18th November 1901: V. Shantaram, Indian film director, was born

The director of such cinematic classics as ‘Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani’ and ‘Do Aankhen Barah Haath’, Shantaram Rajaram Vankudre, better known as V. Shantaram, was born on November 18, 1901, in Kolhapur, Maharashtra.

As a teenager he did odd jobs like railroad repairs and maintenance work. When he turned 16, to supplement his meagre wages, he took up a job at a local tin-shed cinema where he did everything from painting signs and ushering people in, all for a sum of Rs 5 per month. 

Films were a new, exciting medium then and Indian pioneers like Dadasaheb Phalke had already started experimenting with Indian mythological themes in films. The young Shantaram admired Phalke and became an avid film viewer, watching western films with great interest as well.   

Soon, Shantaram, surrounded and mesmerised by films, started assisting a photographer, and then joined Baburao Painter’s Maharashtra Film Company in Kolhapur. Here he learned the craft of filmmaking and did everything from acting to production to working as a lab assistant. He played the role of a young farmer in Painter’s 1925 film ‘Savkari Pash’, and directed his first film, ‘Netaji Palkar’, in 1927.

In 1929, Shantaram, along with V.G. Damle, K.R. Dhaiber, S. Fatelal and S.B. Kulkarni, founded the Prabhat Film Company. Initially they worked with very basic studio facilities. However, Prabhat Films, as it was popularly known, moved to Pune in 1933, and would go on to produce more than 40 films in Marathi and Hindi in less than three decades, and today is regarded as a vital part of India’s cinematic history.

In 1931, ‘Alam Ara’, the first Indian talkie, directed by Ardeshir Irani and produced by the Imperial Film Company in Bombay, was released, a momentous occasion for Indian cinema. Prabhat Films, though short of funds and resources, quickly made three sound films in Marathi, including ‘Ayodhyecha Raja’, directed by Shantaram himself. Durga Khote, a Brahmin girl, played a prominent role in the film. 

Shantaram followed this with films in Hindi, Marathi and Tamil.

Among his more important works in this early phase was the hit ‘Amrit Manthan’, made in both Hindi and Marathi, the first film produced by Prabhat Films in its Pune studio. With splendid sets and colourful costumes, the film spoke about the importance of a religion that celebrated peace, and established Shantaram as a prominent filmmaker.

Other impressive Shantaram films followed such ‘Amar Jyoti’ (1936) and ‘Duniya Na Mane’ (1937), both of which focused in different and dramatic ways on gender justice and women’s place in society. Social and contemporary themes echoed in his films, like the 1941 ‘Padosi’, which is about communal strife and how it affects neighbours. In 1941, Shantaram left Prabhat and created his own production firm, Rajkamal Kalamandir. The 1943 super hit ‘Shakuntala’, which was directed by him and ran for 104 weeks, was made at the new company.

In 1946, Shantaram directed and played the lead role in ‘Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani’, which had both Hindi and English (‘The eternal tale of Dr. Kotnis’) versions. It was based on a true story of Dwarkanath Kotnis, an Indian doctor who led a medical team to China to attend to the sick and wounded people, most of them victims of the China-Japan war. According to renowned film critic B.D. Garga, it was a “remarkable film, unabashedly patriotic and, strangely enough, satisfying to the colonialist government in India, the Communists and the Congress party”.

He directed other successful films in the next few years including ‘Lokshahir Ramjoshi’ (1947), which promoted the Marathi Tamasha spectacle, and ‘Amar Bhoopali’, the 1951 biopic that popularised the Lavani dance form.

In 1957, he made the critically acclaimed ‘Do Aankhen Barah Haath’, which bagged a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. A morality tale, it is about a jail warden who believes in the inherent goodness of man and rehabilitates six convicts. Garga called it a “brilliant film that depicted the true human being within”.  

Shantaram made films for an astonishing six long decades. The 1987 film ‘Jhanjhar’ was the last film he directed. He died on October 30, 1990, in Mumbai. For his outstanding contribution to Indian cinema he was conferred with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1985 and Padma Vibhushan (posthumously) in 1992.

Reflecting on Shantaram’s legacy in The Hindu, veteran journalist and media critic V. Gangadhar wrote on the occasion of the birth centenary of the legendary film-maker: “Much before the ‘Hindi Chini bhai’ hoopla unleashed by Jawaharlal Nehru during the 1950s, Shantaram had brought the people of the two great nations together in his film, ‘Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani’… Film-making was a social crusade for Shantaram. ‘Dahej’ dealt with the evils of the dowry system. Who would have thought of prison reforms and national integration in the early 1950s? But Shantaram did.”  

Also on this day:

1892 — Rustomji Jamshedji, Indian Test cricketer, was born

1910 — Batukeshwar Dutt, Indian revolutionary and freedom fighter, was born  

1946 — Kamal Nath, union minister and Congress leader, was born

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