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The Story behind Kalyug: Shashi Kapoor and Shyam Benegal's acclaimed collaboration

18 Mar, 2020 | Stories by Aseem Chhabra
An image from the official press booklet for Kalyug from the Cinemaazi archives

Soon after Junoon, Shashi Kapoor and Shyam Bengal began charting plans for the future. ‘I asked Shashi if he would like to produce a second film, based on an idea that (actor and playwright) Girish Karnad and I had been working on for some time,’ Shyam says. ‘It was to be a modern rendering of a family feud among cousins-which, in fact, forms the basis of the Mahabharata. Girish had drafted the outline of a script and Shashi agreed to produce it.’ That was how Kalyug, the second Shashi-Shyam collaboration, which modernized an Indian epic, began.

    The cast was almost as large as the Mahabharata, and Shyam brought in a range of young and senior actors, including Raj Babbar, Anant Nag, Sushma Seth, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Vijaya Mehta, Supriya Pathak and Victor Banerjee, and two big stars - Shashi, who’d play the role of Karan Singh (or Karna of the Kauravas), the advisor and loyalist to the Khubchand clan; and Rekha as Supriya, the Draupadi - like wife of Dharamraj (a character akin to Yudhishthira, played by Raj Babbar), head of the competing Puranchand family. To complicate this interwoven narrative is a subplot involving Supriya, who is secretly in love with her brother-in-law, Bharat (Anant Nag as the modern-day Arjuna). What follows is a tale of violent corporate conflict and familial bloodlust. 

Rekha came to be part of Kalyug ‘because of Shashi actually’, Shyam says, reminding me that Kalyug would be Shashi’s eleventh film with her.
    Rekha came to be part of Kalyug ‘because of Shashi actually’, Shyam says, reminding me that Kalyug would be Shashi’s eleventh film with her. Shashi would eventually star in eighteen films with the actress - the highest number he’d accept alongside any Hindi film actor. ‘It was a joint decision,’ Shyam continues. ‘I would have chosen Rekha myself for Kalyug, but I don’t think she would have worked for me if I had asked her.
Unlike Junoon, Shashi did not volunteer to play Karan in Kalyug - while the role was, without a doubt, pivotal to the film’s plot, it still had only a supporting function.
Unlike Junoon, Shashi did not volunteer to play Karan in Kalyug - while the role was, without a doubt, pivotal to the film’s plot, it still had only a supporting function. Instead Shashi wished to play the lead as Dharamraj, and planned to offer Amitabh Bachchan the part of Karan. ‘But it didn’t quite work out like that,’ Shaym says. ‘I could only see Shashi as Karan Singh, and I didn’t approach Amitabh. I think Shashi did. But as it turned out at that time, Amitabh was right on top of the heap and had different ambitions and other work.’ At one point, Shashi even considered offering the role of Karan to Satyajit Ray’s favorite actor, Soumitra Chatterjee. Shashi says that this was about the only time Soumitra came close to working in a Hindi film: ‘[But] since he was unwell he couldn’t accept my offer.
At one point, Shashi even considered offering the role of Karan to Satyajit Ray’s favorite actor, Soumitra Chatterjee.

With his plans failing through, Shashi, without any bitterness, accepted the part of Karan, even conceding, ‘Had [Soumitra] performed he would have done more justice to the character than I [could]. Shyam says, ‘That was how he was - he was okay sharing space even though he was a big star. Now, there are very few who do that.’

According to Dev Benegal, who had secured his first film unit job in Kalyug, Shashi upon accepting the role of Karan, was an absolutely professional actor. He would get into the skin of the character - almost as though he were on stage. He would be in the wings within an hour of receiving the script and dive into the role. 
 
Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and Shashi Kapoor during the shooting of Kalyug. Image Courtesy: Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, the Star
There is a crucial scene in Kalyug, where Shashi’s Karan learns about the identity of his mother - again, nearing a strong resemblance with Karna, who learns, to disastrous consequence, that his mother is Kunti. Karan is so devastated that he takes an embryonic position, curling up in a bed - making this among the greatest scenes shot in a Hindi film and one of the most outstanding collaborations between Shyam and Shashi.
    There is a crucial scene in Kalyug, where Shashi’s Karan learns about the identity of his mother - again, nearing a strong resemblance with Karna, who learns, to disastrous consequence, that his mother is Kunti. Karan is so devastated that he takes an embryonic position, curling up in a bed - making this among the greatest scenes shot in a Hindi film and one of the most outstanding collaborations between Shyam and Shashi. ‘He worked very hard on it,’ Shyam says. Dev adds, ‘It was top-angle shot and it took a long time to set up. After the scene was done, Shashi came out and asked if it was okay. We didn’t have monitors at that time but I was allowed to stand by the cameras. I told him he was absolutely brilliant and set the mood perfectly. Shashi grinned and said, “Well, you know what I was thinking about?” I was a young, green boy, very quiet and shy - Shashi and his wife were so warm and welcome as a couple that those inhibitions should have disappeared - still, I looked at him blankly. And Shashi said, ‘I was thinking, I hope my wife is not making baingan (aubergine) for dinner tonight. I hope there is something else to eat.’ I just smiled. But that statement stayed in my head.’

The instant when Shashi learns of his mother is one among several remarkable moments in Kalyug. Although each character grabs limited screen-time, many have intensively felt scenes - be it  Sushma Seth’s Savitri, the Puranchand matriarch (or Kunti), who conveys with a great deal of pathos her disapproval of the family feud; or the moment when Victor Banerjee’s Dhanraj (or Duryodhana) accepts Karan’s resignation. These performance driven moments; the flashes of intrigue; and the disturbing, erotic ending, quite unlike anything attempted in Hindi cinema prior, make Kalyug a notable drama.
Weaving the narrative of Mahabharata into the lives of two contemporary industrial families at war over competing businesses was fraught with challenges.
Even so, weaving the narrative of Mahabharata into the lives of two contemporary industrial families at war over competing businesses was fraught with challenges. Shyam says, ‘I was never satisfied with way Kalyug turned out’; it would be the first time that he would have to compromise when a film failed to take shape as he had intended. Director Sangeeta Datta, while critically analyzing the film, pinpoints the shortcomings: ‘Characters [in Kalyug] are hurtling around in a sweeping tide of events, so the filmmaker was unable to explore their inner worlds.’ Shyam, in turn, admits to Sangeeta, ‘There were script problems which did not get untied till the end.

Despite good intensions and some amazing performances, Kalyug failed at the box office. Shashi tells Madhu Jain that the film lost Rs. 10 lakh.

In 1988, B.R. Chopra produced and directed a 94-episode Doordarshan television serial - a faithful, if over-the-top, retelling of the Mahabharata. The show, with deep religious connotations, was a huge success. In contrast, Kalyug, which made an early attempt at finding contemporary meaning in an ancient epic, failed to sit well with the audience.

This feature is an excerpt from Aseem Chhabra's book Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, the Star originally published by Rupa Publications, 2016. 

 

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About the Author

Aseem Chhabra is a film journalist, freelance writer and film-festival programmer in New York City. He has been published in The New York TimesThe Boston GlobeThe Philadelphia InquirerOutlook, Mumbai Mirror, Rediff.com, has a regular colum in The Hindu; and has been a commentator on Indian cinema adn popular culture on NPR, CNN, BBC, as also ABC's Good Morning America, Associated Press and Reuters. Aseem is the festival director of the New York Indian Film Festival and the Silk Screen Asian American Film Festival in Pittsburgh. He is also the voice of Shadow Puppet #1 in director Nina Paley's award-winning animated film, Sita Sings the Blues

Aseem is from Delhi, lives in New York, and visits India often. Ge can be followed on Twitter @chhabs.