An influential filmmaker, Shantaram was willing to use cinema as an instrument of social change to advocate humanism and expose bigotry and injustice.
V Shantaram, pioneer of woman-orientated cinema – Anniversary special
Mumbai - 30 Oct 2020 18:39 IST
Updated : 31 Oct 2020 17:11 IST
Rarely has Indian cinema seen as well-rounded a personality as V Shantaram, born Shantaram Rajaram Vankudre in the erstwhile princely state of Kolhapur in 1901. A dedicated actor, innovative editor, experimental director and fearless producer, V Shantaram was nothing less than a Renaissance man whose noteworthy career spanned 65 years from his role as Krishna in Baburao Painter's Surekha Haran (1921) to his final directorial venture Jhanjhaar (1986).
As cinema advanced technologically, Shantaram evolved a new and influential grammar. He introduced the trolly shot in Indian cinema in his silent film Chandrasena (1931). He was also the first filmmaker to introduce a colour film, Sairandhri (1933), to Indian audiences and the first to use a telephoto lens in Amrit Manthan (1934).
As an actor, Shantaram was the leading man in at least two landmark films, which were also directed by him. As a producer, his films brought to the fore social, economic and political problems of a society under the yoke of colonial rule and, later, a country trying to establish its place in the post-World War II order.
From mythological and historical epics to social drama and love stories, Shantaram's filmography is as varied as his multi-faceted personality.
When cinephiles talk about V Shantaram's legacy, they tend to wax poetic about his technical prowess, but his most significant contribution, not only to Indian cinema but also to Indian society — to boldly address the issue of women's rights and depict their suppression at the hands of a patriarchal social order — is glossed over or ignored.
One of the early filmmakers to realize the efficacy of the medium, Shantaram did not shy away from using cinema as an instrument of social change to advocate humanism and expose bigotry and injustice.
In 1929, he and three of his colleagues left the Maharashtra Film Company to start their own production venture, Prabhat Film Company, named after the director's son. It was here that Shantaram’s inclination for making films on social themes took form.
Shantaram was among the first Indian directors to cast women in leading roles, treating them as individuals who found it within themselves to rebel against regressive social norms. At a time when many were busy making mythological films, Shantaram made Kunkoo (1937), a Marathi social film that changed the Indian cinema landscape.
Based on a novel by Narayan Hari Apte, the film tells the story of a young woman, Nirmala (Shanta Apte), who opposes her marriage to a much older widower, Kakasaheb (Keshavrao Date). She refuses to consummate the union, saying repeatedly that while suffering can be borne, injustice cannot. The film was simultaneously shot in Hindi and released as Duniya Na Mane?
At a time when forcing a girl to marry a much older man was common practice, Shantaram's film was a huge jolt to the nation's conscience. A critical and commercial hit, it was screened at the Venice International Film Festival.
Kunku boasted of a tour-de-force performance by Apte who was a regular face in Shantaram's early oeuvre. Her performance as a woman who refused to bow down and swallow her pride in the name of tradition was ahead of its time and inspired many actresses to take up such roles.
Shantaram had made another film with a female lead, Amar Jyoti (1936), a revenge drama about a woman, played by Durga Khote, who becomes a pirate after she is denied custody of her infant son. It was one of the earliest Indian films to be entered into an international festival. Apart from the fact that Amar Jyoti was one of the first films centred on a female pirate, the main character was, remarkably, not based on any particular mythological or historical figure.
At the time, stories of female courage were relegated to historical or mythological films which focused only on the valour of their subjects, conveniently leaving out the oppression they had to deal with.
With the Marathi film Manoos (1939), which was also shot and released simultaneously in Hindi under the title Aadmi, Shantaram started a discussion on the rehabilitation of sex workers and how they should be looked at as human beings instead of objects of scorn and ridicule. The film was hailed by no less than the silent film icon Charlie Chaplin, who happened to view it at a festival.
Based on a short story by A Bhaskarrao, the film told the story of the efforts of an honest police officer (Shahu Modak) to rehabilitate a prostitute Maina (Shanta Hublikar). Despite her many hardships, Shantaram chose to depict Maina as a lively woman whose mild manner and soft-spoken attitude should not be mistaken for meekness. Despite the controversial storyline, the experiment proved successful.
In sharp contrast to the submissive if not degrading roles assigned to women in that era, Shantaram gave his female characters agency. But he also made sure they were rooted in reality as they all had to undergo a lifetime of hardship for their rebellious nature, which was a sad but true reflection of the era.
Shantaram later moved to more commercial entertainers which featured songs and dancing, but even in those films he made sure to do right by his female characters, be it the feisty toy seller Champa, played by Sandhya, in the social drama Do Ankhen Barah Haath (1957) or the tamasha artiste, also played by Sandhya, in Pinjra (1972, Marathi).
Today when the male-dominated industry is applauded for the occasional woman-orientated film like Queen (2014) and Mardaani (2014), we can appreciate how difficult it must have been for Shantaram to create such films when Indian society itself was openly rigid and patriarchal.
The maestro, who won several accolades such as the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Dadasaheb Phalke award and the Filmfare award for Best Director, passed into the ages on 30 October 1990.