He was associated with the silents, talkies, colour films, stereo sound-track, as an actor, director and producer, carpenter, choreographer and discoverer of new talent.
He was in showbiz for 80 years of his fruitful 90 years, and in films, for an astounding span of 65 years, through 61 films. Fortunately, around 40 of these, all talkies, in Hindi and Marathi, are still accessible.
He made one film in Tamil, ‘Namnadu’ (1949), and released its Hindi version, ‘Apna Desh’ with Telugu songs (by T Suryakumari) in Andhra, both not traceable today. When he was making Kalidas’ ‘Abhignyana Sakunthalam’ for the second time in 1986, he wanted to make it in Telugu also, with NT Rama Rao in the lead. Alas, this did not materialise. Neither did the plan to make ‘Navrang’ in Telugu for which two songs written by Kosaraju and sung by K Jamunarani were recorded by C Ramchandra.
Let’s not break our hearts over the unpicked oysters; let’s count the pearls he left behind, pearls of lasting lustre and pervading influence.
His ‘Aadmi/Manoos’ (1939), made under the Prabhat banner was remade as ‘Vachina Kodalu Nachindi’ (1959, Yoganand /NTR, Jamuna), was a bad film and flopped inspite of a wonderful score by S Dakshnimurthy. This was about a policeman’s love for a prostitute. ‘Dahej’ (1950), about dowry and a dying daughter-in-law, was remade as ‘Bommala Pelli/Bommai Kalyanam’ (1958, RK Krishnaswamy/Sivaji Ganesan, Jamuna). This is one of those rarer films of Sivaji, where he delivers a finely nuanced performance, both Telugu and Tamil versions failed.
The celebrated ‘Do Aankhen Barah Haath’ (1958) was first made as ‘Pallandu Vazhga’ (1975, K Shankar) with MGR in the lead, by whose power over the box-office, it just broke even. The next year saw ‘Ma Daivam’ (1976, SS Balan) with NTR in the lead. A damp squib. The film that melded colour, dance, music and lyric to an unprecedented height, ‘Navrang’ (1959) was remade as ‘Suvarna Sundari’ (1984, Beeraa Mastan Rao). Ramesh Naidu’s pleasant music was lost in the melee created by a new star-cast and inept handling.
In all these films, the adaptations were quite faithful to the originals. the music was created anew and did not lift melodies. And it is not as though the performances were bad; but the magic, the Shantaram touch, was absent.
What about stray influences, in framing, treatment, plot-motivation, music et al? These are not skeletons tumbling out of the cupboard, but the genius’ stimuli that led to the re-creation of something worthwhile. The most rewarding of such was ‘Jayabheri/Kalaivanan’ (1959, Telugu/Tamil). Though its Tamil version sank without a trace, not even the beautiful score of Pendyala appealing to the public, the Telugu version was critically applauded. At least two of the songs, a heavenly combination of lyric/(Malladi) and melody, “Madi sarada devi” and “Rasikaraja” , reverberate in a many a Ghantasala homage.
‘Matwala Shair Ramjoshi’ (1947,Baburao Painter-Shantaram) was the matrix. This film in Hindi and Marathi had the regional folk entertainment Tamasha as the background. An essential part of this, the lavni song- dance was not reproduced, in costume, choreography or music in ‘Jayabheri’ but an important part of it, a competitive question-and-answer song, was adapted beautifully, and subsequently taken up in Telugu social films too, ‘Illarikam’ (1959) and ‘Zamindar’ (1966).
‘Panthalu Pattimpulu’ (1968) directed by KB Tilak also had many such sequences, more faithful to the Tamasha tradition but that was because it was based on Anant Mane’s (he supplied the story and collaborated directorially with Shantaram in ‘Pinjra’ (1972) mega hit ‘Kela Ishara Jata Jata’ (1965) .
Much before this, the dance form of lavni was utilised in ‘Varudu Kavali’ (1957) and 'Rajanandini’, (1958) through the songs “Saagi ravoyi bangaru mama” and “Ninne ninne”. The way the hero holds the dafli in "Siri Siri Muvva” (1976) is taken from ‘Matwala Shair’ and hero Manmohan Krishna’s stance not as people proclaimed then, ignorant of facts, ‘Jis Desh Men Ganga Bahti Hai’ (1960) and Raj Kapoor.
In the glorious musical ‘Annamayya’ (1999 ), the tail end of “Jagadapu chanavula” brings to mind the last fifteen seconds of the Holi song in ‘Navrang’ (1959) “Arey Jarey hath” .
In ‘Aadmi/Manoos’ (1939) and ‘Teen Batti Char Rasta’ (1953) Shantaram used bits of song in various languages, meaningfully and not as a gimmick. In the first a dancing woman of pleasure is shown catering to clients from various regions and in the second, a man's wife and daughters-in-law hailing from various parts of India have a happy time extolling their local dance and music (but not claiming, 'I'm superior').
The first Telugu film to have a multi-lingual song,was a film with three titles, "Idi Ma Katha-Mangalasutram- Excuse Me” (1946) and the second, a tri-lingual film ‘Strange Brothers-Apoorva Sahodarulu-Nishan’ (1950) credited to three directors, Acharya, C Pullaiah and S S Vasan. Neither the film with three titles, nor the one with three directors justi-fied it the way the master did.
The tunes from Shantaram found their echoes in about half a dozen Telugu films. “Suno suno” from ‘Amar Jyoti’ (1936) became “Cheli cheli” in ‘Rukmini Kalyanam’ (1937); Vasant Desai's immortal creation, “Ghanashyama Sundara” from ‘Amar Bhoopali’ (1951) was lifted listlessly in ‘Beedala Asti’ (1955), liltingly in ‘Sati Sakkubai’ (1954) and to better effect in ‘Bhakta Tukaram’ (1973), Devulapalli, Adinarayana Rao and Ghantasala together giving it stature. “Gaya andhera hua ujala” from ‘Subah ka Tara’ (1953) became “Sangeethamela” in ‘Santhanam’ (1955) by a man rather justly nick- named Imitation Dakshinamurthy! She most lilting was of course “Pagale vennela” from ‘Poojaphalam’ (1965) spaced out on “Adha hai chandrama” from ‘Navrang’.
A prostitute seducing a saint, so sensitively and sensuously captured by director-star team of P Rama- krishna-A Nageswara Rao, Bhanumathi in ‘Vipranarayana’ (1954) is a sprout of a similar situation in ‘Parbat pe Apna Dera’ (1944).
In ‘Maya Machhindra’ (1932) a girl dances on a huge drum.This was repeated in ‘We Two’ (1947) and multiplied in ‘Chandralekha’ (1948). ‘Apna Desh/Namnadu’ (1949) showed prophetically how in just-independent India, a nexus formed between crime and high society. This was regurgitated in hundreds of films. And present day society pays obeisance to Shantaram by following the screenplay of the movie in real life!
The co-author of this book, experienced journalist Sanjit Narwekar, sums up Shantaram’s greatness in just one sentence (foreword, page 9) “His greatest contribution as a director was that he understood the role(s) of the various technicians and blended their expertise into the making of the film(s).
From the book: “Shantaram Rajaram Vankudre was born on November 18, 1901, the second of five sons. His reputation as a good mimic” got him into the Gandharva Natak Mandali, where the ruling triumvirate were Govindrao Tembe, Bal Gandharva and Ganpatrao Bodas. Shantaram did not care for the menial chores he was given; and he could not be given important roles as he could not sing. He left the troupe and failed at everything else he tried, schooling, trying for a job in the postal services etc. He did work for a while in a Railway workshop but an accident put paid to that.
With some difficulty he found a toe-hold in Baburao Painter’s Maharashtra Film Co., in Kolhapur, which in time turned out scores of personnel for the nascent industry. “His golden moment came when he played the young farmer in a film that has become a classic (all by word of mouth; no one now alive has seen it) ‘Savkari Pash’ (1925). After doing roles on screen and odd jobs behind it, he was chosen by Painter to direct ‘Netaji Palker’ (1927) “based on the exploits of Shivaji’s trusted lieutenant. His co-director was Keshavrao Dhaiber”.
The Maharashtra Film Co. gave him everything, including the name Shantaram when he did the role of Krishna in “Surekha Haran” (1921), the subject familiar to us as ‘Maya Bazaar’. Baburao Pendharkar, also in the concern, felt that his name in the Railways, SR Vankudre was unsuitable for an actor.
On June 1, 1929, V Shantaram, Keshavrao Dhaiber, Vishnupant Damle and S Fatelal, all working for the company, branched out into their own Prabhat Film Co. They soon shifted to Pune, built their own studio, and a reputation for quality that is historical. All kinds of films were made to which all contributed their mite but Shantaram directed most of them.
Path-breaking films, mentioned earlier, rolled out and Shantaram was riding the crest of popularity when a hitch developed. He had to leave because he side-stepped a Lakshman Rekha of the four, no intimacy with the heroines.
Shantaram, already married, left for Bombay with this young actress Jayshree, floated his own concern, Rajkamal Kalamandir, built a studio and stabilised himself. Here too, he produced, directed and acted. The first was ‘Shakuntala’ (1943) and the last, ‘Jhaanjhar’ (1984).
He introduced and encouraged many new directors. Amongst them were character actor Keshavrao Date with ‘Bhakticha Mala/Mali’ (1944) and ‘Andhon ki Duniya’ (1947).
But for the first which coasted on splendid music, the other was a write-off. To cousin and photographer V Avdhoot, he gave ‘Bhool’ (1948); no go. To Kumar Chandrasekhar, ‘Banwasi’ (1948); a dud. To nephew V Ravindra “Chandannachi Choli Ang Ang Jaali” (1975), a worthwhile music-and-dance extravaganza. To son Kiran ‘Zunj’ (1976), passable effort. To actress Sulabha Deshpande, a film for children ‘Raja Rani ko Chahiye Pasina’ (1979), which turned out a childish exercise.
Many of his kith and kin were given small on-screen opportunities; only a few made it big later. First wife’s daughters Madhura and Charusheela made a baby entry with ‘Bhool’ and Charusheela made a solo appearance in ‘Stree’. Both sang in two short films for children released as one programme, ‘Kale Gore-Phool aur Kalian’ (1960). Son Prabhat Kumar made an appearance in ‘Teen Batti’, nephew Ravindra in ‘Jal Bin’, grandson Rahul in ‘Raja Rani’. Long-time secretary ST Eshwar was glimpsed in ‘Darchhain’ and ‘Toofan aur Diya’.
Subsequently a star, Rajshree was given a sprightly song in ‘Subah ka Tara’ but had a baby debut in ‘Apna Desh’ and her grown-up role was that of a court dancer in ‘Stree’. Sandhya’s niece Ranjana, did a bit role in ‘Ladki Sahyadri Ki’ a longer one in ‘Zunj’ and a heroine in ‘Chaani’.
Chandrakantha was seen singing a stammering song, a duet with Lata, “Do haklon ka” and then a vamp bit, in ‘Subah ka Tara’ and ‘Jhanak Jhanak’. Reshma and Vandana (later Asha Nadkarni) debuted in ‘Mausi’ and Vandana had the court-dancer’s role in ‘Navrang’.
The men weren’t lucky at all, but for Jeetendra, extra in ‘Navrang’ and hero in ‘Geet Gaya’ the rest made no headway at all. Satish Vyas in “Toofan aur Diya”, Prashant in ‘Sehra’, Abhijeet in ‘Jal Bin’, Prabhakar Panshikar and Kumar Dighe in “Ladki Sahyadri ki” were quickly forgotten.
Nanda and Rajendra Kumar, introduced as the romantic leads in ‘Toofan aur Diya’ were exceptionally successful later on.
Around a dozen music-directors worked for Shantaram. It is a pity that Vasant Desai who came out of Prabhat to be with Shantaram, and did the maximum number of films, a dozen, isn’t mentioned at all in the book. Shivram Krishna got his chance in ‘Surang’, did very well in ‘Teen Batti’ and got a few C class films outside before fading out. Purushottam did ‘Bhool’ and two songs in ‘Apna Desh’ to no effect. Ramlal turned out lilting melodies in ‘Sehra’ and ‘Geet Gaya’ but lacked lustre in outside films as Ramlal Hirapanna. Satish Bhatia in ‘Boond Jo Jan Bayo Gayo Moti” registered well but was not heard of later.
Here are little known facts about Shantaram I have unearthed over the years. He was no singer but his voice is heard conversing with court dancer Rajshree, ‘Stree’, on a 78rpm disc (N53981). In the English version of ‘Dr Kotnis’, he is heard reciting Dewan Sharar’s lyric, ‘Life isn’t a dream’ as Khan Mastana’s song “Zindagi sapna nahin” is heard in the background . He is heard chanting the words of “Ai malik” as the male chorus is singing it in ‘Do Ankhen’.
The first sound-track recordings from an Indian film were from Prabhat’s colour film ‘Sairandhri’ (1933). These were made in Germany, by Telefunken, when Shantaram took the colour negatives for processing and printing. It is his hand-writing in Marathi and Hindi, that is on the record labels.
Actor Mahipal who plays a poet to perfection in ‘Navrang’, actually wrote a song for ‘Mali’, “Ham to bhole bhale mali”.
The book is understandably reticent about certain domestic developments in Shantaram’s life. It does not mention Sandhya’s marriage to him and shies away from saying that she was the reason why Jayshree moved out from Shantaram’s household.
On the whole it gives a consolidated picture of the maestro, the man and the film-maker. It omits to mention he did the choreography, termed ‘Mukta Nritya’, for ‘Navrang’ under the pseudonym of Sham, and used a picture of his son-in-law in the promotional brochure of the film. The truth came out when the Bombay Film Choreographers Assn. chose to give this work the best choreography award for that year.
For an in-house production like this, it contains too many factual inaccuracies. Whether it was ignorance or indifference, it remains inexcusable. Here are just a few of the many.
1. Sandhya was not just two films old (69) when she was starred in ‘Jhanak Jhanak’. Apart from ‘Amar Bhoopali’ and ‘Parchhain’ mentioned, she had done ‘Teen Batti’ for Shantaram and the role of Parvati in a mythological for an outsider before
she came into the Rajkamal fold.
2. In ‘Navrang’ every title is not heralded with nine colour pots. Actually, the pots are only seven; and they splash colour only at the last two titles, ‘Navrang’ in Hindi and English.
3. Only one scene is from ‘Jhanak Jhanak’ and the other is from ‘Navrang’. The caption says otherwise (76-77).
4. ‘Sairandhri’ was made in 1933, not 1935 (10). This is omitted in the filmography. So is ‘Boond Jo Ban Gayi Moti’ (1967).
5. Rajshree does not play the small role of Shakuntala’s sakhis in ‘Stree’ (89); Mumtaz does. Rajshree plays the role of the court dancer.
6. Caption for a still (106) says that Sushant became a big hit as Siddharta in ‘Jhanjhar’. No way. This is the least seen film of Shantaram.
7. ‘Jhanak Jhanak’ (1955) was not the first Technicolour film (123). Mehboob’s ‘Aan’ was the first to have prints by Technicolour, after being shot on l6mm Kodachrome negative. Sohrab Modi’s ‘Jhansi ki Rani’ (1953) was the first to be shot and printed in Technicolor.
It leaves many questions unanswered. A handful:
1. It makes no mention at all of the wholly Indian record label, Young India, which was patronised by Shantaram through ten years and eleven films, ‘Aadmi/Manoos’ (1939) to ‘Andhon ki Duniya’ (1948).
2. ‘Wahan’ (1937) directed by his erstwhile assistant Narayan Kale, was a near clone of which two earlier films of Shantaram?
3. Why wasn’t the director of ‘Maali’ mentioned (52)?
4. What happened to the Shant-Kiran studios in Kolhapur where the Marathi ‘Pinjra’ was shot?
5. Is it true that its Hindi version failed to go beyond even the first day and that in some theatres the enraged crowd tore the seats and demanded their money back (102)? It ran peacefully in Madras for two weeks.
Shantaram wrote his autobiography in Marathi, ‘Shantarama’ and it was published in 1986, later in Hindi. What happened to the promised English version? Isn’t it high-time, in the 101st year of the Indian Cinema, to bring out the life of a truly great man whose life was cinema?
Only his son, Kiran Shantaram, can answer.