V Shantaram had an illustrious career as a filmmaker for almost six decades. He was one of the early filmmakers to realize the efficacy of the film medium as an instrument of social change and used it successfully to advocate humanism on one hand and expose bigotry and injustice on the other.
Born on NOvember 18, 1901 as Rajaram Vankudre Shantaram in Kolhapur, he hardly had any education. He worked in the railways as a teenager and started his career in the theatre as a curtain puller with the Gandharva Natak Mandali. He joined Baburao Painter's Maharashtra Film Company at Kolhapur and learnt the intricacies of film-making from Painter including acting (he played the young farmer who finally revolts in Painter's Savkari Pash (1925)) eventually directing his first film in 1927, Netaji Palkar.
In 1929 along with four other partners VG Damle, KR Dhaiber, S Fatelal, SB Kulkarni, he formed the Prabhat Film Company at Kolhapur. Shantaram's first really significant film at Prabhat was Ayodhyacha Raja (1932). In 1933, Prabhat moved to Pune. Initially Shantaram followed Painter's formula of mythologicals and historicals. However, after a trip from Germany his outlook changed as he made Amrit Manthan (1934). The film, set in the Buddhist era was a strong plea against the custom of human sacrifice and used several techniques from German Expressionist Cinema. The film's most famous shot was the tight close up of the priest's right eye!
Shantaram broadened the horizons of the films made at Prabhat. For instance, Amar Jyoti (1936) was an interesting feminist film about a woman who rebels against injustice by becoming a Pirate Queen. It was a rare Prabhat film with stunts and action.
Shantaram went on to direct three of his most famous films, all bi-linguals in marathi and Hindi, at Prabhat. Kunku/Duniya na Mane (1937) was the story of a young woman refusing to accept her marriage to a much older man. Shantaram pares down his narrative to bare essentials and keeps his treatment starkly realistic. The background music is eschewed, retaining only natural sounds - effects and voices in his sound track. Even the songs used in the film are done so with a source shown for the music. The major food for thought in Kunku however concerns the film's ending. It appears from the film that the girl is now finally free since the old man kills himself to liberate her. But what it doesn't say is what happens to the girl now that she is a widow in Hindu Society - a punishment far worse. This takes away from otherwise well meaning and hard hitting, brave film.
Manoos/Aadmi (1939) a love story of a policeman and a prostitute is arguably regarded as Shantaram's finest film. It might well be so for Manoos is significant not only in terms of thematic content but also as a work of motion picture art, as well as for its technical innovations and artistic integrity particularly in the use of physical spaces to represent mental states of the characters. However like in Kunku what really disturbs one in Manoos is the film's ending. By refusing a better life for herself and going back to where she came from, the whore feels she is not fit for a normal life - Once a whore, always a whore. Thus the film ends up with a situation, which is a kind of status quo without any solution in sight and an outlook that is far from revolutionary.
Shejari/Padosi (1941) was a plea for communal harmony. It's interesting that in the Hindi version Mazhar Khan, a Muslim plays the Hindu and Gajanan Jagirdar, a Hindu played the Muslim in the film.
After his classic trilogy, having differences with the other partners Shantaram left Prabhat. He started Rajkamal Studios in 1942. Earlier, Shantaram had taken over as Chief Producer of the Film Advisory Board (FAB) and did even make a few films for the FAB but when Gandhiji gave the call of 'Do or Die' in 1942, he resigned and Ezra Mir took over. Shakuntala (1943) was Rajkamal's first film. Shantaram married its heroine Jayshree even as he remained married to his first wife. The best of their films together was undoubtedly Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani (1946).
The film based on KA Abbas's short novel And One Did Not Come Back was an impressive Anti-Japanese War effort film. It is remarkable for its powerful Nationalistic rhetoric culminating in the hero's dying speech describing what his wife will see when she goes 'home.' The film was shown at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto in 1947.
Amar Bhoopali (1951), the musical biopic of Honaji Bala popularized the musical dance form of the Lavani. The film and its classic song Ghanshyam Sundara Shirdara became cult classics in Marathi Cinema.The film also saw him finding a new muse in Sandhya, whom he also married.
Dahej (1950) on the evils of dowry had its strong moments and his dance epic and first film in colour, Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje (1955), though admittedly a little garish and loud with saturated colours, successfully propagated the argument that India must preserve her artistic traditions and not be swayed by the West. It was lapped up by audiences with the dances by Gopikrishna and Sandhya being the highlights of the film.
Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957) saw Shantaram returning to social concerns again and is perhaps his greatest ever film. The film looked at a jailor (Shantaram) and his efforts to reintegrate hardened criminals back into society. Shantaram's characteristic neo-expressionist imagery is much in evidence in the film and the film is the closest Shantaram came to matching his famous trilogy at Prabhat. The film won many National and International Awards including the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and the Samuel Goldwyn Award for Best Foreign Film, besides the President's Gold Medal as the Best Feature of 1957 in India.
Though critics like Baburao Patel dismissed his next film, Navrang (1959), as a 'mental masturbation of a senile soul,' the film, looking at an artiste who glamorizes his wife in his fantasies to make her his muse, was a success at the box office.
He launched his daughter from Jayshree, Rajshree, as a heroine with Geet Gaya Patharon ne (1964) but among his later films, only Pinjra (1972), a bi-lingual in Hindi and Marathi reallystands out. The film, based on Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930), is set in the Marathi genre of the Tamasha musical and was known for its popular music.
His last film Jhanjaar (1986), sadly, was a misfire and flopped badly at the box-office.
A recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for his contribution to Indian Cinema, Shantaram also served as Chairperson of the Children's Film Society in the late 1970s.
V Shantaram passed away on 30th October 1990.