Pioneer of Indian Cinema
Rarely has cinema – Indian or international – seen a filmmaker as complete as V. Shantaram. A consummate actor, an innovative editor, an insightful director and a producer. He was a filmmaker of many talents and evolved a new style of filmmaking and grammar. As an actor he played the lead in at least two landmark Indian films, which were also directed by him. As a producer his films dealt with social, economic and political problems of a society struggling under the colonial rule and later as a country trying to establish its place as a nation.
Portrait of V. ShantaramV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
The second of five sons, Shantaram, in spite of the impoverished circumstances of his father’s household, had a carefree lively and almost pampered childhood. Not interested in studies, he went to school only because he could not avoid it.
Photographic Still from the musical drama Saubhadra.V. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Photograph of V. Shantaram from his childhoodV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
V. Shantaram during his days of working at the Railways WorkshopV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Photograph of V. Shantaram in his yourhV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Baburao Painter mentor to V. ShantaramV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Film Still of V. Shantaram (right) from his early days as an actor.V. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
When Shantaram joined the Maharashtra Film Company in 1919, Painter was already a name to reckon with. The company was then the centre of activity and the ideal training ground for all enthusiastic youngsters who wanted to make a career in the new medium.
The aspirants were expected to roam from department to department, imbibing whatever they could through observation. It is said that Baburao Painter’s institution gave the Marathi film industry more than 250 to 300 personnel in various departments in the years to come.
A new dawn
Shantaram was fired with the zeal to do something new, something different and daring. There were three others like him. They all wanted to start a company of their own – and they had even roped in a financer. The four would-be partners were V. Shantaram, Keshavrao Dhaiber, Vishnupant Damle and S.Fatehlal. The fifth to join them was their financing partner Sitaram Kulkarni. The company was the Prabhat Film Company at the Mangalwar Peth in Kolhapur. The date was June 1, 1929.
Photographic Still from the film Sinhgad (1923) produced by the Maharashtra Film Company.V. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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).
V. Shantaram with co-director Keshavrao DhaiberV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Photographic Still of V. Shantaram playing the role of the warrior king Shivaji in the Marathi film Udaykal (1931)V. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Film Still of the first Marathi talkie film in India Ayodhyecha Raja (The King of Ayodhya) 1932V. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
V. Shantaram with team of technicians from UFA Studios, Germany.V. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
It was during the making of Sairandhari that the partners decided to shift from Kolhapur to Pune, which was a much more convenient locale from the point of view of future expansion and the availability of facilities such as electricity. Besides this, it was also closer to Bombay, which was slowly emerging as the major cosmopolitan filmmaking and distribution centre. The first film to be produced in this newly tin-built sound-proof studio in Pune was "Amrit Manthan" (1934).
Actor Chandramohan as the fanatical Rajguru in Amrit Manthan (1934)V. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Film Still of an extreme close up shot from AmritmanthanV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Film Still from V. Shantaram's Amar JyotiV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Portrait of V. ShantaramV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Photographic Still of actress Shanta Apte from the film Kunku (Duniya Na Mane)V. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Film Still of Shanta Hubilkar from Manoos (Life Is for Living)V. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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".
Film Still of V. Shantaram (right) from ShejariV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
The final film of this triumvirate was Shejari (Marathi) or Padosi (Hindi), (Neighbours), Shantaram's last film in the Prabhat fold. Made in 1941, the film tells the story of changing relationships between two neighbours: a Hindu and a Muslim.
V. Shantaram enacting a scene to his actors on the sets of the film ShejariV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
There are several other strands in the story but the focus is on two men who represent communal harmony and the well-being of the village, which is torn asunder when the two quarrel.
Setting up Rajkamal Kalamandir
After a successful run at the box office with Prabhat, it was time to part ways. Shantaram's genius could not be contained and he decided to move away from Pune to Bombay. If Prabhat was the beginning then Rajkamal was the culmination. Rajkamal Kalamandir Studio was set up as a tribute to his parents Rajaram and Kamalabai in 1942.
Film review of V. Shantaram's film Shakuntala in Film DailyV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
The two films were distributed by Mayer & Burstyn and were received well in America. The Film Daily even carried a feature on Shakuntala.
Film Still from Lok Shahir RamjoshiV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Dancer Gopi Krishna and Actor Sandhya in Jhanak Jhanak Payal BaajeV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Poster of film Do Aankhen Barah HaathV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Film Still from V. Shantaram's Do Aankhen Barah HaathV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Photographic Still from the film NavrangV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Film Still of actor Sandhya and Shreeram Lagoo in Pinjara (Cage)V. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Film Still of actor Shreeram Lagoo in PinjaraV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
Awards and Honours
The Cannes Grand Prix Award for best sound recording for film Amar Bhoopali (The Immortal Song)V. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
The film Amar Bhoopali (1952) (The Immortal Song) won the Cannes Grand Prix Award for best sound recording.
V. Shantaram with the Silver Bear AwardV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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.
V. Shantaram with wife and actor Sandhya receiving the Samuel Goldwyn International Film AwardV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
The Hollywood Press Association conferred on it the Samuel Goldwyn International Film Award for the Best Foreign Film. There was no doubt that Do Aankhen Barah Haath (Two Eyes Twelve Hands) was his crowning achievement as an actor-producer-director.
V. Shantaram honoured with a D.Litt. by the University of Nagpur (1980)V. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
V. Shantaram was honoured with a D.Litt by the University of Nagpur (1980)
V. Shantaram conferred with the Dadasaheb Phalke award for Lifetime Achievement (1986)V. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
V. Shantaram was granted the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for Lifetime Achievement (1986), the highest award in Indian cinema.
Photograph of V. Shantaram reading a book during his later yearsV. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation
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