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Kumar Shahani is one of the most eloquent and influential of contemporary Indian filmmakers. Widely known for having developed an ‘epic idiom’ and for his unique visual explorations of the arts, Kumar Shahani’s first feature Maya Darpan (1972) was regarded as India’s first formalist film, attracting comparison with Pier Paolo Pasolini, Andrei Tarkovsky and Jacques Rivette among others. Shahani’s cinema was deeply influenced by Ritwik Ghatak (his professor and mentor at the Film Institute in Pune) and Robert Bresson, who took him on the set of Une femme douce (1969) while living in Paris. Politically active in the May 1968 movements, Shahani later investigated questions of nationalism and the impact of capitalism on both feudal/patriarchal systems and the Left movement.
His third feature-length film, Khayal Ghata explores the vocal tradition of the ‘Khayal’, a form of classical music established in the 18th century. By emphasising sequence rather than discrete notes or the rhythmic cycle, Khayal was often based on improvisation thus remaining free to assimilate the widest range of the musical elements from as far as Central Asia, Turkey and Persia. The film is presented in an abstract format, where a music student (Rajat Kapoor, in his acting debut) listens to stories and legends about the birth and evolution of the Khayal form of classical Indian singing. These stories are re-enacted by actors Kapoor, Mangal Dhillon and Mita Vasisht, who play several key figures from the history of classical music. The result is a visually stunning narration condensing legend, history and poetry, emphasising hybridity in all cultural practices.
Between 2003 and 2006, the Australian Cinémathèque undertook a major restoration project to preserve four of Shahani’s films and bring them into the Queensland Art Gallery collection – The Khayal Saga (1988), Kasba (1990), Immanence (1991) and The Bamboo Flute (2000).
With special thanks to Rosy Hays and Amanda Slack-Smith
Cast and Credits
Scen.: Kumar Shahani. F.: K.K. Mahajan. M.: Paresh Kamdar. Scgf.: Anoop Singh. Int.: Mangal Dhillon, Naviyot Hansra, Rajat Kapoor, Alaknanda Samarth, Alpana Shukla, Mita Vasisht. Prod.: Maydhya Pradesh Film Development Corporation. 35mm. Col.
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Lezione di cinema. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur e Omar Ahmed dialogano con Girish Kasaravalli e Kumar Shahani (streaming)