Shakti Samanta: The Kolkata Man Behind Tinsel Town’s Stars
Shakti Samanta  with Rajesh Khanna.
Shakti Samanta with Rajesh Khanna. (Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Shakti Samanta: The Kolkata Man Behind Tinsel Town’s Stars

The cleft in his chin was so deep it could hold a marble. Always formally dressed, buckled-up, hair slicked back, he was an imposing figure, ramrod strong in the pre-gymnasium era.

Through the 1950s, right down to his death following a cardiac arrest at the age of 83, Shakti Samanta was a true-blue movie tycoon. He was someone who came in from the cold (if Kolkata’s winter can be termed that), embarked on the ‘struggle’ route serving as a fledgling assistant director, got some help from Lady Luck, had some incredible achievements, and staged a gradual departure as most grand-masters do.

Yet he has never been justly estimated – a fact which holds true for quite a few filmmakers from Bengal who left an indelible mark on the terrain of Hindi cinema. People like Dulal Guha, Asit Sen and Satyen Bose all demand reappraisals. It’s Shakti Samanta though, who stands out. His themes and styles were as varied as his ensemble of actors, music composers, and locations – zooming between Singapore, Paris, Venice, and Beirut. And of course, the metroscapes and hill towns of India.

A poster for <i>Aradhana.</i>
A poster for Aradhana.

If he were alive, it’s tempting to wonder how he would have looked back at his wanderlust, at his body of work which the 1960s generation grew up with. The pinnacle for Samanta was probably 1969 – justly remembered in Bollywood as the year of Aradhana.

Co-incidentally, it was also the year which initiated Rajesh Khanna’s cult following. The Samanta-Khanna collaboration is still the stuff tinsel town’s dreams are made of.

Although the director had worked frequently with Shammi Kapoor and occasionally with Ashok Kumar, Dev Anand, Sunil Dutt, and Manoj Kumar – even with Kishore Kumar for the whacky comedy Naughty Boy – nothing can compare with the Rajesh Khanna quartet; Aradhana, Kati Patang, Amar Prem and Ajnabee.

The poster for <i>Amar Prem</i>
The poster for Amar Prem

The director had found a perfect alter ego – a romantic, buffeted by circumstances and his own shortcomings.

This alter ego found expression in Rajesh Khanna’s image of the tragic lover, the worshipful son in Aradhana – marked by an utterly moonstruck image, made more endearing with his flair for serenade.

Talking of serenades, Samanta’s song picturisations, like Vijay Anand’s, were marked by his signature style. And if Rajesh Khanna was a director’s finest balladeer, Sharmilla Tagore was quite clearly the constant subject of desire.

Samanta’s heroines were also legendary, be it Madhubala, Shakila, or the 1960s’ sweetheart Asha Parekh. But Sharmila was his magnificent muse, equally at ease in Satyajit Ray’s intense Devi and Samanta’s Kashmir ki Kali or An Evening in Paris.

The author in front of a poster of <i>An</i> <i>Evening in Paris. </i>(Photo: Khalid Mohammed)
The author in front of a poster of An Evening in Paris. (Photo: Khalid Mohammed)

Her avatars as the blushing girl being wooed by Shammi Kapoor singing Tarif Karoon Kya Uski (Kashmir ki Kali), or the dimpled darling in a bikini on the cover of Filmfare (to publicise An Evening in Paris) have become iconic images in the history of Indian cinema.

It would be a crime to microscore Samanta’s song picturisations, but my laundry list includes Aaiye Meherbaan (Howrah Bridge), Bar Bar Dekho (China Town), Roop Tera Mastana (Aradhana, captured in a single shot ), Chingari Koi Bhadke (Amar Prem) ... I better stop, this list could go on.

As it happened, his Insaan Jag Utha tanked. The director had by then become over-dependent on superstars. The equation with Rajesh Khanna had begun to flounder. Khanna had found greener pastures – read Yash Chopra, with whom he established Yash Raj Films.

Shakti Samanta’s work with Amitabh Bachchan was mediocre at best.
Shakti Samanta’s work with Amitabh Bachchan was mediocre at best.

The on-and-off Samanta-Khanna collaborations were never the same again. Not surprisingly, Alag Alag (a vehicle for Khanna to cavort with Tina Munim) remains patently unwatchable. Attempts to work with Amitabh Bachchan (Barsat Ki Ek Raat, The Great Gambler) were at best, mediocre.

The tie-up with Uttam Kumar (Amanush) was an one-off production. Towards the end of his career, Samanta even attempted a Bengali version of Devdas. Let’s not go there.

The Shakti Samanta I recall today was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken man, and yet capable of wry humour. When I’d met him to request him to accept the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award, he laughed, and said:

“At last, you people have considered me fit for the honour. Fine, thank you very much. I’ll be there.” “So, could we invite Rajesh Khanna to present the trophy on stage?” I asked. “Don’t waste your time gentleman – Kaka will give you the run-around and won’t show up.”

He was right. The trophy was eventually presented by Sharmila Tagore.

(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 13 January 2016. It is being republished to mark Shakti Samanta’s death anniversary.)

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