Having watched Maya Darpan (Kumar Shahani, 1972), I find it disheartening that Kumar Shahani (along with M S Sathyu and Mani Kaul), remains one of the most underrated Indian film directors. His films are virtually extinct in most forms of media and are rarely discussed, even in the film study circuits. The film, therefore stands out as an exotic masterpiece of Indian cinema.
The film is an inwardly seeking story of a girl living in her ancestral home with her father and aunt, in an upper cast conservative family. While the direction and performances are near flawless, the central character’s urge to break boundaries of oppression is shown through some brilliant parallel imagery. From characters reciting surreal poems, cutting through boundaries and crossing railway tracks regularly, to interplay of black and while footages of World War II and Gandhi’s Satyagraha – the intent of the film is loud and clear. Obviously, the film tends to have many digressions. However, it all plays out like a piece of complex musical composition with many minute variations, but summing up to create magic!
Rarely do we see Indian cinematic punctuation get any better. Shahani’s shot division has a tendency to break down sequences into their most basic components – images of hands, eyes and feet, isolated in action, often move in perfect synchronization. When it comes to sound effects, Shahani simply employs tremendous amount of off-screen noise to complement the imagery rather than reinforce it.
Satyajit Ray in his book Our Films, Their Films, has written a single essay on Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan (1972), Kaul’s Duvidha (1973), Benegal’s Ankur (1974) and Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (1973), which beautifully unfolds into a fantastic review of all the four films in a singe article. While he praises all of these films for their effort, he gets harsh and unforgiving about Maya Darpan, claiming that the inward turmoil of the central character is completely justified, but the outward behavior depicting her restlessness fails to depict it in the correct manner.
With all due respect, I disagree with my favourite film maker here. While Ray’s point of view of cinema is a story (or something to say) being at the center, Shahani belongs to the Ritwik Ghatak and Robert Bresson breed of film makers (both being his teachers). Here the physical and philosophical self tend to converge and it becomes increasingly difficult for the audience to separate reality from illusion. I believe Shahani was well aware of this and hence named his film Maya Darpan, meaning the mirror of illusion. While the film has strong sociopolitical concerns of Ray, Shyam Benegal and John Abraham, the punctuation and imagery distills it through the minimalist aesthetics of Bresson and Ghatak. The film is less about class struggle and much more inwards in nature.