Filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi died in Mumbai early on Sunday morning after a battle with kidney cancer.

Born on May 31, 1954, Lajmi grew up in Mumbai with her younger brother, Devdas. She was the daughter of Navy captain Gopi Lajmi and painter Lalitha Lajmi. Her maternal uncle was the renowned director Guru Dutt.

Lajmi was also related to filmmaker Shyam Benegal, a maternal cousin with whom she worked as an assistant director. Her first assignment was as a costume assistant on the set of Bhumika (1977), starring Smita Patil in the lead. She graduated to the post of assistant director in Mandi (1983). Before she ventured into filmmaking, Lajmi was offered the role of Zeenat Aman in Heera Panna (1973), but she declined the offer by actor-director Dev Anand.

In 1971, when Lajmi was studying psychology at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, she met music composer Bhupen Hazarika, who was then scoring the music for Aarop, a film directed by Lajmi’s uncle Atma Ram. It was released in 1974. Her meeting with Hazarika blossomed into a relationship and later into a fruitful professional collaboration.

In 1978, Lajmi opened her co-production company with Hazarika and they started making documentaries such as D.G. Movie Pioneer (1978), A Work Study in Tea Plucking (1979) and Along The Brahmaputra (1981), before she moved on to feature films with Ek Pal (1986), starring Shabana Azmi and Farooque Shaikh.

Ek Pal dealt with the themes of female sexuality and extra-marital affairs. Lajmi co-wrote the script with Gulzar. Hazarika composed the music, blending folk and modern elements into the melodies. The film was critically acclaimed and it launched Lajmi’s career in an industry where few women had ventured into film direction.

The opening titles of Ek Pal (1986).

In 1988, Lajmi expanded her scope to television when she directed the serial Lohit Kinare. In 1993, she returned to the big screen with Rudaali. The film featured Dimple Kapadia the National Film Award for Best Actress and the haunting raag-based compositions by Hazarika, especially the song Dil Hoom Hoom Kare in raga Bhopali, were immensely popular.

Lajmi explored the themes of female sexuality and women’s empowerment in her films. In her career spanning four decades, she remained focused on putting women in the centre of her stories. She considered herself as a humanist filmmaker, highlighting women’s issues in her four subsequent movies, Darmiyaan (1997), Daman (2011), Kyon (2003) and Chingaari (2006). Dismissing labels bandied around her women-oriented films in an interview, Lajmi defended her beliefs. “I have never been consciously feminist. I am more a humanist,” said Lajmi.

Dil Hoom Hoom Kare from Rudaali (1993).