Kumar Shahani, one of the leading figures of Indian arthouse cinema, died on Saturday after a fall in Kolkata. He was 83. Over the course of a career that spanned six decades, Shahani directed such formally rigorous films as Maya Darpan (1972), Tarang (1984), Khayal Gatha (1989) and Kasba (1990).

He was born on December 7, 1940, in Larkana, Sindh, in undivided India. His family moved to Mumbai after Partition.

Shahani studied Political Science and History at the University of Bombay, after which he enrolled at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. There, during the course of taking a course in writing and direction, Shahani met the iconoclastic director Ritwik Ghatak. Shahani and Mani Kaul later emerged as Ghatak’s most well-known disciples, fusing influences of Ghatak in their own films as well as deconstructing Ghatak’s aesthetic approach for future generations.

Shahani’s first feature was Maya Darpan. The adaptation of a story by Nirmal Verma was shot by KK Mahajan and completed in 1972.

Set in newly independent India, Maya Darpan examines, through the experiences of a young woman, the yet-unresolved tensions between the ruling class and workers. The movie was celebrated for its daring formalism as well as striking colour imagery.

Shahani explores the “process of breaking the cycle of repression and exploitation into a zone of freedom” through an idiom that includes “duplicated shots, redundant compositions and repeated actions and dialog”, the blog The Seventh Art commented.

Shahani struggled for 12 years to raise finances for his next feature, Tarang. The movie continued Shahani’s preoccupation with the corrupting power of money and the conflict between a capitalist economic structure and the working class. Amol Palekar plays an amoral businessman who gets involved with a trade union leader’s wife, played by Smita Patil.

In an interview with Rafique Baghdadi and Rajiv Rao for the book Talking Films, Shahani spoke of applying the elements of Indian epic forms to a film about industrial society in 1980s India: “What I wanted to do was to take into account the way our traditions are surviving in popular art. Both folk and popular art always have epic elements. Even pulp literature is a distortion of the epic form.”

Khayal Gatha (1989) is a fictionalised representation of the evolution of khayal singing in Hindustani classical music. Shahani’s fourth feature, Kasba (1990) used stunning imagery inspired by the Kangra painting tradition while translocating Russian writer Anton Chekov’s novella In the Gully to Himachal Pradesh.

Like Maya Darpan, Kasba, shot by KK Mahajan, is renowned for its use of colour. The film, starring Manohar Singh, Mita Vashisht, Raghubir Yadav and Shatrughan Sinha, critiques the transactional nature of relationships.

Mita Vashisht in Kasba (1991). Courtesy National Film Development Corporation/Doordarshan.

Char Adhyay (1997), inspired by the Rabindranath Tagore novel, examines the intellectual and political energies that animated Bengal in the 1930s and 1940s.

Shahani also directed several short films and documentaries, including Bhavantarana (1991), which explores Odissi dance through Kelucharan Mohapatra, and The Bamboo Flute (2000), about the centrality of the musical instrument to Indian tradition.

Shahani had an abiding interest in psychoanalysis. Among his several unfinished projects was Memoir of the Future, a fantasy feature on British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion.

The unfilmed screenplays include an adaptation of Anna Karenina and a biopic on Amrita Sher-Gil. He also planned, but never developed, a Hamlet adaptation with Michael Jackson, Ashish Rajadhyaksha wrote in his introduction to Kumar Shahani The Shock of Desire and Other Essays (Tulika Books, 2015).

Shahani worked futilely for years on The Cotton Project. Meant to be filmed in India, Europe, Africa and the United States, the film hoped to examine the material nature of cotton as well as its cultural value.

In 1998, Shahani wrote: “The art of cinema has, from the very beginning, in varied cultures, shown up reality to be fantastic, or, fantasy to go beyond the imagination in the real. Aesthetic theories which bind themselves to the image or to other thought processes or to grammar, opposing one another, probably ignore that praxis works from the overlap of pleasure and pain. Cinema is so full of signs that it should exclude reductive readings.”

Guftagoo with Kumar Shahani.

Also read:

Russian literature and Kangra painting meet in ‘Kasba’

Return to the epics: How Kumar Shahani infuses ancient themes with new meaning in his films