Kalpana Lajmi Set an Example Bollywood is Still Struggling to Follow
Kalpana Lajmi passed away this Sunday, after being diagnosed with kidney cancer last year, at the age of 64. However, the legacy that she has left as a filmmaker — one focused on sharing women’s voices — is something that Bollywood is still grappling with.
Born into a family with deep roots in the industry, as actor Guru Dutt’s niece and director Shyam Benegal’s cousin, Lajmi could have had an easy entry into the Bollywood scene in the 80s. Instead, she chose to portray subjects that would make people uncomfortable and challenge perceptions about women, gender, and sexuality.
Her debut film, Ek Pal (1986) featured Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, and Farooq Shaikh in a love triangle that didn’t conform to the conventional norms of a Bollywood film. Based on a short story by Maitreyi Devi, it explored the story of a woman’s extra-marital affair and the decisions she makes to keep both her marriage and her baby. While many Bollywood movies today may feature women, filmmakers don’t seem to understand that merely portraying their struggles, without allowing them internal journeys, robs the characters of any kind of authenticity. Lajmi’s films seem more in tandem with current movements like #TimesUp, showing us that the need for feminist films has really not been met by mainstream Bollywood.
Intersectionality played a major part in the way Lajmi tackled subjects as well. In bringing to the big screen the work of Mahasweta Devi, a writer and activist who focused on the the struggles of Dalit and adivasi communities in Bengal, Lajmi conveyed with nuance the interplay between caste, class and gender to a wide audience. The film, Rudaali, tells the the story of a friendship between a widow who is unable to grieve, and a Rudaali (lower-caste professional mourner). Intimate relationships between women (that don’t directly involve men) are so rare to see in movies even today, but Lajmi was able to represent them with care and nuance.
It’s 2018 and filmmakers are still struggling to make and finance films that center trans voices, in a way that doesn’t marginalise them. But in 1997, Lajmi’s Darmiyaan (1997), about a self-absorbed actress Zeenat (Kiron Kher) who is in denial about her transgender child, Immi (Arif Zakaria), managed to break barriers and treat the subject with care and authenticity.
There’s no denying that Lajmi was an early feminist voice in an industry that seemed to have room only for formulaic, boy-meets-girl, stories. In her personal life, especially in her relationship with the significantly older Bhupen Hazarika, a singer, she personified the qualities of the women who were central to her films — strong, confident in her choices and agency, and unwilling to bow to societal pressures.
With her death, we celebrate her cinematic vision and progressive attitude, and hope that the industry can live up to the legacy she left behind.