Remembering V Shantaram: 75 Years On, a Look at His Iconic Studio
In its 75th year, Mumbai’s Rajkamal Kalamandir studio – which has spawned over 2,000 films – still lives on amidst the twisty lanes of the once exclusive industrial belt of the city.
A posse of security guards at the picturesque gatefront are wary of visitors and forbid photographs, unless formal permission has been acquired beforehand.
Established by the revered V Shantaram aka Annasaheb, at present there’s a kind of hush at the famed shooting floors where the auteur shot many of his signature works, notably Shakuntala (1943) , Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani (1946), Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje and Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957), right down to his swan song Pinjara (1972).
Alternating between stark black-and-white social reformist dramas, devotionals and musicals, the Shantaram oeuvre has been immense and one-of-a-kind. A wall-sized portrait of the filmmaker dominates the foyer of the studio’s entrance. He passed away at the age of 88 in 1990. The Dadasaheb Phalke awardee was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan posthumously.
His son Kiran Shantaram (former sheriff of Mumbai), points out that a virtual constellation of filmmakers would make a beeline for bookings at the studio. Count among them Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Manmohan Desai, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, GP Sippy, Shakti Samanta and Shyam Benegal.
The once hyper-active spot wears a forlorn look when I visit it on a weekday.
As in the case of most surviving studios, ads and TV series keep the place going to a degree rather than feature films. I hazard a guess that the ‘occupancy’ has dwindled to at most to 20 per cent. Kiran Shantaram rebuts that with a brave, “I’d say it’s 70 per cent.”
The original five-acre stretch now houses a clutch of apartment blocks. I wonder if the reclusive actress Sandhya (nee Vijaya Deshmukh), the third wife of V Shantaram, stays at one of the apartments. To that the answer is, “Yes. She’s 86 years old now and is tended to by attendants. If she doesn’t make any public appearances, it’s been her decision.”
The last time Sandhya was seen, in her customary white sari, was nine years ago at the V Shantaram Awards ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Mahipal-Sandhya starrer Navrang (1959).
Rajshree, the daughter of V Shantaram and second wife actress Jayshree, has shunned the spotlight ever since she quit her flourishing career as a leading lady and married American national, Greg Chapman in 1970, to settle down in Los Angeles.
Incidentally, Rajkamal is the studio where Amitabh Bachchan belted out his temple soliloquy for Deewaar (1975), Dilip Kumar portrayed the crusading newspaper editor for Mashaal (1984), Shah Rukh Khan enacted a mentally-unhinged stalker in Darr (1993), and Madhuri Dixit and Karisma Kapoor boogied up a storm for Dil To Paagal Hai (1997), all directed by Yash Chopra.
Richard Attenborough filmed the interior scenes of the multiple Oscar winning Gandhi (1982) here. Satyajit Ray, despite his failing health, travelled from Kolkata to the Rajkamal to complete the post-production of his last film Agantuk (1991).
Eminent filmmaker Govind Nihalani retains his suite of rooms as his workplace in the heart of the studio’s compound.
Stories and film lore resound from every crevice at the Rajkamal, but will perhaps soon fade away into oblivion.
Yet there’s a silver lining: the vast number of National and international awards and trophies won by V Shantaram during his lifetime have been carefully preserved. In addition, there’s a library – albeit sparsely used -- of books and vintage copies of yesteryear magazines which are a rare source for film researchers.
The V Shantaram story -- from the silent era to 1990, when he passed away at the age of 88 -- is the stuff that showbiz dreams are made of. Starting off with doing menial odd jobs, he began acting. He then teamed up with director-cinematographer-sound engineer VG Damle and founded Prabhat Films in Kolhapur, which then moved to Pune.
When the partners split, Shantaram bought the premises of Wadia Movietone in Mumbai, Parel, from the brothers JBH and Homi Wadia, most famously known for the action adventure Hunterwali (1935).
Today, flanked by his sons Chaitanya and Rahul, the Shantaram scion says, “See, my father built the Rajkamal Kalamandir as the only studio in Asia which offered every facet of filmmaking service, including sound recording and mixing, poster designing, painting and printing under one roof. We will keep Rajkamal going as long as we can sustain it. Our only plea to the government has been to reduce the property tax.”
Come November 9, Rajkamal Kalamandir which continues to have a rare art-deco ambience, will step into its 76th year, alive but alas not exactly kicking.
(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter)
(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 10 September 2018. It is now being republished to mark V Shantaram’s death anniversary.)