To call V Shantaram a pioneer would be an understatement as the filmmaker's prodigious body of work has numerous instances where his genius shines across. But more than the technical finesse or literary value he instilled within his cinema, he understood the medium's power to bring about a social transformation
In the much-lauded The New York Trilogy, American author Paul Auster leaves his reader with a notion that every life, no matter how many facts or details are given, in the end is inexplicable. Auster suggests that each life is nothing more than the sum of contingent facts, a chronicle of chance intersections, of flukes, of random events that divulge nothing but their own lack of purpose. Yet these are the very facets that make some lives worth talking about.
Insightful as this might be, biographies wouldn't principally agree with Auster's observation as a life's chance intersections is what makes them worth chronicling and among them are the ones that explore the lives of artistes, in fact, more specifically film personalities.
Cinema impacts millions of lives across nations, times, and social conditioning in an unlikely manner and the men and women who create this connection aren't accessible or even visible in the manner, say, a politician or a sportsperson might be and, therefore, the biography of a filmmaker assumes a more significant role than it ordinarily would.
It's interesting that while films and their stars transcend the invisible boundary that separates them from the viewer, filmmakers, however, rarely manage to connect with the viewer. More often than not, their larger than life persona ends up defining them. In spite of such an imposing presence, the life of a filmmaker is rarely seen beyond the edifice of a tormented artiste, like in the case of Guru Dutt or an open book that has nothing worth reading into anymore, such as Raj Kapoor.
The tradition of film biographies in India, till some years ago, was the bastion of either those who knew their subjects intimately or had interacted with them in a professional capacity. As a result, these treatises were either a summation of achievements or hagiographies that somewhere refused to treat their subjects as real people.
Amid the different kinds of biographies, the ones that seem to be the best, as observed by Orson Welles, are the kinds where the biographer is present too. As one of the most talked about filmmakers ever, Welles' point is worth pondering over as he was not only one of the first filmmakers to be venerated as a cult figure or a demigod but also someone who saw this happen in his own lifetime.
The best example of Welles's argument is the iconic Hitchcock: Truffaut (1967) where the then five films old François Truffaut got the ordinarily guarded director Alfred Hitchcock to open up unlike ever before. As a film critic, Truffaut had championed the cause of considering the works of Hitchcock as art in addition to the wildly successful formulaic commercial ventures that they had been viewed as, and the density of insights into the cinematic questions in the long interview continues to ravish readers even after nearly five decades.