Kalpana is unique. There has never been a film like it since its release in 1948 and it is unlikely we will see anything similar in the future. The title means ‘Imagination’ in English and what goes into the film is staggering – direct political statements, all the dances and much of the music of India – and a story too. The film took several years of work by its creator Uday Shankar and acts as a form of autobiography for the artist-dancer. Uday Shankar was born in 1900 into a Bengali family. His father was a barrister who had studied at Oxford as well as Calcutta and Uday travelled with him to Europe in the 1920s where he met and worked with leading Russian and British dancers and where he studied art in London and Rome. Uday’s project came to be the incorporation of aspects of European dance as they appeared on the theatrical stage into the classical and folk dance forms of India. He toured Europe and North America as both a dancer and choreographer. (His younger brother, Ravi Shankar joined him on tour as a teenager – later Ravi became famous in his own right as a musician and composer.) In 1938 Uday opened an arts centre in Northern India in the foothills of the Himalayas to which he invited leading dancers, musicians and filmmakers such as a young Guru Dutt. The centre lasted just four years before the funds ran out. It was at this point that Uday headed south to the Gemini Studios in Madras to make Kalpana.
Uday Shankar spent many years making Kalpana in Madras. The film was made in Hindi, but for five years another feature was being made in the Gemini Studios in Tamil that included spectacular dance and action sequences and which has been seen as ‘borrowing’ ideas from Shankar’s filming. Chandralekha, the first Indian film to receive a genuine ‘all India distribution’ (in Tamil with subtitles) in 1948 was a massive hit, but Kalpana was a flop at the box office and Uday Shankar made no more films. We are able to see Kalpana today because of the World Cinema Foundation and its restoration project. The restoration was completed at Bologna in 2012 and very grateful we all should be.
When Kalpana is described as a ‘dance film’ it means that this a film about dance and with a story told through dance. The narrative is told as a long imagined film narrated by a writer trying to sell a script to a producer. The story is about a visionary dancer (played by Uday Shankar himself) and his struggle to fulfil his dreams. The scenes detailing his childhood and early attempts to stage his shows are dealt with so quickly and with such economy they become almost surreal. Shankar sets up a narrative in which there are two women competing for his love. One is played by Shankar’s wife Amala and that narrative plays on melodrama coincidence. The other woman he meets during a storm in the countryside and both women will follow him when he sets up his arts centre in the Himalayas. Hanging over him all through is the accidental death of an impresario. The sexual rivalry and the threat of prosecution are played expressively in the dance sequences which make up most of the 155 mins running time. The long final sequence comprises the show that Uday must put on to try to raise the funds needed to keep the centre running. This is where the ‘double-play’ of the film narrative and Uday’s real-life story come together. The third major theme of the film is its plea to the Indian people and the Indian government to fund the arts because without them the nation has no soul, no identity. The film actually begins with a bold statement about the artist’s intentions – and clearly he is not worried about offending the holders of the purse strings.
I’ll pick out just a few of the features of the dance sequences (since I have no real knowledge of dance as an art form). I recognised that there were many different forms. I think I recognised Kathakali dancers from Kerala and there are folk dances, one of which from the far North East of India is used to illustrate how middle-class Indians have lost sight of their own culture and misread the dancers as ‘African’ because of the impact of Hollywood’s presentation of the exotic. Each of the dances is choreographed in both the sense of the dance steps and movement for the camera in relation to the elaborate studio sets. This choreography is sometimes quite comic. I’m not sure about the ‘staged’ fist fights and face-slapping earlier in the film but there is a deliberate jokery around the use of drums of different sizes and shapes which drive the rhythms of the dances. I don’t know enough about Indian cinema in the 1930s to judge whether Shankar was drawing on earlier cinematic forms from the sub-continent, but I was struck by how elements of the film overall, especially in the location of the arts centre made me think of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (which may well have played in Madras in 1946-7) and of course, The Red Shoes. Shankar could not have seen that film in time but he would have been, like Powell, knowledgeable about the classical dance culture of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. I’m sure also that there are elements of German expressionism in the sets. What is clear is that it is possible to see some of the same ideas in the films of Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt in the 1950s.
For me, one of the most interesting things about the film was its handling of political questions. Started around 1942 in wartime India (when dance troupes in Assam were threatened by Japanese invasion) but not released until 1948 after independence, the film picks up on all of the nationalist fervour and the idealistic hopes for the future. The India depicted in the film is an undivided India and the stress is upon everybody being represented. (In Hindi films of the 1950s and 1960s I have noticed a distinct prejudice against the South.) At the start of the final sequence as the visitors are arriving at the arts centre, they are allowed in only if they are wearing their ‘native costume’. A few British in suits are allowed in, but not middle-class Indians. Another Indian is turned away because he is wearing a European-made shirt. The princes, the rich Maharajas who come (and who the dancers hope will contribute millions of rupees) are forced to duck and crawl through a tiny entrance. The more money they pledge the more Shankar mocks them – they pledge money because of the sexual allure of the dancers, not because they appreciate the culture of the dance.
If this becomes available on Blu-ray or DVD I urge you to get a copy. I certainly need to watch it again. Bravo Martin Scorsese and the WCF and bravo BIFF for showing it.