Cinema can be a powerful vector of social transformation and no one has measured it better than the legendary V. Shantaram who used his memorable films to attack the malaise of untouchability and caste, the forced marriages of young women with old people (wealthy), the dowry, communitarianism. and regionalism, as well as to humanize the police, prostitutes and convicts.
And, he was undeterred when one of his brave films went against vested interests.
When his “Apna Desh (Hindi)/Nam Nadu (Tamil)” (1949), an eloquent appeal against the deepening rifts threatening to destabilize the newly independent country, faced an ill-informed, easily influenced, and a malevolent public. media campaign, there were strong backers to make sure she didn’t run into any trouble. They were nothing less than Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Morarji Desai, then India’s Home Ministers and Bombay State Ministers, told of his daughter in his autobiography.
Far ahead of his time but constantly reinventing himself, Shantaram Rajaram Vankudre, or V. Shantaram as he was popularly known, was a pioneer not only of groundbreaking Marathi and Hindi films, but also of the Indian film industry as well. -even, seeing his journey from silent to “speaking”, from black and white to color, from the representation of mythology and historical episodes to the reflection of the immense diversity of contemporary life and society and the infinite spectrum of the human imagination.
Born on this day (18 November) in 1901 in the princely state of Kolhapur, he began his film career in 1920 doing odd jobs on the sets of the Maharashtra Film Company, but rose to prominence when he was drafted in at the last minute to portray Lord Vishnu in “Surekha Haran” (1921).
This started his epic journey. Making his first film “Netaji Palkar” in 1927, he founded the Prabhat Film Company in Pune with his friends in 1929 which produced the first Marathi film “Ayodhyecha Raja” in 1932 under his direction.
Under his direction, Prabhat Films went on to make “Maya Machindra” (1932), “Sairandhri” (1933) — India’s first color film, developed and printed in Germany, “Amrit Manthan” (1934) about a reformist king who forbids the sacrifice of animals and humans in his kingdom and the first Indian film to celebrate a silver jubilee!, “Sant Tukaram” (1936), “Kunku”/ “Duniya Na Mane” (1937) about a forced marriage between an elderly man and a teenage girl, and “Aadmi (Hindi) / Manoos (Marathi)” (1939) about a doomed love affair between a police officer and a prostitute.
Before leaving Prabhat in 1942 to create his own “Rajkamal Kalamandir”, Shantaram made “Shejari (Marathi)/Padosi (Hindi)” (1942) about how foreigners stir up trouble between communities living in peace for their interests acquired – and noted for actor Mazhar Khan playing the role of Pandit and Gajanan Jagirdar playing Mirza.
Prabhat did not survive Shantaram’s exit for long and was soon liquidated – its Pune premises now hosting the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII).
In Rajkamal, Shantaram’s first film was “Shakuntala” (1943) – where his screenwriter Lucknow led to Raja Dushyant, the heroine, Narada and Rishi Vishwamitra reciting in chaste Urdu!, “Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani” (1946 ), “Dahej” (1950) (which Prithviraj Kapoor was brought in to do for just Rs 10,000 against his usual fee of Rs 75,000 and established Lalita Pawar as the evil stepmother), “Teen Batti Char Raasta” ( 1953) (which reflected the situation in Shantaram’s own multicultural family).
But what makes Shantaram immortal is the immaculate and colorful yet dreamlike “Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje” (1955), with its choreographed dances and haunting music, the groundbreaking “Do Aankhen Barah Haath” (1957) about crime, duty and redemption – and the famous song “Ae Malik tere bande ham”, which was adopted in schools as an anthem, and “Navrang” (1959), which also has an ethereal quality, with musical director C. Ramchandra at his best.
Then came “Geet Gaya Patharon Ne” (1964), which was Jeetendra’s first film, and although Shantaram continued directing films until the 1980s, they did not reach the heights of these.
However, he continued to win accolades – as he won the Filmfare Award for Best Director in 1957 for “Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje” and the President’s Silver Medal for Best Hindi Feature Film for him in 1955 as well. as the President’s Gold Medal for the All India Best Feature Film for “Do Aankhen Barah Haath” in 1957, he received the Dadasahab Phalke Award in 1985 and was posthumously awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1992.
Meanwhile, his own life was no less cinematic. Shantaram, who was married three times – before bigamy became a crime for Hindus – also endured a period of self-imposed separation from his family, had many mentors and unappreciated double-dealing partners, faced to love and its sourness, and to jealous rivals trying to bring it down. (including by the first possible phenomenon of “paid information”) but remained unfazed.
He died in 1990, leaving behind his three wives and seven children.