is arrested for murdering her evil uncle and she eventually refuses Moti's offer to release her from prison.

Aadmi was shot entirely on the sets, using mainly street corners, corridors etc. and relied mostly on night shots and extensive use of shadows. The only location used is in the ht duet Hum Premi Prem Nagar Mein Jayen which seems to be an obvious spoof on Bombay Talkies filming style. The hero and the heroine sit by a tree in a posture similar to Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani during the song Main Ban ka Panchhi, from the Bombay Talkies film Achhut Kanya. The Anglo-Indian heroine then throws off her Sri to walk away in a western dress. The classic number from the film Ab Kisliye Kal Ke Baat, seems also to be a kind of self-reflexive spoof on films as the Hindi/Marathi opening lines are followed by lyrics in five different languages; Punjabi, Bengali, Gujrati, Telugu, Tamil, from each of the major film producing region.

Shantaram's last film for Prabhat, before they fell out, Padosi, remains one of the most celebrated social-films ever made in India.

Espousing the cause of social, and especially, communal harmony at a time when the country was being rent aside with discord. Coming high at the time of the Muslim League - Congress rift of the 1940s, Padosi boldly stated its view that people are not divided because of religious differences but because of power-play, and profit-making. Mirza and Thakur, played by Gajanan Jagirdar and Mazhar Khan respectively, two neighbours in a village, live as one extended family. Then a city builder arrives, to acquire land in order to build a dam. Though the villagers resist his overtures in the beginning, their resolve is broken when he successfully incites one against the other, ultimately separating the close neighbours too. Ultimately of course, everything comes good, but Shantaram takes a definite stand about communal strife--imposed by outside agents, and always powered by greed--which some may find a trifle simplistic. Although the sub-plots, here as in the wider film milieu in general, greatly weaken the plot, the details of rural life, the rumours, the superstitions, and the communitarian norms all come through vividly.

After Padosi, differences arose between the various partners, and Shantaram left Prabhat to launch his own Rajkamal Kalamandir

Quit India, War and Film Advisor Board: Patriotism on Test

In 1941 Shantaram moved to Bombay, after differences with his partners made it difficult to continue working at Prabhat. When the second world war broke out, the Government of India felt the need to win the approval of the subject population for the massive effort. Films seemed to be a wonderful way of weaning away the populace and of 'creating a favourable opinion at a time when the Indian mind was entirely set on independence.' The medium was already being used effectively by the Nazis, the fascists and Britain itself, at home.

A Film Advisory Board was set up which comprised a group of representatives of the Indian film industry and American distributors with J B H Wadia, the famous producer of stunt films as its chairperson. Its programme was to make ten minute and five minute shorts, dub imported films in Indian languages, reduce 35 mm films to 16 mm and produce training films for the army.

Shantaram became the first Indian head of the Films Division. Some notable films of the Shantaram period were Handicrafts of India, Our Heritage and a film about the Sino-Jap war, which had begun in the wake of the Japanese annexation of Manchuria, Our Valiant neighbours, with Shantaram's films clearly taking the side of the Chinese armies.

Shantaram's nationalist opinions were known to one and all--he had had many a fracas with the colonial censor board for this reason--and his tutelage of the Films Divisions therefore created a healthy respect for the division's outputs. Reviewing Our Valiant Neighbours for instance Filmindia wrote,"The thunderous applause which the film gets proves the popularity of the subject and Shantaram could be said to have made a splendid beginning, in spite of obvious official restrictions."

But with the 'do or die' fervour of the Quit India movement, it became impossible to put one's ends in may baskets, and being asked to chose between the two masters caused Shantaram to resign from the government position. In the same year he brought land, studio and the remaining assets off the quickly declining Wadia Movietone from J B H Wadia and family and set up his Raj Kamal Kala Mandir there, which was to remain important as a film producing company until almost the 1990s and thereafter become important as a professional shooting studio, immortalising Shantaram in many guises.

But with the 'do or die' fervour of the Quit India movement, it became impossible to put one's ends in may baskets, and being asked to chose between the two masters caused Shantaram to resign from the government position. In the same year he brought land, studio and the remaining assets off the quickly declining Wadia Movietone from J B H Wadia and family and set up his Raj Kamal Kala Mandir there, which was to remain important as a film producing company until almost the 1990s and thereafter become important as a professional shooting studio, immortalising Shantaram in many guises.

The temple of art: Rajkamal Kalamandir and Shantaram

Shanataram's first film for his newly formed company was Shakuntala, with a young actress called Sandhya playing the eponymous role from this timeless Kalidasa classic, advertised in the posters as being a Shantaram directed Technicolor film. Dushyant and Shakuntala accidentally meet in the jungle and fall in love. Dushyant, being the king has to return to the seat of his throne and promises to soon call for Shakuntala there, but owing to a mysterious curse forgets her entirely. Shakuntala, cursed herself by Durvasa goes to the court but has lost the ring which Dushyant gave her as the symbol of a sealed promise. However everything comes good when Dushyant discovers the ring in the belly of a fish and a grand reunion takes place. It was a huge success and ran for 104 weeks at one theatre in Bombay, quite a record for those days.

In 1946, in the wake of Shakuntala's success Shantaram visited the United States with his wife Jayshree and there came into contact with Arthur Mayer and his partner Joseph Burstyn in New York City. The two Americans were then trying to assiduously build up a US following for foreign films, by developing the concept of 'art theatres.' Shantaram signed a contract with them for the release of Shakuntala which became the first Indian film to be commercially released in the US