Thursday.. close to midnight.. I’d nodded off on the settee while watching the news. My husband shook me awake saying, “Shaktida is gone.” The feeling of loss was immediate even though I’d met Shakti Samanta only once, three years ago, in his office at Natraj Studio.
The meeting had stretched over an hour as we tried to trace the prolific producer-director’s five-decade career through his movies, starting with Bahu in 1954.
He admitted that he had landed the family drama on the rebound because Vrajendra Gaur, whom he was assisting, was already committed to Kasturi.
I don’t know how Gaur’s Nimmi- Sajjan-starrer fared but, with a glimmer of amusement on his usually impassive face,
Shaktida had told me that Bahu hadn’t done too badly for a film which featured Usha Kiron and Karan Dewan.. it had run six weeks at Liberty cinema.
The next day, I was reminiscing about the filmmaker when a younger colleague suddenly piped up, “Who’s this Shakti Samanta?”
I told her that he was the man behind some of Hindi cinema’s milestones, like Howrah Bridge, China Town, Kashmir ki Kali, An Evening in Paris, Aradhana, Amar Prem..
I could have gone on but she cut me saying, “Wow, that’s some body of work!” I don’t know if she had seen any of these films. But it warmed my heart to know that at least she’d heard of them. Shaktida lives on..
During that marathon interview, he had told me that in 1957, soon after Sheroo released, during a two-week stay in the hospital following a car accident, he had been toying with ideas to while away time. Howrah Bridge popped up out of the blue. He outlined it for his writer-friend Ranjan Bose who developed it for him.
As soon as he was out of hospital, he took the story to Ashok Kumar and Madhubala. The film is remembered even today for the sensuous club song, Aayiye meherbaan. “Madhubala would be swaying to Aayiye meherbaan in a short dress at Natraj (then Modern) Studio. Later, she moved to Mohan Studio to tell Akbar in Mughal-e-Azam, “Pyaar kiya to darna kya..” he narrated. Howrah Bridge was Shri Shakti Films’ first production.
For me, Shaktida was the one who had turned the Devi-like Sharmila Tagore whom he had introduced in Kashmir ki Kali, into a glamour queen with one bikini shot that made it to a magazine cover and created ripples in the Parliament.
“It wasn’t a bikini,” he corrected. “Sharmila was ready to wear one but I didn’t want to get into trouble with the censors and have to re-shoot the film.
“I’d never be able to match the colour of the Mediterranean in India, so I suggested a one-piece swimsuit.”
He added, that despite this,the song continues to be edited out whenever the film is screened on Doordarshan.
Once, when he questioned DD officials about this, he was told, “It’s vulgar!” A bemused Shaktida who was later to head the Censor Board.. so also Sharmila Tagore.. retorted, “Imagine, a film that was passed in ’67 with a ‘U’ certificate being considered “vulgar” almost four decades later?”
The great gamble paid off. Almost three decades later, a Frenchman approached him for permission to remake the film. “He wants Sharmila, Shammi (Kapoor) and me to make special appearances in his film. Can you believe that?” he told me.
Shaktida’s last film was Devdas in 2002. He admitted that it was a mistake. Sanjay Leela Bhansali was simultaneously making Devdas in Hindi. He had big Bollywood names — Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai — lavish sets and was taking a lot of creative liberties.
“I remained faithful to Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s original novel but even matinee idol, Prasonjit Chatterjee, couldn’t bring in an audience for my Bengali Devdas. The Hindi version was more successful,” Shaktida sighed.
Despite the debacle, he was toying with the idea of returning to the sets with another Sarat Chandra Chatterjee novel, Parineeta.
“Will it work? I don’t know. It’s difficult to predict what will appeal to the audience today,” he said. “Maybe I’ll make it.. Maybe I won’t..” He didn’t. Pradeep Sarkar did.
There was also talk of an Indo-Chinese co-production. But the director admitted that the deal had fallen through after he was told that he couldn’t shoot at the Great Wall of China. “In that case I’m not interested,” he maintained.
Last year, Nikhil Advani’s Chandni Chowk to China had an action sequence picturised on the Great Wall. If only..