Film history

‘I will fight till the end’: Filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi’s lonely battle against health and neglect

The ‘Rudaali’ director has been battling cancer of the kidney for several months.

I was in school when I heard Kalpana Lajmi speaking on stage for the first time. Her voice, I was told, was quite unusual for a woman – it lacked the sweetness required of her gender. I wanted to ask her if she had thought of singing with her long-time companion, the Assamese cultural legend Bhupen Hazarika, and I wondered whether doing so would have altered her journey.

Artists live on in public memory for as long as they keep reaping rewards. But, when it comes to nurturing a wounded tree, public memory can be deliberately amnesiac.

What else explains the country’s neglect of the award-winning Lajmi, once celebrated for making women-centric movies such as Rudali (1993) and Daman (2001)?

For about six months now, 61-year-old Lajmi, who was diagnosed with cancer of the kidney, has been bed-ridden and undergoing to dialysis every other day at Mumbai’s Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani hospital. Though celebrity donations have so far helped her keep up with the expensive treatment – which costs her about Rs 2.5 lakhs a month – she remains in need of financial assistance and has received little by way of help or attention from people and the media.

On Saturday, All Assam Students Union leaders met Lajmi in Mumbai and offered her financial support.

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Dil Hoom Hoom Kare, Rudaali (1993).

Lajmi was at the centre of media attention – not always favourable – when Hazarika was alive. When he died on November 5, 2011, and details of his will were published, many in Assam were enraged that most of his fortune had been bequeathed to Lajmi, including two houses and plots of land, even though she was not officially related to him. Hazarika and Lajmi had been together for more than three decades, but were never formally married.

In his will, the Padma Bhushan award-winning musician said, “Kalpana Lajmi is my business partner since 1977 and she took the entire responsibility for my tremendous career rise and prior to her joining me, I was penniless and had only Rs 35 in hand.” The singer also passed on all responsibility of the Dr Bhupen Hazarika Cultural Trust to Lajmi.

As sections of Hazarika’s family took strong exception to the will, the media’s insensitive reportage on the issue turned a matter pertaining to art, something that transcends boundaries of caste, creed, sex, family and geography, into a bitter tussle over land.

During Hazarika’s lifetime, the duo had been the subject of much gossip, particularly in Assam. The 28-year age gap between the two, their decision to live together but not marry, and the fact that Hazarika had been married before and was separated from his wife, made them grist for the rumour mill. As a woman who made unconventional choices and was in the public eye, Lajmi was the predominant target of that antagonism.

Breaking convention

The daughter of painter Lalita Lajmi and niece of filmmaker Guru Dutt, Lajmi spent much of her time in West Bengal. She started working as an assistant in Hazarika’s team when she was 17 years old.

Her family members gradually warmed up to Hazarika. Lajmi feels their opposition would have been stronger had he not been a man of the arts. After much media speculation about their relationship, Lajmi, in 2009, spoke up about why they had decided not to marry. In an interview to IANS, the director said that when he turned 80, Hazarika, who too had been sceptical about the institution, offered to marry her, but she turned the proposal down. “May be he wanted to give me the status of wife, but I was not interested,” she said at the time. “For me, the relationship, the trust and the respect that we share with each other are more important than marriage.”

Lajmi also said in that interview that her career had taken a back seat as she spent most of her time tending to Hazarika in his later years, when he was ailing. In her active years, Lajmi made the critically acclaimed films Ek Pal (1986), Rudaali (1993), Darmiyaan (1997) and Daman (2001), but her movies were not without flaws. For instance, her depiction of the tantric or Shakti model of femininity as a supreme force in some films has been the subject of much debate.

But for the most part, Lajmi’s movies were known for featuring realistic and strong female characters who were victimised by the patriarchal, caste-based set-up.

For instance, Lajmi’s debut feature Ek Pal, based on a short story by Bengali novelist and poet Maitryi Devi and starring Shabana Azmi, centres on the inner lives of the wives of rich tea estate owners. It also tackles a taboo subject – a woman’s sexual desire, loneliness and an extra-marital affair.

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Ek Pal (1986).

Hazarika’s jajabor or wanderer lifestyle and his bohemian nature that was appreciated and even glorified across the state came at the cost of his failing health and hurt his finances. As his physical condition worsened and money was dire, Hazarika appeared in an advertisement for Star Cement. This seeming commercial turn upset many in Assam and the local media held Lajmi unfairly responsible for his business decisions.

Lajmi maintains that these accusations were baseless. She told Scroll.in that we have for long romanticised the idea of artists who bleed for their art. “It is not just true for Assam, but India as a whole,” she said. “We only start to respect an artist after he/she is dead and gone; there is no respect for the flesh-blood-artist when alive.”

Lajmi did bring some sense of order in Hazarika’s life in his later years at the cost of her own health. Her fierce dedication towards Hazarika was often misconstrued as an attempt to alienate the artist, fondly known as Bhupsu, from his state and his followers.

“I will fight till the end, but Bhupsu must be lonely up there; perhaps I must join him soon,” Lajmi told Scroll.in.

With inputs from Jutika Mahanta.

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Kaisa Ghum Hai, Darmiyaan (1997).
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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.