1. In Search of Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (Now You See It, Now You Don’t)
[Note: As of September 29, the first part of this post has been revised from the one that went up earlier this month – out of necessity, not just for stylistic improvement, as you’ll see a few paragraphs down.]
At the end of my last post (a little over a month ago), I talked about how Pritha2000 found a link to the restored version of Uday Shankar’s Kalpana at Indiancine.ma. She informed us of this recently at the end of a long string of comments under a post about being In Search of Uday Shankar’s Kalpana that I had put up almost ten years ago. For a long time, no copy of the film could be found anywhere. Then some apparently not-so-restored versions started to show up.Minai aka Cassidy informed us of one at Pad.ma in 2013. It was good to know that there was a version somewhere, but it was not very watchable (at least I didn’t think it was) and it had no English subtitles. (It did have some nice annotations, again mainly thanks to Minai.)
There was so much talk about a newly restored version coming out (thanks to various entities) and it did come out, but it ran into some mishaps, and it still hasn’t even been granted public showings (except at a random film festival, I think). So the Inidancine.ma link was the first time I – and a few other people, at least – were able to see the restored Kalpana anywhere.
In another fairly recent comment under my old post (this one dated June 18), a commenter named Sreekanth said, “We just hope to find it on YouTube soon…waiting for that day.” And then for a couple of weeks at the beginning of September, we actually did see an excellent copy of the restored version, with English subtitles that were more complete than in the Indiancine.ma version. This post was thanks to Tom Daniel (who else?) and also Anuradha Warrier (of the blog Conversations Over Chai), who filled in some subtitles that had been missing from the Indiancine.ma version. This made some of us very happy, and it inspired me to write the original version of this blog post.
Unfortunately, within the past ten or so days, Tom’s version of Kalpana was taken down. This happened because of objections from someone who had fought for rights to the film a while back and has been very protective of them. But according to at least a few sources, this film is no longer protected under copyright and should be considered as being in the public domain. Also, curiously, there are a couple of other versions of the restored film available on YouTube (though without subtitles). We’re hoping that some day Tom will win this film back, but given the nature of the other person in the dispute, we’re not feeling too optimistic about that. Thankfully, as of now, the songs that Tom selected to post are still up, and I included a couple of them in the last part of this post. For those who want to watch the entire restored version of Kalpana with English subtitles, Indiancine.ma is the place you’ll have to go.
THE MOVIE IS HERE.
2. Some Good Things to Know Before Watching Kalpana
Uday Shankar’s Kalpana was in many ways a breakthrough film, with unprecedented qualities. One such quality was a new innovation in cinema choreography. Below the copy that he put on YouTube, Tom quoted a section from the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, which points out that “The choreography was specifically designed for the camera, with semi-expressionist angles and chiaroscuro effects…” This fact is further elaborated on – and without any art school terms – in an interesting video that was part of the Indiavideodotorg series 100 Years of Bollywood.
As the narrator Pali Chandra (who is herself an acclaimed kathak dancer and choreographer) explains:
For the first time, numbers were created to suit the camera. If it was abhinaya or the expression of the eyes, the focus was on the eyes. If it was the hands, so was the focus on the hands. So as we see, the entire concept of choreography has changed here for this particular film. Now why would that happen? Simply because Uday Shankar – the great Uday Shankar – was the artistic director of this film.
A few minutes later in this video, the film historian Vijay Kumar Balakrishna talks about seeing the film three decades ago and being extremely impressed by the diversity of Indian dances. As he points out, in addition to seeing most of the major classical dances, he also noticed a fine range of tribal dances. But even though so many classical and folk dances are represented, few are shown strictly in their pure form, because Uday Shankar integrates all these influences into his own unique modern choreography.
By the way, when you watch the Indiavideodotorg video, you’ll notice right away that the film is being talked about as a treasure that can’t be found. As of the making of this video – just six years ago – even the narrator had no idea where to find it. That shows how remarkable it is that we now can have access to this restored version.
3. Notes About Watching Kalpana
When I started to watch Kalpana, myself, at first I found it to be a bit slow, arty, and grim. I thought to myself, I can understand why this was not a blockbuster movie (as I had learned earlier that its box office returns were far from great). But the expressionist visual style, combined with the socialist messages being conveyed, did actually make me think of a favorite film that was made in 1942 by a very popular director – that is, Mehboob Khan’s Roti. But Roti also revolved around a conventionally told adventure story, and though there is a story that Kalpana revolves around, it is only one small aspect of the film, and the main story isn’t really the full story anyway. The entry in the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema sums it up pretty well:
The narrative of the surreal fantasy is embedded within a framing story of a writer telling a story to a film producer, who eventually declines to make the movie. The writer tells of Udayan (Shankar) and Kamini (Kanta) and the young man’s dream of establishing an art centre, Kalakendra (a fictional equivalent of Shankar’s India Cultural Centre at Almora) in the Himalayas.
Yet every time we think we are able to follow the core story – that is, the story within the story – this gets interrupted by surreal sequences (often introduced as dream sequences or visions of someone who is unconscious from being injured or sick), and it becomes more and more difficult to tell where the fantastic visions stop and the core story (within the story) begins again.
On the other hand, the fantasy element and the confusion regarding dreams vs. narrated “reality” help to enhance a magical quality that increasingly takes hold. It’s obvious that surrealism was a strong influence throughout the movie, and the best of these scenes are at least as good as the best dream sequences in some of our favorite (more conventional) Hindi films. (The Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema mentions that Kalpana influenced the famous dream sequence in Awara, but I can certainly think of a few more. For instance, I started to think about the fantasy scenes in Nagin (1954), starring Vyjayanthimala. But the scenes in Uday Shankar’s Kalpana are more gracefully put together, and though they are sometimes amusing, they’re less inevitably comical.)
4. A Couple of Great Clips
Although Kalpana is highly original, not everything within the film is unique. In fact, if you have already watched a lot of old Indian cinema, you should be able to recognize some familiar themes. And with this in mind, I decided to provide two particular videos (from several that Tom posted on his song channel) which show Kalpana exploring themes that I’ve actually discussed in this blog before.
The first theme that I noticed here was the puppet/kathputli theme. Within this song, “Sadion Ki Behoshi Mein,” I also heard a message that I’d found in song sequences from a couple of Golden Age Hindi films: the people of India have been in a slumber and need to be woken up. Although it is less than two minutes long, this song and dance combine both themes in a truly fantastic way!
And the other song I had to bring up here is “Hindustan Ka Bal Hai Hal,” which would have fit very well in my list of sickle songs. (In fact, I’m thinking of writing a new, revised list, just to include this song.) It also contains a strong socialist message about the farmers of India and the “fruits of labor,” so there should be no doubt that Uday Shankar was as intentional with his use of the sickle as a political symbol as Mehboob Khan ever was.
And these are just tiny slices of the film. The quality and quantity of the dances and spectacles here are almost overwhelming. While I would not say that this film is exactly gripping in its linear narrative (nor was it meant to be), it certainly is mesmerizing, and watching it was an experience that made the long wait seem totally worthwhile.
P.S. I mentioned that aspects of Kalpana reminded me of the earlier film, Roti. In the quote from the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, there is a reference to Kalpana strongly influencing Chandralekha (also from 1948), which was a very popular film. Unfortunately, I can recall only a few songs from Chandralekha and I don’t even remember if I ever watched the entire film. So for now, I will have to leave it to other people to notice the similarities (and differences). Of course, I may return to this subject at another time.
P.P.S. When I posted about my search for this film 10 years ago, I was very interested in the fact that it was the first film that featured Padmini. (Actually, I think there was at least one Tamil film featuring Padmini that was released earlier, but this was the first film in which she was asked to act.) A point was made about this in the Indiavideodotorg video also (where there is some attention paid to the inclusion of both Padmini and Lalitha), and it is a generally well valued piece of trivia. However, though I recognized Padmini and Lalitha in one of the first dances in the film, I wasn’t able to pick Padmini out of the crowd so easily elsewhere.
There is a series of pictures of actors from this film that can be found on Surjit Singh’s Hindi Movies… site. An actor is shown and labeled in each of several screen caps from Kalpana, and I did not recognize Padmini in the scene that appears here. I had, however, spotted Usha Kiran correctly, and she actually has a pretty good role.
The real stars of the film are Uday Shankar (of course), Amala Shankar, and Lakshmi Kanta, and they are all excellent here.