A graduate of the FTII, avant-garde director Kumar Shahani’s political outlook may have largely been shaped by the Naxalite movement but his aesthetic sensibilities were forged in France whilst assisting Robert Bresson on Une Femme Douce (A Gentle Woman, 1969). Additionally, Shahani was also taught by Bengali iconoclast Ritwik Ghatak in his brief spell at the FTII and the unconventional, personal approach to making films has led to a career in art cinema which seems to have gone unacknowledged in his country of origin. His directorial debut Maya Darpan (1972) is recognised by many as India’s first formalist film but subsequently he struggled to find funding to develop his interests in the avant-garde. Both Tarang (1984) and Kasba (1990) were financed by the NFDC and are two of Shahani’s most accessible films. Neither of them are what we would consider to be mainstream but the melodrama trappings elucidates a concern with feudal systems in which power relations are contested amongst the family. I do know that Shahani’s work has been screened in retrospectives in the west and that a lot of the prints to his major works have been restored. Nevertheless, I saw Kasba on a VCD copy and it was surprisingly good but I could see how Shahani’s film would benefit from a new print given the creative use of colour cinematography seems intrinsic to the seasonal landscapes.
Released in 1990 Kasba is one of the slowest and most compelling Indian films I have come across in a while. It is unlike anything I have encountered before in Indian cinema and whilst Ghatak was a direct influence on Shahani, two films in particular from the work of Satyajit Ray come to mind – Charulata and Kanchenjunga. Adapted from a short story by Chekov titled ‘In The Ravine’, Kasba was shot in the Kangra Valley – a picturesque tourist spot that is framed by the snow capped Himalayan mountains. The story itself is complicated to the say the least and Shahani’s repeated use of narrative ellipsis means one has to do a lot of detective work, piecing together and inferring from the behaviour of the many characters as to what has occurred in the development of the storyline. Thematically, Shahani’s interest is with the passing of a feudal system in which patriarchy is represented as inadequate to deal with and respond to modernity. Ideologically, the notion of change is manifested in the character of Tejo (Mita Vasisht) who runs the family business in the absence of two ‘fallen’ brothers unable to come to terms with their hereditary obligations.
One of the most impressive aesthetic elements of Kasba is the positioning of the camera, moving only to parallel the psychological and emotional mood of the characters, whilst windows and doorways are used repeatedly throughout to frame the actions of characters so that the exterior landscapes merge seamlessly with the interiors creating a feeling of social inertia and even rural decadence. At times, Shahani’s emphasis on the rituals and traditions tied up in the history of the family recalls a philosophical approach characteristic of anthropologists. Shahani’s observation of life in the Kangra Valley is measured in the vivid use of natural sounds to which the ambitious and ruthless Tejo becomes impervious. Of course, it the naturalism of the soundtrack that is used in opposition to the destruction of the family and Tejo’s desire to inherit the ancestral wealth including the land leads to the ostracizing of Tara (sister in law) and the death of her child. In terms of visual composition, Shahani relies greatly on the master shot and much of the narrative action unfolds an organic pace in keeping with the ruralism whilst the interiors are dominated by miniature art representative of Kangra valley culture. In many ways, the characters aside from Tejo seem trapped in the past, paralysed by tradition and their sense of inertia is personified by such antiquated tapestry. Released when parallel cinema was reaching its epoch of creativity, Kasba is a major achievement and in the words of Rajadhyaksha and Willemen, ‘the film’s main generic achievement is to recall to the melodrama its original function, of integrating marginalised people and their languages into a mainstream culture’.