The recent re-release of Pinjara made me go back to my most favourite of V. Shantaram’s film – Kunku. V. Shantaram had a rather long and illustrious career that makes him without doubt one of the most significant of Indian filmmakers. From his first film Netaji Palkar (1927) to Pinjra (1973), he managed to stay relevant with many of his films achieving commercial success. The most path-breaking phase of his career, though, has to be his work with the Prabhat Film Company (1929-1941) when he made one important film after another, many of them becoming major milestones in the history of Indian cinema; this 12-13 years association of his with Prabhat hit its peak in its last few years with the bilingual films – Kunku/Duniya Na Maane (1937), Maanoos/Aadmi(1939), Shejari/Padosi (1941). The first of these films – Kunku – is not only one of Prabhat’s finest films but it also pushed the envelope of Indian cinema fearlessly. So progressive was it in it’s thought that a film made in the 1930s still manages to stay relevant with the issue it raised coupled with some crafty filmmaking and a tour-de-force of a performance by Shanta Apte.
Narayan Hari Apte adapted the screenplay for the film from his very own novel, Na Patnari Goshta, which in turn was inspired from the classic musical play by Govind Deval, Sangeet Sharda. The screenplay has a very witty and charming tribute to Sangeet Sharda with a particularly hilarious scene when a bunch of kids are shown rehearsing the play with all the idiosyncrasies and playfulness one expects from children. Kunku (Vermillion) is about Nirmala – a woman of substance who is not afraid to rebel against a wrongful match in marriage. Nirmala is tricked into marrying a much older widower Kaka Saheb to her shock. Not the one to bear injustice, she rebels against the marriage and refuses to consummate the relationship. Nirmala also has to ward off a cunning Aunt, her mother-in-law and a lascivious step son. She only finds pleasure in the company of her niece.
Though the title may give the impression of a tear-jerker of a social drama, Kunku is anything but that. It was only in the 90s that Marathi cinema was plagued with tear-jerkers that had ‘ideal’ daughter-in-laws bearing any kind of atrocities from their in-laws. Nirmala, though, is a resilient female who tackles one obstacle after another with aplomb and it is a delight to see such a strong female character way back in the 1930s. Kaka Saheb, too, is not a caricature; the character has enough shades for us to empathise with him. The film ends up on a bitter-sweet note with Nirmala relieved of her miseries. Many in Prabhat were worried that the film might create a furore in the conservative India of the 1930s, however, Shantaram still went on to make the film as a bilingual without any compromises. He stood vindicated in the end as Kunku not only impressed the critics but enjoyed commercial success as well.
The driving force behind the film has to be Shanta Apte who blows you away with her performance. Acting is generally that segment which ages the worst in cinema, but Apte here plays her part with a flair that still burns bright even after nearly eight decades and feels dated only in a handful scenes. She even sang an English song in the film a version of H. W. Longfellow’s Psalm of Life with such assuredness and class that one cannot help getting bowled over by her. What probably lent the performance such conviction was that she was no pushover off the screen as well; she fought tooth and nail against injustice done to her by studios by even going on a hunger strike once. The epoch making performance of hers has to go down in the books as one of the best ever by an Indian female lead.
Shantaram, who later in his career was popular for his broad strokes in colour films, shows restrain as a director with some great use of technique. A visit to Germany had made him realise the potential of cinema outside of the mythologies and he was also influenced by the techniques of the German Expressionist Cinema; the stark improvement in his films post his visit in the 1930s is visible in his films. This is particularly notable in the telling use of a grandfather clock in the film which stands for the old widower and the time he is fast running out of.
Shantaram’s visual flair and technical prowess can be best noticed in the scene when Kaka Saheb shatters a mirror in anger and the reflection of him in each piece of glass mocks at him.
Despite his western influence Shantaram did not give up on the quintessential use of songs in Indian films. His skill as a director is on full display in how he shows a believable source for each of his song and seamlessly weaves them in the narrative. Remarkably, for a social drama that is so high on emotions, Shantaram eschews a composed background scores for ambient sound making the film starkly realistic. The film was certainly way ahead of its time not only in its subject but also in its form and craft.
Kunku is, thus, without doubt a milestone in Indian cinema with V. Shantaram at the peak of his skill and arguably one of the best performances by a female lead in an Indian film by Shanta Apte. I haven’t seen the Hindi version Duniya Na Maane, but it has the exactly the same cast and crew. So if you cannot follow Marathi and also can’t handle subtitles go ahead with the Hindi version, but don’t deny yourself of a memorable movie watching experience.