Kalpana Lajmi passes away: Her films brought sidelined issues into mainstream Bollywood

Gautam Chintamani

Sep,23 2018 13:04:49 IST

A filmmaker whose impact far exceeds the credit that was awarded to her, Kalpana Lajmi was also amongst the finest chroniclers of emotions on celluloid. The filmmaker had been battling kidney cancer since 2017 and passed on in the early hours of 23 September 2018.

Although her name might not readily make it to the top across most lists of influential filmmakers, her cinema included some stand out films such as Ek Pal (1986), Rudaali (1993) and Darmiyaan: In Between (1997), which was one of the first mainstream films that addressed the third gender. What made Ms Lajmi a truly great filmmaker was not just the manner in which her films captured many wonderful moments or the zeitgeist or spoke about real people but how they managed to leave an indelible impression both on the medium as well as the audiences.

Kalpana Lajmi passes away aged 64; filmmaker battled year-long kidney ailment

Born in 1954, Kalpana Lajmi’s world was influenced by all forms of art right from her birth. Her mother, Lalita Lajmi, was an artist and her uncle Guru Dutt was one of the biggest names in the world of Bombay cinema. She began her film career as an assistant to Shyam Benegal, who was also related to her family, on films such as Bhumika (1977) and Mandi (1983). Although the Parallel Cinema movement in India began in the late 1960s with Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti (1969) and Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969) and craved a new identity with Benegal’s advent in the mid-1970s but it was towards the end of the decade and the early 1980s where it truly came into its own.

Kalpana Lajmi, 64, passed away on 23 September 2018. Image via YouTube

Kalpana Lajmi, 64, passed away on 23 September 2018. Image via YouTube

This was a period where the familiar faces from art-house films were considered big enough to take on commercial stars and its storytellers and directors the ones who were transforming Indian cinema. Although she was surrounded by some of the trailblazers, Lajmi’s learning ground was not limited to fictional storytelling. The honing of her craft and the ingenuity of her cinematic skills happened with a series of documentary films that Lajmi made in this period and gave her narrative the kind of poignancy that would soon become her signature.

Lajmi’s debut film, Ek Pal featured Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Farooq Shaikh and, in a departure from what the audiences were fed for years, gave Hindi films one of its most realistic portrayal of men and women. Adultery has been handled with much bizarreness across decades in Hindi films but in Ek Pal the narrative refused to attach any apology to the woman and in fact, the film’s characters look as fresh as they did at the time of the film’s release as they did 14 years later when Mahesh Manjrekar's Astitva (2000) explored somewhat similar terrain. Ek Pal also marked the Hindi debut of the legendary Bhupen Hazarika, who composed the songs, and was Lajmi’s companion for over 40 years. Earlier this month, Lajmi’s book Bhupen Hazarika - As I Knew Him was released in Mumbai by Shyam Benegal but Lajmi couldn’t make it to the launch due to her ill health.

Bhupen Hazarika: As I Knew Him — Kalpana Lajmi's memoir provides a glimpse of the man behind the legend

There was a hiatus of nearly seven years before Lajmi’s next film, but Rudaali was more than worth the delay. If the 1980s were a period where actors who became prominent thanks to their art-house outings got mainstream recognition, the 1990s were a decade where the reverse happened. Lajmi took one of the most glamorous mainstream stars such as Dimple Kapadia and cast her in a role that few would have imagined that she could not only pull off but also do justice to.

Based on a story by Mahasweta Devi, Rudaali featured Kapadia as Shanichari, a widow whose life has been besieged with misfortune, and the hardships have ensured that there is not a single drop of tear within her. Besides fetching great critical acclaim and Dimple Kapadia her National Award, Rudaali also enjoyed commercial success where both the film as well as it’s music by Bhupen Hazarika created a new standard for what the industry termed ‘hatke’ films. In fact, one could even say that as a moment Rudaali was perhaps in some ways the near perfect culmination of the art-house and the hardcore commercial Bombay cinema.

The success of Rudaali opened doors for Lajmi unlike ever before and the extent of it can be gauged from the fact that how for a brief period one of the fastest rising stars in Bombay was attached to play the lead in her film, Darmiyaan: In Between. There were reports that Shah Rukh Khan was slated to play the role of the hermaphrodite offspring, Immi, of a popular actress of the 1940s portrayed by Kirron Kher and although ultimately it was Arif Zakaria who played the role, the news nonetheless ensured that Lajmi was being seen as a filmmaker of significance. Although the year Darmiyaan: In Between finally released also saw Mahesh Bhatt’s Tammana (1997) where Paresh Rawal played a similar character and despite the latter enjoying greater commercial success, Lajmi’s film also played a great role in bringing third gender identity, issues and relationships from sidelines of mainstream ‘Bollywood' to the center.

In retrospect, it might be easy to believe that Lajmi managed to break through due to the environment where the so-called smaller films enjoyed enough patronage and platforms such as NFDC (National Film Development Corporation of India) came to the aide of filmmakers swimming against the tide. But the truth lies elsewhere.

The era in which Kalpana Lajmi made some of her best films was far from easy on the kind of cinema that defined her.

Even after a Rudaali it might not have been as easy to attract not just a star big enough to get financiers interested and the audiences intrigued but Lajmi managed to line everything up just fine on a few occasions. One such instance was Daman: A Victim of Marital Violence (2001) that featured a big star, Raveena Tandon, in a kind of a script that mainstream Hindi films back then would try not to take head-on — domestic violence. Daman might not have been as subtle as some of Lajmi’s previous films and even played to the gallery when it came to certain characters such as Sayaji Shine’s Sanjay Saikia, the husband who revels in being violent towards his wife, Durga (Raveena Tandon, who won a National Award for the film) but still managed to create enough awareness with regard to the plight of women across many parts of India.

The last film that Kalpana Lajmi directed, Chingaari (2006) was over a decade ago. The film featured Sushmita Sen besides Mithun Chakraborty and dealt with the abuse of power at the hands of priests in a nondescript Indian village. It got Lajmi some of the worst reviews of her career and she never got make a film again. The change that Indian films and television have witnessed in the last few years especially where the platform to exhibit films no longer dictates terms would have been the ideal environment for a storyteller such as Kalpana Lajmi. There is a quote by Robert Kennedy that somewhere best describes the artist that Kalpana Lajmi was: Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events.

It is thanks to filmmakers like Lajmi that things became easy for the generation that followed, which besides the moments that her films captured, is what Kalpana Lajmi leaves behind.

Updated Date: Sep 23, 2018 13:04 PM