I considered my father a total stranger and I was in denial. But I wanted to confront the demons of my past to better understand my present. I realised I had to make peace with my father,” says Shabnam Sukhdev, a documentary filmmaker herself and an alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India, (FTII) Pune. The result was a 90-minute documentary The Last Adieu, in memory of her father-filmmaker, Sukhdev Singh Sandhu better known as Sukhdev, who passed away at the age of 46, in 1979.
Besides being nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Festival in 1968 for India 67 (An Indian Day), Sukhdev received almost 35 international and many National Film awards, during his two-decade career where he made over 60 films. Yet, little documentation exists on him.
Shabnam, 49, Advisor, Outreach Initiatives, at FTII grew up in Worli, Mumbai in the ’60s and as a teenager always felt distant from her father, who was an experimental documentary filmmaker. She was 14 when he passed away, leaving behind many unanswered questions. “It took me more than 30 years before I could confront my past,” she says.
The Last Adieu was screened at the Films Division in Mumbai, last month, on Sukhdev’s 35th death anniversary. Made with funding from the Films Division, which actively supported Sukhdev’s film projects, it retraces his journey as an experimental documentary filmmaker. With the help of old audio recordings, clippings from some of Sukhdev’s films, archival photographs and interviews with close friends, Shabnam introduces the audience to her father’s genius. Rather than focus on the personal equation with her father, which was virtually non-existent, we get a sense of Sukhdev as the filmmaker. “It was unfortunate that very few people knew about him and I felt it is important to make his work known as a benchmark in documentary history in India. I wanted to give weightage to Sukhdev the filmmaker, and in the process I understood him better,” says Shabnam.
The film has series of interviews with people who worked with him such as Salim Sheikh, an assistant director for many of his projects; Partap Sharma, a writer and director; Zul Vellani, actor and voice-over artiste, Baba Azmi, cinematographer; Bijon Dasgupta, production designer, Irshad Panjatan, a mime artiste and actor who acted in Khilonewala (1972) and Shashi Kapoor, who acted in Sukhdev’s first feature-length fiction film called My Love (1970).
Through the documentary, one gets an impression of Sukhdev as a workaholic, even at home, as a result neglecting his family. In the documentary, Sukhdev says, “The tape recorder is my work, it is my life.”
Sukhdev was not among the more sought after filmmakers of Indian cinema at the time. But he was branded as an ‘unconvincing filmmaker’ by his contemporaries, says Sheikh, over the phone from Mumbai, who worked with him on many projects such as National Award-winning Behind the Breadline (1974) and After the Silence (1977). Born in 1933 into a Sikh peasant family from Dehradun, Sukhdev moved to Mumbai with his father and studied at the Don Bosco school, graduating from Khalsa College, Mumbai, in the Arts. Initially, he started assisting German filmmaker Paul Zils on his many projects before breaking out as an independent. He was a one-man army, taking on the responsibility for directing, camera work and editing and Sheikh was his sound recordist. As filmmaker Shyam Benegal says in the documentary, “He had steady shoulders. He would prefer to carry his Arri camera on his shoulders all the time.”
Sukhdev’s work was unique since he broke the protocol of filmmaking and made films he wanted to. “He did what he felt was right and nobody could challenge his thoughts,” says Sheikh.
Sukhdev’s other notable works included Nine Months to Freedom (1971) about the genocide in Bangladesh before the 1971 Liberation war; After the Silence (1977) a film on the months after Emergency. He briefly ventured into commercial Bollywood films with Reshma Aur Shera (1971) and My Love (1970). During the shooting of the documentary, Shabnam went through different emotional phases: of reverence for him, confrontation, understanding him, and then forgiving him. “Now I can claim that he was my father. I have managed to dispel certain myths about him,” says Shabnam.