[K]alpana, made in 1948, literally means imagination; however, in its tone it is closer to a dream or even a nightmare. At times, these dreams are clearly marked while mostly they seamlessly merge into the narrative of a dancer who wants to set up his academy.
The plot is autobiographical. Uday Shankar ran his famous dance academy in the Himalayas. He closed the academy in late forties and started work on this film that took four years to complete. His assistants included Guru Dutt and sitar maestro Ravi Shankar while famous writer Amritlal Nagar wrote the Hindi dialogues.
Uday Shankar plays the lead named Udayan while his wife Amala plays the leading lady Uma in the film.
The film has a very complex narrative structure held together by many stories within it – Udayan and Uma’s love story, Udayan’s dream to set up his dance academy. This narrative structure is quintessentially Indian where the story has other stories within it and flow of the narrative is deliberately broken to introduce characters and their stories.
The tone of the story keeps changing as it moves from one part to another each driven by a key emotion.
The film also captures the political climate of newly independent India of 1948. A major theme of the film is the director’s quest for the Indian national identity.
A section where through a dance rendition the director brings forth the heartlessness of capitalistic system of production is remarkable in its portrayal reminiscent of German expressionistic films. The film uses shadows, camera angles and set designs in a way that is rich in cinema.
The central plot of the film is driven by Udayan’s love for Uma and Kamini’s efforts to steal him from her. However, this story is potent with political and spiritual sub text. Both women want to help Udayan set up his dance academy; however, their ways are different. Kamini takes him to the socialites of Bombay, while Uma wants him to invite everybody to the academy for a national dance festival.
The film captures in all its intensity the eternal conflict between art and commerce. Uday Shankar’s Kalpana is highly individualistic expression of an artist’s angst that has a timeless quality.
One of the imaginative tools used in the film is a mechanical device that captures the interest level of kings and princes in dance performances.
Shankar likes to poke fun at Indian elites, princes and capitalists alike. To ridicule their taste in art, he constructs a scene where their faces light up suddenly to see bare legs of female dancers swirling in their skirts while their faces are veiled. The meter shows “sex appeal”. Much to the disappointment of the elite audience, the dancer reveals their mustachioed faces later.
A digitally restored version of Kalpana was screened in Cannes Classics section of the 65th Cannes Film Festival.