I did not know Kalpana Lajmi. I met her just once and spoke to her on the phone a couple of times in the past year. As such I am not equipped to pay her a tribute of any kind. However, I can probably say that I was a small part of the last chapter of her life.
It was 16 October 2017, and I was in Mumbai to attend the launch of a book in my capacity as an editor at HarperCollins. Kalpana was contemplating a book on her life with Dr Bhupen Hazarika, her mentor, partner and business associate for over forty years. Despite being on dialysis at the time, she had come to the launch to meet me and was at her chirpy best. Her first words to me were: ‘Shantanu, please publish the book on 8 September next year, Bhupen’s birthday.’
I nodded sort of noncommittally, but she would have none of it. Over the next few months, she put together the logistics of the event – the venue, the chief guests, the song and dance that would mark the evening, going over the edits meticulously, organizing scans of the images in the book, all of this in the middle of undergoing dialysis four days a week. It must have been her dogged determination – or maybe a premonition that her days were numbered? – that drove the work on the book and it was out on 8 September 2018. Unfortunately, by now Kalpana was completely bedridden and unable to attend the launch. As she passed away just two weeks after, it appears as if she was living for the book alone.
The book is a candid portrait of a feisty, unconventional woman with a mind of her own and her tumultuous relationship with a multifaceted unpredictable genius, one that is as fascinating for the almost thirty-year age difference between the two as it is for the fact that it played out in the open in an era where such relationships were frowned upon and hence largely clandestine affairs. “I was seventeen, he was forty-five. My eyes sparkled with love at first sight and I saw its reflection in his eyes just when the light of his life was about to be extinguished … When I first met Bhupen … a gawky, fat schoolgirl … I instantly thought of the ‘Dhumuha’ … a short fiery tempestuous storm that swirls across the Brahmaputra. Bhupen epitomized that storm,” she wrote.
Her films stand testimony to that spirit. Here is a film-maker who broke the glass ceiling time and again with the subjects she took on. From the first Indian film in 1913, one can count on one’s fingertips the number of women who have directed a feature film. She was one of the first who broke through, and without compromising on her convictions.
Kalpana’s first film Ek Pal (1986), based on a story by Maitreyi Devi, dealt with issues that were still considered taboo and were rarely addressed in Hindi cinema: the loneliness of a wife in a loveless marriage and an extramarital relationship. This was in the 1980s, where the standard treatment of women in cinema revolved around their ‘pati as parameshwar’ and ‘ghar as mandir’.
She followed it up with what is considered Dimple Kapadia’s finest hour in cinema: Rudaali (1993). Adapting a story by Mahasweta Devi this time, she had the star shed all her pin-up trappings. Remembered as much as for its mellifluous music, as for Dimple Kapadia’s National Award-winning performance and its stark realism, Rudaali again broke new ground in terms of its subject – the lives of professional mourners.
Kalpana probably remains the only woman film-maker who has fetched her leading ladies two National Awards for Best Actress, as Raveena Tandon won the award for Daman (2001), once more with a subject Hindi cinema seldom dealt with: domestic abuse and violence. In between, there was Darmiyaan (1997): the story of an actor who discovers that her son is a eunuch – probably the first exploration of the third sex with any degree of respect and maturity in Hindi cinema.
One would expect any other film-maker with such a repertoire to be part of cinema discourse in the country more actively. It says a lot about our media and its patriarchal attitudes that for the large part of her career, she was the subject of malicious gossip on account of her association with Dr Hazarika, vilified and ostracized in equal measure, forgetting that the personal life of a film-maker ought not to inform our approach to her profession. Which is why, the book, Bhupen Hazarika: As I Knew Him, is not only timely but was probably also a cathartic experience for her. In the fitness of things, it became her swan song. And I was privileged to be a small part of the process. Adieu, Kalpana Lajmi … Dr Bhupen Hazarika must have been lonely up there without you.