A Colossus Of Indian Cinema
Born at the turn of the century, five years after the new medium of moving pictures had made its debut, he was witness to the evolution of cinema technology right from its silent days to the advent of digital technology in the 1980s.
He made his directorial debut during the silent cinema, established his reputation during the early talkie era and became a legend in his own lifetime. Over the decades he produced 92 films, directed 55 films and acted in 25 films.
Shantaram Rajaram Vankudre was born to Rajaram and Kamala at the turn of the century on November 18, 1901, barely five years after the birth of cinema. His father, Rajaram was an impoverished shop-owner who, to supplement his meagre income, hired out petromax lamps to drama troupes who performed musical plays late into the night.
While at school, Shantaram showed a greater propensity towards extra-curricular activities than studies. That is how his reputation as a good mimic spread and he was often called to perform his mimicry on stage.
On one such occasion he was spotted by the great stage actor Govindrao Tembe who recruited him into the Gandharva Natak Mandali, which he had established with fellow actors Ganpatrao Bodas and Bal Gandharva on leaving the Kirloskar Natak Mandali.
However, a rude shock awaited Shantaram at the Gandharva Natak Mandali. On his very first day there, he realised that he could not sing and had no sense of music.Those were the days of musical plays and this inability damned Shantaram.
He could at best be a junior artiste or a back-stage hand. A year later, however, Shantaram returned home vowing never to return to the theatre. Haunted by the thought that he had wasted a year doing nothing, Shantaram returned to school determined to make something of his life.
The family finances were floundering and Shantaram was not making much headway in his studies. Eventually, a family friend found him a job at the Railway Workshop.
As was his nature, Shantaram worked hard at the workshop which so impressed the supervisor that he was given independent charge of a small section. His salary also increased to a sumptuous 12 Indian annas per day. Things would have progressed had not the young lad met with a serious accident which squashed two fingers of his right hand – scars which he bore till his dying day.
While looking around for a job to help the family finances Shantaram realised that the creative arts still fascinated him. That is when an idea struck him. His first cousin on his mother’s side – Baburao Pendharkar – was a manager at the famed Maharashtra Film Company. Shantaram asked him for a job.
This was his first meeting with his mentor-to-be, the famed filmmaker and painter Baburao Krishnarao Mestry - also known as Baburao Painter. He had been bestowed with the title of "Cinema Kesari" (the Lion of Cinema) by the noted freedom fighter Lokmanya Tilak.
When Shantaram walked in, Painter peeked from behind the canvas and stared at Shantaram. He was a thin emaciated man from whose face emanated a delicate intelligence. Then, without a word, he went back to painting the canvas. Shantaram was disheartened but Baburao prompted Painter once again, “So shall we keep him?” Lost in his world of paints Painter mumbled the faintest of “Huh!” Shantaram was hired.
Shantaram’s career in direction started at the Maharashtra Film Company when Baburao Painter entrusted him with the direction of Netaji Palkar (1927), based on the exploits of Shivaji’s lieutenant. Nothing of the film exists. Here V. Shantaram can be seen as Shelar Mama in another film based on Shivaji, Sinhgad (1923).
Shantaram’s co-director in the film was Keshavrao Dhaiber with whom he would direct five more films at Prabhat. The first of these was the super successful Gopalkrishna (Child Krishna) (1929) starring Master Suresh in the title role. The bullock cart race in the film became the talk of the town. After that, Shantaram ensured that every Prabhat film had some highlight which gave the film an edge over the others in the market.
V. Shantaram's next film Udaykal (Thunder of the Hills) (1931) was based on the story of warrior King Shivaji. Shantaram not only directed the film but also played the title role of Shivaji. Earlier titled Swarajyache Toran (Flag of Self-rule), it was re-titled because the Censor Board saw it as an implicit attempt to propagate the Indian Freedom Movement.
When the first Indian talkie Alam Ara was released in 1931, Prabhat decided to make their first sound film: Ayodhyecha Raja. But before that they had another decision to make: to be able to work in silence (the prime requisite for a sound film in those days) the fledgling Prabhat Film Company would have to shift its base from its city location at Managalwar Peth to Tarabai Park, then on the outskirts of Kolhapur.
Ayodhyecha Raja (Marathi) or Ayodhya Ka Raja (Hindi) (The King of Ayodhya) went on to become the first bilingual in the history of Indian cinema. This decision to make the film in two languages was crucial to not only Prabhat but the entire film industry since it set the pattern for much of the filmmaking on the western coast in the 1930s.
Three of the eight films made in the first year of Marathi cinema were made by Prabhat Film Company. These were Ayodhyecha Raja, Agni Kankan (Branded Oath) and Maya Machhindra (Illusion), all directed by V. Shantaram.
In 1933, Shantaram embarked on an ambitious venture of making the first Indian film in colour: Sairandhari. The film was based on a popular chracter from the Mahabharata. The colour film was shot at the Prabhat Studios in India and sent for processing to the UFA Studio, Germany. Unhappy with the final result which seemed too gaudy for exhibition, the meticulous partners of Prabhat decided to "can" the film.
Having studied the work of the Expressionist German filmmakers while he was at the UFA Studios for Sairandhari, Shantaram experimented with light and shade for his next film Amrit Manthan (1933) (The Churning of Oceans).
Based on Narayan Hari Apte’s novel Bhagyashree, the film is the story of a reformist king pitted against his fanatical Rajguru (head priest), who insists on animal sacrifice and ends up offering his own head to the demanding Goddess. Implicit to the story was its raising a voice against religious obscurantism and bigotry.
Shantaram was the first Indian filmmaker to use a telephoto lens to shoot the first close-up for Amrit Manthan (using a telephoto lens specially imported from Germany). The Dharmaguru’s malevolent eye filling the entire screen was a shocking sight to the 1930s viewer and became the talk of the town.
Amrit Manthan became the first Hindi film to celebrate a Silver Jubilee, running for 25 weeks at a single theatre.
Shantaram returned to his new form with Amar Jyoti (Immortal Flame) (1936), about a queen who becomes a sea pirate when she is denied the custody of her son because of the patriarchal laws of the kingdom.
Disguised as a costume adventure, the film raises a voice in support of women’s emancipation. The presence of Durga Khote, Shanta Apte and Vasanti Ghorpade ensured a long run at the box office.
Amrit Manthan and Amar Jyoti suggested a new style of filmmaking and a new grammar of Indian cinema. The themes were fresh, the scripting style was terse, the visuals were crisp and the films themselves slick.
But these years were only a preparation for the final glorious half-a-decade to come (1937-42) when three of the finest films of social relevance would emerge from Prabhat, placing the company on the national map and consolidating Shantaram's reputation as an all-time great.
The first of these three films was Kunku (Marathi), or Duniya Na Mane (Hindi), (Unexpected) in 1937, based on a successful novel by Narayan Hari Apte centering around the implicitly dual theme of a May-December second marriage and women’s emancipation.
Keshavrao Date played the ageing husband who marries a young girl (Shanta Apte) who refuses to give in to his demands to consummate the marriage, preferring to suffer social scorn over injustice.
The next film Manoos (Marathi) or Aadmi (Hindi) (Life Is For Living) was based on an unusual theme: a honest policeman's love for a prostitute and his attempts to rehabilitate her.
It is often said that Shantaram made the film as a counterpoint to the wave of romantic depression sweeping the youth of the country, following the popularity of the Hindi film Devdas. This explains the film's sub-title "Life Is For Living".
Soon after the release of Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani, Shantaram re-edited the film and readied the English version The Journey of Dr. Kotnis. The English version was shown at the India League in London and eventually bought for distribution in England.
Shantaram felt that it had a good chance of success in America and so, decided to take it there for a possible sale. He also felt that his film Shakuntala had a fair chance of success so he carried it along too.
Before Shantaram's trip to the United States he read a script by G.D.Madgulkar on the 19th-century Brahmin poet Ram Joshi, who had devoted himself to the folk art of tamasha and the writing of lavni, a bawdy form of romantic poetry. The film Lok Shahir Ram Joshi (Marathi) or Matwala Shair Ram Joshi (Hindi) (Folk Poet Ram Joshi) (1947) was assigned to his mentor Baburao Painter, although Shantaram had to reshape and complete it on his return.
The film Amar Bhoopali (Marathi) or The Immortal Song, Le Chant Immortel (1951) was on the life and times of the poet Honaji Bala, played by actor-singer Panditrao Nagarkar. The film bagged the Grand Prix for the Best Sound Recording awarded by the Centre National de la Cinematographic, Pais at the Cannes Film Festival, 1952.
When two of his socially relevant films Surang (Tunnel) and Subah Ka Tara (Morning Star) did not do too well, Shantaram realized that the new audience of the 1950s wanted pure unadulterated entertainment.
Picking up an age-old story he made Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje (1955) (The Tinkling of the Anklets), a dance extravaganza which ushered in an era of colour films. There was no message but the film was packed with song, dance and colour. It was a romance of two young dancers told entirely in the dance format. The film was a stupendous hit and continues to be an enduring landmark of Indian cinema today.
Shantaram’s next film Do Aankhen Barah Haath (Two Hands Twelve Eyes) (1957) saw a return to form. The story was to test Shantaram’s calibre: a fine blend of entertainment with social commitment. The film is based on a true-life incident which took place in the small kingdom of Aundh in pre-Independent India.
Do Aankhen Barah Haath (Two Eyes Twelve Hands) (1957) is a story of an idealistic jailor who is given permission to try out his concept of open-jail reform on six hardened criminals and how he keeps them together with sheer moral force.
When the subject first came to him Shantaram instinctively knew that the film could only be made in stark black and white if it were to be really effective. It requires a man of courage to reverse a trend he has himself set. Reminiscent of vintage Shantaram, the film became an instant hit.
After the film Do Aankhen Barah Haath, Shantaram turned entertainer with a vengeance. Perhaps the huge commercial and artistic success of his earlier film was the reason for the decision; or it was necessitated by changing times.
Always eager to set trends Shantaram turned to colour when others in the industry were still thinking about it. Navrang (Nine Colours) (1959) had just the right blend of romance, colour, songs, dance, nostalgia and narration to become a huge success.
Most of Shantaram’s cinematic innovation was now concentrated in the songs. He seemed to have entered a brand new phase of spectacular entertainers, overflowing with songs and dances.
These included Stree (1961), Sehra (1963), Geet Gaya Pathoron Ne (1964) and Boond Jo Ban Gayi Moti (1967). The films had good mix of music and story, which appealed to the viewers. Shantaram’s reputation as the maker of the most magical movies remained intact.
Shantaram’s next two films, the bilingual Ladki Sahyadri Ki/ Iye Marathichiye Nagari and Jal Bin Machchli Nritya Bin Bijli did not do well commercially. However, he had one last hurrah; Pinjra (1972) (Cage), which struck a chord in the Maharashtrian heart.
Adapted from the German film Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), noted Marathi filmmaker Anant Mane told the story of an idealistic schoolmaster (Dr. Shriram Lagoo) who is seduced by a dancer (Sandhya) and who is eventually accused of his own murder.
Shridhar Pant feels he has killed the idealistic schoolmaster in him and so, pleads guilty to the charge. Pinjra (1972) was the first Marathi film in colour. The film had the perfect mix of narrative, social flavour and opportunity for song-and-dance. The vintage Shantaram came to the fore and the film was a superhit.
The fact that Shantaram was a past master of the art of story-telling was borne out – not only by the elaboration of his scenes – but by his very choice of stories.
In an era of the 1920s-30s while everyone in the film industry was concentrating on mythologicals and historicals, he made films with a contemporary comment. He did not write a single screenplay, yet his film scripts bear a unique Shantaram stamp.
Shantaram acquired a considerable reputation as a master director of international class. This was only possible because he was a master craftsman and technician.
Shantaram’s love for the technology of cinema was from his mentor Baburao Painter. Perhaps, his greatest contribution as a director was that he understood the role of the various technicians and blended them into the making of the film.
Many of V. Shantaram’s films garnered national and international honours but the film that topped all others was Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957) (Two Eyes Twelve Hands). It won the Silver Bear for Extraordinary Prize of the Jury, at the Berlin Film Festival 1958. The film also won a Special Prize from the International Catholic Cinematographic Bureau.
Having devoted 79 of his 89 years to the entertainment industry in India, V. Shantaram went on to become a father figure for the entire Indian film industry and one of its many legends. He was an institution in his own right - an institution much larger than the one he himself had built and nurtured in a lifetime spanning a century of cinema.
Photographs from the archives of: V. Shantaram Motion Picture and Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation.
Special Thanks to Kiran V. Shantaram son of
Text & Curation: Sanjit Narwekar
Inputs: Vinay Newalkar