It’s a timeless debate: does art imitate life or vice versa? This unresolved equation often found reflection in the journey of filmmaker and writer Kalpana Lajmi, who died on Sunday aged 64 after a battle with cancer of the kidney.

Celebrated for her award-winning movies that brought marginalised voices to attention, Lajmi had all but faded from public memory in her last years. But even when she was in the spotlight, the media wasn’t always her friend. As a high-profile woman who made unconventional choices for her time, Lajmi’s personal life was grist for the rumour mill.

At the age of 17, Lajmi entered into a relationship with a man 28 years her senior, Bhupen Hazarika. The two had a long and fruitful professional and personal partnership, living together till Hazarika’s death in November 2011, but never marrying. The Assamese cultural legend, who had an estranged wife and a son, was revered in his home state and had won some India’s topmost laurels in his lifetime, including a Padma Bhushan, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award and the Sangeet Natak Fellowship Award. Given Hazarika’s iconic status and India’s patriarchal culture, it was Lajmi who had to face much of the criticism and condemnation for their relationship.

The theme of a lone woman battling the odds in a society that has shunned her for defying the norm could be seen in all of Lajmi’s movies, from her debut feature film Ek Pal (1986) to her last directorial venture, Chingaari (2006).

Ek Pal explored female desire and marital dysfunction through the story of Priyam (Shabana Azmi) who reunites with her gregarious ex-lover Jeet Barua (Farooq Shaikh) when her marriage with the straight-jacketed Dev (Naseeruddin Shah) is on the rocks. The film, with a screenplay by Lajmi and music by Hazarika, painted an evocative picture of the lonely world of the wives of Assam’s elite tea estate owners and the quest for meaning beyond wealth.

Lajmi’s skill as filmmaker was evident in her debut work. Ek Pal sketched a well-rounded portrait of Priyam, capturing her loneliness and depression as she spends her days confined to her large home when her husband becomes increasingly preoccupied with work. Lajmi created a stirring portrait of a wealthy housewife whose zest for life has been stifled by the humdrum of an ungratifying marriage. This is not the life Priyam was meant to live – we were introduced to her as someone vivacious and thirsting for adventure.

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Ek Pal (1986)

Lajmi’s career peaked with her second film, Rudaali (1993), based on a short story by Mahasweta Devi, which tackled such profound themes as grief and the importance of mourning. Caste, class and gender discrimination come together in the character of Shanichari (Dimple Kapadia), whose name, which means ill-fated, is given to after her father died days after her birth. Soon after, her mother runs away to join a theatre troupe. Her alcoholic husband dies young, leaving her with a son, who also betrays her. Through these series of misfortunes, Shanichari is unable to shed a tear. In contrast to Shanichari are the professional mourners or rudaalis, women who are paid to mourn at the funerals of wealthy men. Shanichari’s inability to grieve is highlighted when she crosses paths with Bhikni (Rakhee), a rudaali who stays with her for a few weeks while waiting for her client to pass away.

With a sublime soundtrack by Hazarika, Rudaali was one of Lajmi’s most acclaimed films, winning Kapadia a National Film Award for Best Actress.

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Rudaali (1993)

Lajmi’s later films lacked the same wisdom as Ek Pal and Rudaali. Still, Darmiyaan (1997) was novel in that it centred on two unlikely protagonists – a vain and aging actress and her transgender son.

The film stars Kirron Kher as the morally grey Zeenat, who struggles to come to terms with her fading relevance in an industry where women have a small shelf life. Such is her vanity that her son, Immi (Arif Zakaria) has to pretend to be her younger brother.

Though its ideas of gender identity would seem problematic today, the movie was far ahead of its time. That it managed to portray a transgender person with empathy and sensitivity and get viewers to sympathise with an aging, arrogant actress who has lost her money to gambling and alcoholism is a testimony to that.

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Darmiyaan (1997)

The message of women’s empowerment came in more shrill forms in Raveena Tandon-starrer Daman (2001) and Chingaari (2006), with Sushmita Sen in the lead.

Daman tackled domestic violence through the character of Durga (Tandon), a poor woman who is married into a wealthy family in Assam. Durga is routinely abused by her husband Sanjay (Sayaji Shinde) and eventually runs away with their child.

Chingaari, Lajmi’s last film, took on the abuse of power by holy men. The film was centred on Basanti (Sen), a prostitute whose hopes of a better life are dashed when a priest (Mithun Chakravarty), one of her regular clients, murders her lover (Anuj Sawhney), whom she is about to marry.

While Daman received critical acclaim and won Tandon a National Film Award for her performance, Chingaari failed to do well at the box office.

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Chingaari (2006)

Motherhood was another common theme in Lajmi’s films. Ek Pal’s feminist overtones emerge most clearly when Priyam becomes pregnant. In Rudaali, Shanichari’s relationship with her mother is what that has the most profound impact on her life. In Darmiyaan, Immi’s identity crisis doesn’t just come from his gender – his tenuous relationship with his mother, who he has to pretend is his sister, has an equally significant impact. In both Chingaari and Daman, it is the hope for a better life for their children that drives the protagonists’ quests. And in all the films, motherhood is ultimately shown to be a force that conquers all.

It is this aspect of her filmmaking that most reflects the art versus life debate. Lajmi never had children of her own. In an interview, she said that though she loved children, bringing one up outside of marriage in India would have been difficult.

Once hailed as one of the most promising Bollywood directors, Lajmi’s career took a backseat in Hazarika’s later years, which were plagued with ill health. Soon after, her own illness took over. But before she died, Lajmi was hoping to give one last creative offering to the world – a biopic on Hazarika. Though the film project moved slowly, owing to Lajmi’s health, she never quite gave up on it. In her rare media appearances and interviews, Lajmi would reiterate her intention to bring the project on track, whenever her health would permit.

That swan song never materialised in its original form, but earlier this month, Lajmi unveiled a literary tribute to her long-time partner, her memoir, Bhupen Hazarika: As I Knew Him. The book was launched in Mumbai on September 8 in the company of her mother, artist Lalitha Lajmi, uncle Shyam Benegal, and several members of the film industry. The ailing filmmaker couldn’t make it to the event herself. A fortnight after seeing her final project through, Kalpana Lajmi breathed her last.